Part 2: Niki Lauda
If James Hunt was the flamboyant playboy in Formula 1 during the 1970’s Niki Lauda was the direct opposite. Lauda was calculated, calm, composed, and consumed by details. To Lauda speed was a direct result of proper planning and execution. Low lap times were more about setting up the car than simply planting his right foot. It is the directly opposing views that made his rivalry with Hunt so compelling.
Nicholas Andreas Lauda was born on February 22, 1949. Where Hunt was born into a working class home, Lauda was born into wealth. Lauda’s father was a prominent Austrian businessman who made his fortune in paper manufacturing. And no it wasn’t called Dunder Mifflin. Lauda was not drawn to the glitz and glamour of racing, nor did his desire to be a racing driver come from idolizing the larger than life icons of the sport. His love of racing stemmed from an early age where he developed a true passion for cars. A passion he had from an early age. At the age of 12 he was thrilled when visiting family let him park their cars. Later in his teenage years he got a hold of an old VW Beetle and drove it as much and as fast as he could around his relative’s estate. His love of cars however, was not well received by his parents. They disliked the idea so much that if young Niki wanted to go “play at racing” he was going to have to do so without any support from them.
In 1968 Lauda got his hands on an old Mini Cooper and entered his first official race. A hill climb event in which he finished 2nd. Despite his father’s insistence to give up racing Lauda continued racing in Hill Climbs. At this point Lauda decided to skip college, electing instead to chase a professional racing dream. Eventually moving up to Formula 3 where he would haul his own car all around Europe. After some time driving in the relative madness that was Formula 3 at the time, Lauda decided to take the plunge into Formula 2. In 1972, even though his father still wanted nothing to do with his racing, Lauda was able to use the family’s good name to get himself loans and
bought a seat on the March Formula 2 team. After a year of driving uncompetitive March’s in Formula 2 and 1, unable to showcase his talent’s as a driver and with debt piling Lauda was left without many options. Through sole determination and stubbornness Lauda soldiered on. Eventually he was able to talk his way into ride with BRM for the 1973 season.
Now with a known team, Lauda began to place well in races. So much so that he was able to earn a new contract with BRM that would forgive his debts in exchange for Lauda staying with the BRM team for an additional 2 years. While grateful Lauda would buy his way out of his contractual obligations with BRM thanks to a large chunk of money from his new boss, Enzo Ferrari.
At this point in time Ferrari was in the midst of a long championship drought. Their last championship came back in 1964 with John Surtees driving. Though skinny, and physically unimpressive Ferrari was impressed by Lauda’s self-confidence and unwavering work ethic. Fact was Lauda was not as impressed with Ferrari’s 1974 F1 car. Upon testing the 1974 Ferrari 312 Lauda famously told Enzo himself that the car was “A piece of shit.” Many of you aren’t avid F1 fans or even all that familiar with Ferrari’s name sake. But you did not talk that way about Ferrari’s cars and you definitely did not say it directly to Enzo’s face. Alain Prost was famously fired by Ferrari in the middle of the 1991 season for publicly criticizing the car. So for Lauda to get away with his own criticism, even if he did promise to make the car better, is a testament to what Ferrari thought of his ability.
Lauda, now dubbed The Savior of Ferrari faced a media circus. His calm and cool demeanor in tandem with his almost pathological approach to the details of the car’s setup earned him nickname “The Computer”. Though in tune with the setup and mechanicals of the car Lauda was still raw as a driver, costly mistakes would lead Niki to retirements. To which Lauda would say, “Learning from his mistakes was the fastest way to learn.” He would back up these words with his first F1 victory in Spain and later on in Holland. Lauda ended up finishing 4th in the Driver’s Championship. Emerson Fittipaldi would win the title in his McLaren.
In 1975 Lauda and Ferrari came into the season very optimistic in their chances on winning the World Championship. Driving the 312/T, an evolution of the previous year’s car Lauda finished 8th in Argentina and 5th at both Brazil and South Africa and retired at Spain. Lauda’s season was not going anywhere near according to plan. Once again Lauda’s determination would be tested. Lauda’s would go on to win in Monaco and Belgium from Pole Position. A late race charge would see Lauda win again in Sweeden.
In Holland Lauda would finish second to an upstart driver from Hesketh Racing named James Hunt. Lauda returned to Victory Lane in the next race in France. Fittipaldi would win in Great Britten and shrink Lauda’s championship advantage down to 14 points. Lauda would recover from a puncture to finish 3rd in West Germany at the famous Nordschleife. In the process becoming the first man to lap the famous circuit in less than 7 min. Fittipaldi was forced to retire due to a puncture that would damage the suspension of his McLaren. Lauda was now Leading the Championship by 17 points ahead of Carlos Reutemann and 18 points ahead of Fitipaldi with only 3 races to go. At his home race in Austria Lauda won Pole position. During the race heavy rain and a large lead in the Championship lead Lauda to drive to a conservative 6th place position. Heading to Italy Lauda now only needed ½ of a point and the Championship would be his. Driving smartly Lauda finished 3rd and secured his first World Driver’s Championship. Much to the elation of the Italian fans, as Ferrari was back on top the Formula 1 world. In the last race of the season the newly crowned World Champion headed to Watkins Glen wanting to finish his season off in style. In winning from Pole Position over his championship rival Fitipaldi, Lauda did just that.
With both Lauda and Ferrari on the top of their respective games they were the easy favorite to repeat as champions in 1976. Little did they know what lay in store for them. From the emergence of Hunt to Lauda’s astonishing comeback from a near fatal accident at the Nurburgring 1976 would go down as one of the single greatest seasons in Formula 1 history.
Check out Part 1: James Hunt, One of a Kind.
Check out Part 3: 1976 F1 season, Down to the wire.