F1 Legends (Originally published in @F1FansMag)
Niki Lauda is a classic F1 combination of courage and calculation. This three-time World Champion survived one of the most shocking, dangerous and life changing crashes ever seen in Formula One only to walk away from a near-certain 4th title in 1976. His triumphant second career in the mid-1980s with McLaren saw Lauda as the elder statesman of F1 and the tutor of young “Professor” Alain Prost.
Niki Lauda had two careers in Formula One. The first, from 1971 through 1979, included two World Championships for Ferrari, a horrifying accident at the Nürburgring — in which he nearly died and was administered the Last Rites of the Catholic Church, and the famous rain-soaked finale in 1976 at Japan’s Mt. Fuji circuit where, just weeks after his disfiguring crash, Lauda courageously withdrew while leading the drivers championship points.
The second, from 1982 through 1985, saw Lauda return as the “grand master” of Formula One to capture another World Championship for McLaren, become a mentor to the young Alain Prost in the finer art of scientific race driving, and rally against the advent of ground effect F1 technology.
In both of his careers, Lauda combined sheer speed and tremendous determination with a calculating approach to racecraft that defied comparison. Lauda was always quick, but tempered raw speed with a unique knowledge of F1 engineering and a dispassionate regard for driving only as fast as necessary to win. He epitomized the racing truism that “to finish first, one must first finish.” Blessed with a meticulously tidy and consistent driving style, he always did just enough to secure the result he needed and seldom subjected himself to risks he deemed unrealistic. Add to this the fact that he was one of the first F1 drivers to “buy” a ride in the series and to face legal action after jumping to Ferrari from March (after first signing with BRM) in 1974, and it became clear that Niki Lauda is the true prototype of the modern F1 driver. Indeed, a Ferrari driver hadn’t won the World Championship since John Surtees in 1964 (sound familiar, Michael Schumacher fans?) and like Schumi the Austrian helped to galvanize the Scuderia into fulfilling its potential.
Lauda will always be remembered as one of the most pragmatic, logical Grand Prix divers of all time. Yet he had an emotional side as well. After recapturing the F1 title in 1977 with Ferrari (beating new teammate Carlos Reutemann convincingly on the track, rather than in the garage) Lauda abruptly quit to join Bernie Ecclestone’s emergent Brabham-Alfa Romeo team. He won two races for Brabham before, once again, abruptly retiring in 1979
Lauda then chose to devote all his efforts to his then-fledgling airline, Lauda Air. Like a boxer, however, Lauda could not resist the urge to make comeback, and in 1982 he rejoined Formula One, winning his third GP after returning and the 1984 title, over Prost, by the wafer-thin margin of 1/2 point (with Prost taking seven wins to Lauda’s five). Finally giving in to the years, Lauda retired for good with 25 GP wins after the 1985 season.
Since retiring once and for all Lauda has successfully founded an airline served as a consultant to Ferrari and Schumacher during the second resurgence of Scuderia in 1998-2004, and now holds a senior position with the Mercedes AMG Petronas team in which he is widely credited for persuading Lewis Hamilton to join the team for 2013