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Niki Lauda

3 Time Champion

Niki Lauda

His welcome to F1

In 1972, Niki Lauda initially joined the Formula One team but also drove for March in Formula One and Formula Two. March's Formula One season was disastrous, with both March cars getting disqualified at the Canadian Grand Prix. To continue his racing career, Lauda borrowed money to join the BRM team in 1973, but the team was declining, and the car had reliability and power issues. However, his performance at the Monaco Grand Prix caught the attention of Enzo Ferrari. When Lauda's BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni left to rejoin Ferrari in 1974, Regazzoni spoke highly of Lauda, leading to Lauda signing with Ferrari, who paid off his debts.

Lauda joins Ferrari

In the early 1970s, Ferrari faced challenges but rebounded in 1974 under Luca di Montezemolo. Niki Lauda joined the team and quickly achieved a second-place finish in his debut race, followed by his first Grand Prix victory in the Spanish Grand Prix. Although he secured six consecutive pole positions, his season was marked by inexperience and mechanical issues, resulting in only one more win at the Dutch GP. He finished fourth in the Drivers' Championship. Lauda's commitment to testing and improving the car was evident.

In 1975, Lauda had a slow start but later won four out of five races driving the new Ferrari 312T. He clinched his first World Championship with a third-place finish at the Italian Grand Prix, and Ferrari won the Constructors' Championship. Lauda also set a record by lapping the Nürburgring Nordschleife in under seven minutes. Despite some setbacks, he maintained his dominance.

In 1976, despite tensions with Ferrari's management, Lauda started the season strongly, winning four of the first six races and finishing second in the others. He had a substantial points lead over his rivals, making a second consecutive World Championship likely. He was also on course to break the record for the most wins in a season, held by Jim Clark since 1963.

The Nurburgring Crash

In 1976, Niki Lauda, despite being the fastest driver at the Nürburgring, tried to convince his fellow Formula One drivers to boycott the German Grand Prix due to safety concerns with the circuit. However, the majority of drivers voted against the boycott, and the race proceeded.

During the German Grand Prix, on August 1, 1976, Lauda suffered a severe accident. His Ferrari swerved off the track, caught fire, and collided with another car. Lauda was trapped in the wreckage, suffering extensive burns to his head and hands and inhaling toxic gases. Fellow drivers, including Arturo Merzario, helped rescue him, with Merzario managing to release his seatbelt and pull him out of the car. Lauda's modified helmet had come off during the accident, leaving his face exposed to the fire. He initially remained conscious but later lapsed into a coma.

Lauda survived but bore extensive scarring from the burns, losing his right ear, hair on the right side of his head, eyebrows, and eyelids. He chose limited reconstructive surgery, mainly focusing on restoring eyelid functionality and wore a cap to cover his head scars, using it for sponsorship.

With Lauda sidelined, Carlos Reutemann replaced him at Ferrari, and the team boycotted the Austrian Grand Prix in protest of perceived preferential treatment towards James Hunt by McLaren during the Spanish and British Grands Prix.

A magnificent comeback

After his horrific accident, Niki Lauda missed only two races and made a remarkable return to Formula One, even though he was still bandaged from his burns. He finished fourth at the Italian Grand Prix but was understandably fearful. During this time, he had to wear a specially adapted crash helmet for comfort. While he was recovering, James Hunt, a friend both on and off the track, closed in on Lauda's World Championship lead by winning races.

As the season progressed, Hunt and Lauda's rivalry remained clean and intense.

Hunt won in Canada and the United States, reducing Lauda's lead to just three points before the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix. However, Lauda retired from the race due to heavy rain and safety concerns, particularly because of his fire-damaged tear ducts and watery eyes. Hunt finished third in the race, securing the championship by a single point.

Lauda's decision to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix strained his relationship with Ferrari.

He faced a challenging 1977 season, winning the championship through consistent performances rather than sheer speed. He had difficulty with his new teammate, Carlos Reutemann, and felt let down by Ferrari. Lauda decided to leave Ferrari earlier than planned, announcing his departure after winning the Drivers' Championship at the United States Grand Prix, as Ferrari had chosen to field Gilles Villeneuve in a third car at the Canadian Grand Prix.

Going to Brabham and first retirement

In 1978, Niki Lauda joined the Parmalat-sponsored Brabham-Alfa Romeo team with a $1 million salary. However, his two seasons with the team were largely unsuccessful, with one notable race in the Brabham BT46B "Fan Car," which won its only race in Sweden. The car faced controversy, and Brabham withdrew it from Formula One due to protests from other teams. Lauda struggled with the Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine, retiring from 9 out of 14 races. His best results included wins in Sweden and Italy (due to penalizations of other drivers), second-place finishes in Monaco and Great Britain, and a third-place finish in the Netherlands.

For the 1979 season, Alfa Romeo introduced a V12 engine because the flat-12 was not suitable for ground effect designs. However, Lauda continued to face retirements and poor performance in Formula One, despite winning the non-championship 1979 Dino Ferrari Grand Prix with Brabham-Alfa. He also competed in the single-make BMW M1 Procar Championship, winning three races for Project Four Racing. In September 1979, during practice for the Canadian Grand Prix, Lauda decided to retire from Formula One, citing a lack of motivation to continue racing. He focused on running his charter airline, Lauda Air, full-time in Austria.

A return to racing with McLaren & a final goodbye

In 1982, Niki Lauda made a remarkable comeback to Formula One with McLaren, earning an unprecedented $3 million salary. After successful testing, he convinced sponsor Marlboro of his ability to win. In his third race back, he won the Long Beach Grand Prix. Before the season opener in South Africa, Lauda organized a "drivers' strike" to challenge the Super Licence requirement, which tied drivers to their current teams, potentially hindering negotiations.

The 1983 season marked McLaren's transition from Ford-Cosworth to TAG-badged Porsche turbo engines. Lauda did not win any races that year, with his best finish being second at Long Beach. His political maneuvering led to an early design of an interim car for testing the TAG-Porsche engine. Lauda came close to winning the last race in South Africa.

In 1984, Lauda secured his third world championship, narrowly beating teammate Alain Prost by half a point due to the shortened 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. Although Lauda initially hesitated to have Prost as a teammate, their two seasons together fostered a good relationship. Lauda won five races that season, while Prost won seven. Despite Prost's strong qualifying performances, Lauda secured the championship in Portugal by finishing second from eleventh on the grid.

In 1985, Lauda's season with McLaren was marred by numerous retirements and injuries. He missed the Belgian Grand Prix after breaking his wrist in practice and later missed the European Grand Prix. Lauda managed a win at the Dutch Grand Prix and finished fourth at the San Marino Grand Prix, but announced his impending retirement. His final race was the inaugural Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, where he led but eventually crashed due to brake failure. Keke Rosberg replaced him at McLaren in 1986.