- February 22, 1949
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The 1970s were the years marked by a number of masculine and charismatic drivers such as Clay Regazzoni, James Hunt, Jacky Ickx, Ronnie Peterson, Jody Scheckter and Emerson Fittipaldi. Among them stood Niki Lauda, a driver of almost no physical resemblance to the pack, who proved his exquisite skill and bravery almost exclusively on track.
An early racing bond that produced a film
Born in a wealthy Austrian family on February 22, 1949, in Vienna, Lauda wanted to become a racing driver since his early age in spite of his father's strong disapproval. His first formula races were in Formula Vee, but soon after, he moved to Porsches and Chevrons.
As his career stalled, Lauda took out his first loan to buy himself a place in Formula 2, driving for STP-March Racing in F1 and F2 in 1972 with no significant results. In that period, he met James Hunt, forming a friendship as well as a great rivalry that will be the focus of a movie hit years later. In 1973, he took out another loan and bought himself a place in BRM, and after that, transferred to Ferrari with his BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni in 1974.
Video - Rivalry between Lauda and James Hunt made it to the movies, described in Rush
Formula 1 retirement streak that slowed down Niki Lauda
His debut at Ferrari proved to be excellent, with a second place in Argentina. That year, at the Spanish Grand Prix, Niki Lauda scored his first Formula One victory, driving a Ferrari 312B3. With one more win and two second places, Lauda finished the 1974 season fourth overall, but the result could have been better if it weren't for the streak of five retirements at the end of the season. Niki Lauda started three of those races from pole, in Germany, Austria and Italy, also leading the majority of the race in Canada before retiring and being beaten by Regazzoni.
First Formula 1 championship title in 1975
Lauda won his first world championship in 1975. That year was marked by a switch from 312B3 to 312T, and the season started great for Niki. Three consecutive wins at Monaco, Belgium and Sweden were followed by one second place at Zandvoort and again a win at Circuit Paul Ricard. In Germany, Niki famously lapped Nürburgring in under 7 minutes (6:58.6 during the qualifying) but finished that race in third after suffering from a punctured tire and broken spoiler. He finished the season with a win at the United States Grand Prix.
Unforgettable crash and fire at Nurburgring
A year later, Lauda started even better, with two wins in Brazil and South Africa and a second place in the United States West Grand Prix. Debuting in the Ferrari 312T2, Niki claimed second in Spain, behind James Hunt, followed by two wins at Spa-Francorchamps and in Monaco. He was third in Sweden but ended up retiring in France where his rival James Hunt had won the race. After a win in the British Grand Prix, where Hunt was disqualified, the unforgiving Green Hell almost cost Niki his life. In lap 2 of Nurburgring Grand Prix, Lauda crashed his Ferrari 312T2 which suddenly burst into flames. The burns were so serious that Lauda wasn't even expected to survive the night.
Video - Niki Lauda crash at Nurburgring, 1976
Lauda's return just three weeks later was by all means heroic
Against all odds, and with his wounds still fresh, he heroically returned just three weeks later at Monza Grand Prix, winning fourth place despite being completely terrified. In Canada and the US, Lauda was eighth and third, while Hunt won both of the races, leaving Niki with just a three-point advantage. The last race of the season was held at Suzuka, Japan. The weather was extremely bad and Lauda refused to continue driving under heavy downpour and fog. James Hunt decided to continue the race and managed to finish it in third place in a confusing finish. With that result, Niki lost his title by a point to James Hunt. The 1976 championship battle was so intense it brought Formula One to the masses, who were all cheering for either Hunt or Lauda.
Amazing results followed by deliberately skipped two races
Though falling short in 1976, Niki won the title in 1977 with three victories, six seconds, and one third place. Having secured the championship title with two races until the season's end, Lauda simply didn't show up, as he already announced his plans to leave Ferrari and sign for Brabham. The reasons behind his decision were previous disagreements with Ferrari over 1976 Suzuka Grand Prix and his 1977 teammate Carlos Reutteman whom Ferrari had designated as Lauda's replacement driver the very day that the crash occurred at the Nurburgring.
Per his plans, Lauda joined Brabham in 1978 and won the fourth place with just two wins. In 1979, Niki had a bad season with no victories and just four races that he managed to finish thanks to an unreliable car. After the unsuccessful year, Niki retired to run his newly-founded airline company.
Lauda's team swap - driving for McLaren
However, his drive for winning made him return and in 1982 he drove for McLaren, which was a rivaling team in the seventies. In that year, Niki finished the season fifth, and 1983 was a winless year with just two podiums and numerous retirements. Redemption came in 1984 when Lauda won his third Formula One title by just half a point over teammate Alain Prost. Despite suffering six retirements, Lauda's championship title was a result of five wins and four second places.
After a poor 1985 season in which he scored just one win, Lauda retired for the second and final time. His final Grand Prix victory was at Zandvoort. However, his involvement with Formula One transferred to consulting and management.
Today, Niki Lauda is regarded as being one of the most disciplined and balanced drivers in the world ever to sit inside an F1 car, and his brave 1976 comeback is the moment that perfectly captures the essence of the golden days of Formula One.