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Niki Lauda, the champion who defeated death

by

Antonio Eiras

Niki Lauda was the first champion whose career in Formula 1 I followed from its beginning.

 

He started with March, on a unique participation in 1971, in the GP of Austria and as a factory driver in the following year. Its natural speed impressed Louis Stanley, who hired him to drive the BRM in 1973, along with Clay Regazzoni and Jean-Pierre Beltoise. He took what he could from the uncompetitive P160E and, at the end of the Year was invited by Enzo Ferrari, to accompany Regazzoni in the renewed Italian team.

 

Niki Lauda early proved to be a tireless worker, a fact that, combined with his methodical spirit and speed, allowed him, before long, to excel to his teammate, making the most of the fabulous creations Mauro Forghieri that were the Ferrari 312T and T2, for the development of which, incidentally, he contributed arduous and decisively.

 

The difficulties he went through to overcome the financial problems that struggled early in his career, shaped the young driver’s character and had a positive influence on him, not only in developing its fighting spirit and his race intelligence, as also the fact that it was, probably, the first driver to take an uninhibited relationship with money.

 

The latter facet proved when he changed Ferrari for Brabham, in late 1977, a transfer paid by the Italian Parmalat and where would earn, according to the contemporary press, about 350.000 Euros per year. By then he found that the resulting scars of the dreadful accident Nürburgring in 1976, was his brand image, revealing of his titanic effort to return to competition and, rather than seeking to correct them with cosmetic surgery, he used the scars to sell the advertising space on the caps that he use, since then, to partially cover them.

 

He was, undoubtedly, the first champion of an era of transition between the romantic amateurism of the sixties and the most demanding professionalism of the drivers of the 80's.

 

The most intense memories I have of Niki Lauda are separated by eight long years.

 

The first is that of his heroic return to competition at the Grand Prix of Italy, just six weeks after the terrible accident in the Nürburgring. In the days following the accident we expected the news of his death at any time, when the news took so long in coming.

 

What was then the surprise of his early return, contrary to the medical recommendations and the fabulous race which led him, with his face covered with wounds, to the 4th final place.

 

The last great memory I have of the Austrian driver was his consecration on the first GP I attended, on 21 October 1984 in Estoril Circuit, at the end of a fabulous season that saw him won his third Drivers World Championship.

 

It was an intense race that I lived inside, since the arrival of the teams to the pack of the race cars and all the equipment inside the trucks. In between was the title that was missing to Lauda and the confirmation of the rising star Ayrton Senna, in the third place of a podium that would value 10 World Championships, with Alain Prost to achieve the hardest victory of his career.

 

Niki Lauda needed challenges that keep him motivated. In late 1977 he left Ferrari, unhappy with the reaction of the team for this retirement in the Japanese Grand Prix of the previous Year and with the replacement of Clay Regazzoni by Carlos Reutemann. In 1979 he left Brabham for not believing in the new Gordon Murray’s project, the BT49 with Ford engine. Halfway through the 1985 season, unhappy with the unreliability of his McLaren and without a stimulus that motivated him to go on, he announced the final retirement of the competition.

 

With his decision, he ended a cycle at main discipline of motor sport. Niki Lauda had shown to his colleagues that the way to succeed was by professionalism and work, contributing, still and decisively to the development of motor sport in the direction of greater security.

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