Niki Lauda

Niki Lauda (1949-2019)

AONE members will recall that in March 2014 our chapter initiated its winter film screenings with the then recent film Rush, which tells the story of the 1976 rivalry between Formula 1 racers, Niki Lauda and James Hunt. (The film stretched the truth a bit, as Hunt and Lauda were rival competitors on the track but friends off.) Hunt won that 1976 on-track rivalry by winning his only Formula 1 championship; his career in F1 lasted only a few more years, and he died in 1993, just short of his 46th birthday.

Lauda, however, went on to win the 1977 Formula 1 championship; he won it again in 1984, thus joining the short and exclusive list of three-time F1 champions and earning a legitimate claim to being among the greatest racecar drivers of all time. AONE fans of F1 are saddened to learn of Lauda's passing away on May 20, 2019, at the age of 70.

Racing fans will remember Lauda most of all, perhaps, because of his horrific crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix. His Ferrari burst into flames, some of which he breathed directly into his lungs. Fellow racers dragged him from his burning car; he was rushed to the hospital and given little chance of surviving (a priest read him his last rites). But Lauda recovered and returned only six weeks later to racing. Before the very last race of the season (the Japan GP), he still held a small lead in the championship points race; if he managed to complete that race ahead of Hunt (or if neither completed the race), Lauda would become F1 champion for the second year in a row. The race took place in heavy rain, and after a few laps, Lauda retired, declaring the conditions impossible and leaving Hunt to finish in the points and take the championship. Lauda then returned to full form the next year and cruised to the 1977 championship.

AONE members not particularly interested in the history of racing may wonder why we should care about mourning Lauda's passing. True, his first two championships (1975 and 1977) were won racing a Ferrari, though while Ferrari was then already part of the larger Fiat conglomerate, Alfa Romeo was not yet. And Lauda won his third championship (1984) racing a McLaren (ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the team with which Hunt had won the 1976 championship) powered by a Porsche engine. Lauda did race two years (1978 and 1979) with an uncompetitive Brabham-Alfa Romeo Formula 1 team. So although his greatest successes did not occur driving an Alfa, Lauda nonetheless joins the pantheon of great racing drivers, from Tazio Nuvolari on, who have raced for Alfa.

Lauda did have one historic moment driving the 1978 Brabham-Alfa F1 car. The team had developed a large suction fan on the rear of the car, which created increased traction and an aerodynamic advantage over the competition. The "Fan Car," as it came to be known, won its first (and as it would turn out later, only) race, the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix, with Lauda at the wheel. The other teams protested immediately, and F1 ruled the car illegal, though Lauda's Swedish GP victory was allowed to stand. The fan was a means of harnessing the airflow under the car, but its disqualification meant that Colin Chapman's approach, with his Lotuses, to ground effects became for several years the standard in Formula 1.

AONE members will also remember that during the years Lauda raced for the Brabham-Alfa team, Alfa sold in the US a Niki Lauda Spider. This was a standard type 115 Spider, but with Niki Lauda decals on it. In fact, AONE members who attended our 2014 screening of Rush will recall Michael and Debra Leccese coming to that screening in their 1978 Niki Lauda Spider and parking it, appropriately, in the prize parking space in front of the door to the Weston barn, where we screened Rush.

Lauda had a reputation for being a (relatively) careful racer. His style lacked the flamboyance of a Hunt or a Gilles Villeneuve. When he took risks, they were calculated risks. His withdrawal from the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix was felt by some (perhaps including Enzo Ferrari himself) to be further proof that Lauda lacked competitive drive. But his recovery from the German Grand Prix accident itself is a sign of his dedication and determination. That he even returned to racing at all, much less in only a few weeks, is the real proof of his courage and commitment. His career in sports belongs to a time when obvious heroism was not always tainted by the suspicion of performance enhancing substances or by the shadow cast by the allure of big money (though Brabham-Alfa would pay Lauda $1 million in 1978, a large sum in professional sports in those days). He was willing to let the world see that there is more to sports, and to life, than winning at all costs, even though he was as capable as the next competitor of winning at all costs (short of deliberately taking out an opponent's car, which, had he done that to Hunt in Japan, would have earned Lauda the 1976 championship).

The burns that Lauda suffered in that 1976 accident deeply scarred his body and face. He could have undergone plastic surgery afterward, but declined. He unflinchingly wore his face scars publicly for the rest of his life. That decision is also a testimony to his principles. Niki Lauda will be missed, and we will miss the fact that today sports—and public life in general—can offer few if any prominent people of his courage and integrity.Tiny Quadrifoglio


Niki Lauda