At 27, Niki Lauda was given the final rites in a hospital after a horrific crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix left the reigning Formula One world champion in a coma. His face and head was badly burned, his lungs scarred by inhaling toxic fumes and his life just about saved by heroic drivers who pulled him out from the raging flames.
At that stage, it looked like it would be a premature end to one of the most fascinating careers in the sport.
The Ferrari driver had won his first world championship just the year before and looked certain to bag his second straight title after winning five races to build a massive lead. Now, it seemed like it was all over.
But in an astonishing display of resolve, the Austrian mounted a remarkable comeback just 40 days after the near-fatal crash to not only race again, but challenge for the title despite missing (only) two races.
It didn’t matter that his vision was still affected and his wounds still bleeding in their bandage. Under his modified helmet, Lauda finished fourth in his comeback race and went on to lose world title by a mere point… not beaten on track, but because he pulled out of the final race in dangerous conditions in Japan. But that was not the end as he lifted the title in 1977, retired and returned to win his third world championship in 1984.
Lauda’s was a comeback so sensational and against all odds, it defied belief. It was the triumph of human spirit and another testimony of a sportsperson’s intense reserve of willpower and resilience.
What happened at Nürburgring?
Interestingly, Lauda was against racing at the 14-mile, 160-corner Nurburgring circuit in the first place because of inadequate safety measures. He tried to rally his fellow drivers to boycott the race but lost by one vote and decided to race.
As fate would have it, his Ferrari crashed on the second lap, veering off track and caught fire after being bounced off the barriers into the path of incoming cars. Two more cars crashed into the burning wreckage and Lauda was trapped in the flames for almost a minute. It was when fellow drivers, particularly, Arturo Merzario who plunged into the fire to free Lauda of his seatbelt that he could step out.
The impact knocked Lauda’s helmet off, exposing his head and face to the flames which resulted in third-degree burns and scorched most of his right ear as well as the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows, and his eyelids. The lungs were the bigger concern and saw him slip into coma and a priest gave him his final rites.
Legend goes that it was the presence of the priest and final blessing that spurred Lauda to not die. “I got so upset that I put more effort into not dying because of this incident with the Priest,” he was quoted as saying. It was also his intense rivalry with James Hunt – immortalised in Hollywood by the film Rush – that prompted him to recover and race to retain his chances of winning the championship.
Whatever the motivation, it was enough to get him back on his feet. He limited the facial reconstruction surgery because he was impatient to return and once his eyelids were fine, he began to prepare for his comeback, with a bandaged head and a cap not doing much to hide his disfigured face.
But he admitted the bravado faded a bit when he first got behind the wheel at the Italian GP. The striking way in which Lauda documented how he overcame his fear in To Hell and Back: An Autobiography deserves to be read in the original form.
At Monza I was rigid with fear. Training in the rain on the Friday before the race was so terrifying that I got out of the car at the first available opportunity. Naturally, I had to play the hero to buy myself enough time to sort things out.
When I climbed into the cockpit at Monza, fear hit me so hard that all my self-motivation theories flew out the window. Diarrhoea. Heart pounding. Throwing up. I made it back to the peace and quiet of the hotel and went over the situation in my mind.
What I had done wrong was attempt to drive as fast as I had done before the shunt, quite irrespective of my weakened condition on the one hand and the rain on the other. I had felt insecure and had overreacted. I hadn’t held the car in check as I usually would have done; I simply hadn’t used my expertise to take control of it.
This analysis helped me re-programme and I managed to repress the anxiety I had felt, at least enough to place fourth.
After that, with his heavily-scarred face and trademark cap, Lauda carried on racing and came very close to winning the title, ultimately choosing to not race in torrential rain because of his vision which was still affected by the surgeries.
He would win two more world titles, the very next year with Ferrari and seven years later with McLaren and continue to be a legend in the F1 world with his work behind the scenes. He worked in a consulting role at Ferrari as well as team principal of the Jaguar. But the most impactful contribution came as the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes where he convinced Lewis Hamilton to join and forged one of the most dominant runs in F1 history.
Lauda died at the age of 70 in May 2019 after a lung transplant eight months ago. The Austrian has spoken about how people didn’t want to look in his eyes because of how he looked due to the injuries he suffered from the crash. But years later, it’s his scarred face under the red cap that remains an inspiration.