In the 1970s, Formula One was not only a dangerous sport but actually a deadly one. It was quite possible that not all of the drivers would finish the race. Not that it is certain that they will these days either, but the odds against the drivers used to be much higher. Even so, the possibility of losing their lives never stopped the passion for racing in the drivers, nor did the many accidents on the circuits or deaths of their fellow Formula One drivers. Even when Niki Lauda almost died in a crash at the German Grand Prix in 1976, he returned to racing only six weeks after the crash and with a face so badly burned that his fellow drivers could barely look at him.
The Nürburgring circuit was considered the most dangerous and challenging for the Formula drivers. Niki Lauda was an expert on cars and racing who was a three-time world champion in Formula One. The motor-sports complex is located in the town of Nürburg in Germany and back in the day, it consisted of the long “North loop” circuit that stretches 12.9 miles around the medieval castle and the village known as Nürburg and the Eifel mountains. The loop had more than 1,000 feet of elevation change.
The British Formula One racing driver Jackie Stewart called the Nürburgring circuit “the Green Hell,” and the name suits the loop to this day. It was completed in under nine minutes by the American racer Phil Hill during practice for the German Grand Prix in 1961. Even though decades have passed since, it is still hard even for the highest-performing road cars to break eight minutes. Only professional race drivers can manage to do so, but even for them, the circuit is a difficult challenge.
Andreas Nikolaus Lauda, known to the world as Niki Lauda, was born in 1949 to a wealthy Viennese family of businessmen. Naturally, it was expected that Niki would grow up to be a businessman; however, the boy had had an obsession with cars since his childhood. His enthusiasm for racing was rooted in the machinery and performance of cars rather than in a boyish idolization of racers. In his early teenage years, Niki gladly parked the cars of visiting relatives in his family home until he got a 1949 Volkswagen Beetle convertible for himself and could “play” with it on his family estate.
At the age of 19, Niki raced for the first time in a hill climb during which he ended second in class. It was this that was the trigger for him to pursue his dream, despite his father’s insistence that he leave racing to pursue a career in business. Due to his family’s disapproval of his chosen path, Niki became estranged from them, but he still used the family’s connections when he needed support to start racing. Like almost any other Formula driver, Lauda began racing in Formula Three and Formula Two where he bought his way in with a £30,000 bank loan which was secured by a life insurance policy. He proved to be an excellent driver and soon started racing in Formula One.
Although his beginning in Formula One was anything but smooth, followed by another bank loan and disappointments, Lauda never gave up and believed strongly in his racing skills. The year of 1974 came when he scored the first F1 victory racing for Ferrari. This was only the beginning of a career that was marked with 25 such victories. Lauda went on to become the World Champion Driver in 1975, 1977, and 1984. Although he started with Ferrari, he later drove for its greatest competitor, McLaren, and to this day Lauda is the only driver who won the championship for both constructors.
Lauda had a famous rivalry with the British racing driver James Hunt. They were like black and white. Lauda was an organized and calculated introvert, known for his extraordinary talent of analysis of the races and his rigor, while Hunt was a loud eccentric, famous for his incredible burst of speed. Although they were rivals at the races, privately they respected each other and had a friendly relationship during their early careers.
Aside from Lauda’s 26 F1 victories, he would always be remembered for the one he didn’t win: the 1946 German Grand Prix when he almost lost his life, and his face was burned. He was the fastest in the race and already had the leading points. But just a week before the “North loop,” Lauda became concerned with safety on the track and urged his fellow drivers to boycott the race. However, that meant that a few, including Hunt, would lose the chance of gaining points and thus of winning, so most of them voted against Lauda’s proposal. So, on the 1st of August, Lauda engaged in the race, and the accident happened. He crashed into an embankment at high speed and then bounced back into the oncoming cars, being hit by the vehicles of Harald Ertl and Brett Lunger.
Six other drivers arrived at the point where Lauda’s car was on fire and tried to pull him out, but by the time they managed to do so, Niki had already inhaled too much of the hot, toxic gases that damaged the inside of his lungs and his blood. His helmet had slid off, and his face was left exposed to the fire, due to which he suffered severe burns to his head. Although he stood up after he was pulled out of the car, Niki lapsed into a coma. His scalp, forehead, eyelids, and hands were severely burned, and part of one of his ears was burned off.
Although there were many reconstructive surgeries he could have taken, Lauda decided to replace only the eyelids and to make them work properly. For the rest, he never took any other plastic surgery and has worn a hat ever since to cover the scars on his head. Against any medical advice, Lauda returned to race only six weeks after the accident. He was three races behind, which gave Hunt time to gain more points, but Lauda was still leading. The F1 journalist Nigel Roebuck remembered how Lauda was still peeling the blood-soaked bandages off his head in the pits. However, Niki lost the leading points and it gave the victory to Hunt after he gave up the race at the Japanese GP due to rainfall, which had made him feel unsafe. Still, nothing stopped him from winning the following year’s 1977 championship.
Later in his life, still fascinated by speed, Lauda engaged in Aircraft business and today owns the airlines Lauda Air and Niki. He is still involved in the Formula world as a pundit for German TV during the Grand Prix and is a non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team owning 10 percent of the team.