HE WAS one of the great survivors of Formula One crashes, but Niki Lauda knew when it was too dangerous to keep racing. PETER COSTER reports:
THERE IS a little-known story about Niki Lauda’s return to the Nürburgring after his fiery crash in the 1976 German Grand Prix that left him with near fatal injuries. The then double-world champion missed only two races after being pulled from the flaming wreckage of his Ferrari and being given the last rites by a priest before being taken to hospital.
When he returned to the track to compete in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka he pulled out after a couple of laps, opting not to continue in monsoon conditions. James Hunt became world champion by a point from Lauda after finishing third.
I was to meet “Hunt the Shunt” years later and he freely admitted it had been close to “suicidal” to drive on at Suzuka when he could not see a car a metre in front of him.
Hunt, a survivor of many accidents, with film-star good looks, won the world championship but Lauda made the right decision, better to live to drive another day, although he was never forgiven by Enzo Ferrari for pulling out of the race.
Ferrari’s concern for his drivers came a distant second to the Old Man’s concern for his cars. The Commendatore sold road cars to the wealthy and victory on the Grand Prix circuit sold more cars.
Lauda won his second world championship for Ferrari the following year before signing with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo team in 1978.
His third world championship came with McLaren in 1984 when he defeated his teammate, the Frenchman Alain Prost, by half a point. He had been tempted out of retirement by McLaren after telling Bernie Ecclestone he had lost interest in “driving racing cars in circles” and was to retire permanently the following year when he scored his 25th GP win in the Dutch Grand Prix.
Before the German Grand Prix in 2006, Lauda returned to the corner at the Nürburgring where his Ferrari’s suspension had broken and he had been trapped in the wreckage as the fire raged around him, causing the scars that he still carries.
Lauda was with Bernie Ecclestone and a couple of other friends and was poking around in the grass.
Three German spectators asked him what he was looking for and were shocked when Ecclestone said Lauda was “looking for his ear”.
The Germans were furious at this gross disrespect until Lauda bent down and picked up what looked like a burnt ear lying in the grass.
Lauda had lost most of his right ear in the crash and the situation was about to get out of hand when one of Lauda’s friends let him in on the joke. Lauda was to have been led to where the pig’s ear had been hidden in the grass.
The furious Germans stomped off. Ecclestone has been blamed for the prank, but Lauda has since said it was down to Karl-Heinz Zimmerman, an Austrian restaurateur and Ecclestone’s caterer, who was there with Lauda’s son, Matthias, and Arturo Merzario, one of the drivers who pulled Lauda out of his burning Ferrari some 30 years before.
Lauda and Ecclestone have a long history in Formula One going back to when the Austrian driver left Ferrari and signed up with Ecclestone’s Brabham team. Lauda demanded $2 million a year when Ecclestone was offering only $500,000.
It was a standoff, with Ecclestone telling the other team owners that if any of them signed up Lauda for $2 million there would be a driver contract breakout.
Lauda got the money when the sponsor of Ecclestone’s team said he would walk away unless Ecclestone signed Lauda.
Lauda says Ecclestone paid up with a laugh, which makes it likely that Bernie was at least behind the pig’s ear prank. If Ecclestone persuaded his caterer to supply the pig’s ear, it was because crispy pigs ears were on the menu at weekends with Bernie.
Lauda was as tough a negotiator as he was a driver. He came from a wealthy family but was discouraged from becoming a racing driver. When he applied for a bank loan, his grandfather, who was on the bank board, vetoed the loan.
Lauda eventually got the money from another bank after he took out insurance to guarantee the loan would be repaid if he was disabled or killed. Later, he re-mortgaged his house to continue racing.
When he did retire, Laura started his own airline and was often seen by passengers emerging from the flight deck of one of his jets in jeans and what had become a trademark red cap.
When one of Lauda Air’s jets crashed after taking off from Bangkok in 1991, Lauda, a qualified airline pilot, insisted that one of the Boeing 767’s engines had gone into reverse thrust causing it to spin out of control.
When Boeing refused to accept this as the cause of the crash, Lauda said he would fly the plane himself and recreate the circumstances of the failure if Boeing executives would accompany him.
They didn’t and the former triple world champion driver was
proved right and Boeing made a modification to its aircraft to prevent a similar accident.
Lauda sold his company to Austrian Airlines in 2000, when it had a turnover of $70 million a year with a staff of 550. He went back to Ferrari as a consultant before taking over the Jaguar team and was appointed non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team in 2012.
Much of Mercedes’ success is because of him. Lauda convinced Lewis Hamilton to change from McLaren to Mercedes.
Just as Lauda knew how to get the best out of himself, he knew that Hamilton was a driver waiting for the team who would draw it from him. Hamilton’s last three titles came with Mercedes in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.