Almost 40 years later, three-time Formula One world champion Niki Lauda finally sees the whole picture.
Ironically, the three time world champion had his eyes opened at a special screen the upcoming film Rush in Montreal last week, which is based on the battle he had with McLaren’s James Hunt for the 1976 F1 title.
The scene in the film where Lauda, played by actor Daniel Brühl, makes his return to racing in the Italian Grand Prix following a devastating accident helped the real-life driver understand the way people reacted to his shocking injuries.
When he went out in public for the first time at the famed Monza circuit in Italy, many stared at his disfigured ear and burned and scarred face, something that enraged the Austrian at the time. Now, that’s all changed.
“I said to a lot of people [in 1976]: ‘Look in my eyes if you are going to talk to me, why are you looking at my burns? Be polite.’ I never understood the reaction of the people – ‘why are they so stupid, I thought’ – and then I put a wall around myself and I didn’t care ... about it,” he said.
“But I saw the movie and when Daniel Brühl turns around in Monza and he looked like me, I had a shock too,” he said, flinching at the same time as he finished the sentence before adding, “so now I understand the other side of the world because I was busy getting going and I never saw it like the other people.”
Lauda, 64, was close to the project, getting involved in the film from almost the beginning. He helped screenplay writer Peter Morgan with details for the script and when the movie’s director, Ron Howard, came on board, Lauda introduced him to grand prix racing.
“Ron Howard had no idea about racing and he asked me five million questions about it and then his eyes started blinking and he suddenly was a fan of Formula One,” Lauda said.
“I invited him to Silverstone [to attend the British Grand Prix], I think two years ago to have a look, and then the whole movie happened. I mean it’s unbelievable.”
Lauda’s accident happened in the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, a circuit where drivers had expressed their concerns about safety several times to race organizers. Before that fateful race, Lauda tried to lead a boycott of the grand prix on the treacherous 22.835-kilometre, 160-turn circuit through the Eifel mountains, but was out-voted by his fellow drivers and the event went on.
On the first lap, the front tires on Lauda’s Ferrari lost grip for an instant in the left-hand Bergwerk corner and his car veered almost straight into an embankment at the outside of the turn (there were no guardrails where he crashed). It burst into flames instantly and bounced back onto the circuit before being hit by two other cars. The blazing Ferrari came to a rest in the middle of the track with Lauda trapped inside.
Three drivers got out of their cars to brave the flames and pull Lauda from the burning Ferrari carcass, but he had been in the inferno for about a minute before his fellow racers – Harald Ertl, Brett Lunger, and Arturo Merzario – got him to safety. For several days, it was touch-and-go whether he would survive.
While Lauda still doesn’t remember much of the accident, he does recall the aftermath.
“When I was in the hospital in Mannheim, [Germany], they asked me if I wanted to look in a mirror and I said “yeah, sure’ and then I saw myself in the mirror and thought: ‘... This is the way I am going to look like for the rest of my life?’” said Lauda, who is now non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team.
The accident caused him to miss three races in the middle of the season when he was leading the championship. Even after crashing out in Germany, his 61 points after 10 of 16 races was almost double the total of his closest rival, Tyrrell’s Jody Scheckter, who had 36. In 1976, drivers got nine points for a win.
But it was Hunt who emerged as the main rival for the title during his absence, taking 21 of a total 27 points up for grabs and moving into second overall with 47 points by the time the Austrian returned in Monza. Lauda’s lead had been cut to 14.
Although Lauda was the serious, all business-type of racer and Hunt was a notorious womanizer and party hound, the pair often found common ground.
“I knew him from Formula Three and we always had kind of – not a friendship, friendship is wrong because Formula One drivers don’t have friendships because they are enemies and we want to fight each other – but James was one of the more sympathetic guys, let’s put it that way,” Lauda said.
“So, I was hanging out with him and drinking beer and whatever, even when we were on the road. He was a good guy in these days.”
In the end, Lauda went into the final race ahead by three points in the championship, but lost the title after he withdrew from the rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix at the Mount Fiji Circuit two laps into the action due to the perilous conditions. Three other drivers also withdrew from the race, including two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
Hunt continued and finished third, giving him the four points he needed to take the 1976 title by a single marker.
Lauda’s bravery in both coming back from injury and choosing safety over glory is what makes the 1976 season so compelling, insisted three-time world champion Jackie Stewart.
“I think it’s an ideal story because Hunt won the world championship, but Niki Lauda probably did the most courageous thing that he could have done by withdrawing from that race because the conditions were so appallingly bad,” the Scotsman said.
“That race would not have been run today – so Lauda had the balls to say ‘right, I am not going to drive any longer even if I am going to lose the world championship’ and that was a very brave thing to do.”
And does reliving his racing years in film make Lauda yearn to get back into a Formula One car?
“Me? Today? No way,” Lauda said sternly.
“I’ve done everything, I won everything, I nearly killed myself, so there’s no more I can get out of it.”
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