Tuesday May 21st 2019 was an odd day, my eldest daughter turned 15, so it was a cause for celebration and she went to bed that day very happy. However it was also a rather sad day as the world lost a genuine hero, a man who was given The Last Rites and yet came back and didn’t give up. Fuck Jon Snow, Niki Lauda was the last of the Targaryen’s.
I wasn’t even born when Niki Lauda was racing. Actually, thats a lie, he retired (for the second time) in 1985, I was born in ’84. I didn’t even get into Formula One until the tail end of the Senna/Prost/Mansell years (I remember Mansell’s 92 championship fairly clearly). I grew to know of the man through reading more and more about the sport through the mid to late 90’s. I learned of his rivalry with James Hunt and that he eventually became a triple World Champion, which at the time of his final title made him the second most succesful Formula One driver (alongside Jack Brabham and Sir Jackie Stewart, with only Fangio ahead), I knew he drove for Ferrari and McLaren (very few drivers have driven for both, off the top of my head theres Lauda, Alonso, Raikkonen) and of course I read all about the crash at the Nurburgring in 1976 when he was chasing his second Drivers Championship in an intense battle with Britains James Hunt.
For years drivers had been saying the Nurburgring was getting too dangerous for Formula One, Jackie Stewart even tried to organise a drivers strike one year as the death toll in the sport grew and grew and he was losing friends on a regular basis, but still the teams and drivers turned up and raced around a circuit where proper medical help wasn’t able to properly cover the circuit in case of an accident (Lauda himself called foer a boycott of the race during that weekends Drivers Briefing but his appeals fell on death ears). Then in 1976, driving for Ferrari, Lauda lost control and crashed, his car bursting into flames. He was taken to hospital where the Doctors said that whilst the fire had caused alot of damage, the measures the marshalls had taken to put out the flames had caused just as much, if not more, damage to his lungs. The situation was so bad that a priest was called and he was given the Last Rites. They believed he wouldn’t recover from his injuries.
However, and this is why the guy is a hero (or stupid, but, really, there’s very small margin between the two). He missed two races before returning for Ferrari’s home Grand Prix at Monza six weeks after his crash, his wounds still bleeding and oozing through the bandages into his white balaclava, he finished the race in fourth! His battle with Hunt continued, and whilst there was a whole bunch of politics involved in that season (that I may go into another time, but Formula One is full of political backstabbing) Lauda ultimately finished the season only one point behind Hunt, he would maybe have won the title if he hadn’t have pulled in early during the final Grand Prix of the season at a dangerously wet Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway that only went ahead due to it being broadcast live and the powers that be not wanting to lose that sweet sweet broadcasting money.
I’ve only ever seen highlights of him race, but to even get back in a Formula One car, let alone go on to win a further two championships (1977 and 1984) makes him, in my eyes, one of, if not the, most heroic sportsmen to have ever lived.