Remembering Niki Lauda: King of Comebacks

Niki Lauda - King of Comebacks, also former 3 times Formula 1 World Champion and Mercedes, Mclaren and Ferrari team personnel
A lot of people criticize Formula 1 as an unnecessary risk. But what would life be like if we only did what is necessary? — Niki Lauda (1949 – 2019), King of Comebacks in the world of sport and not just Formula 1

Three-time F1 world champion Niki Lauda has passed away, leaving in his wake a mourning paddock and thousands of Formula One fans from across the ages. From his incredible talent as a driver, his unbelievable comeback from the edge of death and his most recent role at a dominating Mercedes, Lauda is a champion in the truest sense of the word. He had been a regular figure in the paddock for over four decades and the sport will have a hard time filling his remarkable void.

Niki Lauda: greatest sporting comeback ever?

The 1976 German Grand Prix at Nürburgring will always be remembered for highlighting the worst — and best — of the world of Formula One. 27-year-old Niki Lauda, who was then driving for Ferrari and was the reigning world champion, met with a horrific accident during the race. His car went up in flames, and Lauda was trapped and engulfed in an 800-degree inferno. He suffered severe injuries, including third-degree burns to his head and face and was pulled out just in time by fellow racers.

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Incredibly, Lauda returned from this near-death experience faster than anyone could have imagined. Only 40 days later, he returned to race at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, making a heroic comeback at the home of the Scuderia. He was still in recovery as his blood-soaked fireproof balaclava at the end of the race gave away, but his spirit was undaunted. Despite the accident, Lauda still finished second in the championship, only a single point behind eventual world champion James Hunt of Mclaren.

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The 1976 F1 season was immortalised in the Hollywood movie Rush and it remains an incredible story to this day. Lauda may not have won the championship, but he won the love and respect of thousands of fans for the sheer courage, willpower and commitment to the sport he loved. Hunt, thanks to his flamboyant and inimitable style was the reel hero on Rush but Lauda was in every sense the real-life hero. When Tiger Woods won the Masters for the fifth time last month the sports world hailed it as the greatest comeback ever — but was it really?

A tribute to a legend

Lauda may be no more but he leaves behind a towering legacy. After debuting with March Racing in 1971, he won his first race in 1974 with Ferrari and world titles with the team in 1975 and 1977. Lauda took a three-year break from F1 at the end of 1979 to focus on his commercial interests and follow his passion for aviation. True to his reputation as the king of comebacks, Lauda returned to F1 in 1982 with Mclaren and went on to win a third and final world title in 1984. He beat teammate Alain Prost to the title by only half a point — the narrowest margin of title victory ever. This made Lauda the only driver ever to have won championships with both Ferrari and Mclaren, the two most celebrated teams of all time.

Lauda raced and won against some of the greatest talents of the times — James Hunt, Alain Prost, Emerson Fittipaldi, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg and finally Ayrton Senna. Interestingly, Lauda’s last podium had Prost and Senna on it with him. All through the journey, he remained humble, (brutally) honest and genuine.

Even after retiring as a driver from the sport in 1985 and moving on to other business endeavours, Lauda’s heart remained in Formula One. His unique skills of being a talented driver and a strategic motorsport thinker made him a valuable asset to any team’s pit wall. Lauda took on various team roles over the years at Ferrari, Jaguar (as Team Principal in 2001) and then Mercedes. Specifically, his time at Mercedes as the non-executive director of the Mercedes F1 team from 2012 onwards will be remembered forever. Lauda (along with Toto Wolff, the team principal) took Mercedes from being a midfield team to becoming dominant world champions who have won five titles on the trot. He was instrumental in signing Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, a driver who is now synonymous with the team and its success. In fact, Lauda has been a vocal and visible supporter of Hamilton over the years, through thick and thin.

Lauda was a man whose first love was Formula One — and his appreciation of the sport was so great, that it rose above team and constructor limitations. I (Kunal) had a personal glimpse of this when Lauda unexpectedly visited the Force India hospitality area at the 2013 Indian Grand Prix to congratulate Jehan Daruvala on his British KF3 victory. Lauda recognised talent when he saw it, the team was purely incidental.

Formula One will miss the presence of Lauda, but you only have to look about the grid to see that his legend lives on. In Hamilton, we see the fluidity of Lauda’s driving style; in Verstappen, we see his passion; in Raikkonen, we see his precise temperament and in Kubica; we see his tenacity. Ferrari and Mclaren will be reminded of their glory days and the miracles that Lauda pulled off for them — some desperately needed motivation as both teams fumble through the season. In any case, the achievements of Niki Lauda, on and off the race track, will never be forgotten.

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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