The motorsports world is saddened by news of the passage of Niki Lauda at age 70 of complication from the damage done to his internal organs as a result of his fiery crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix. He had been World Champion driving for Ferrari the year prior and was on track to repeat had it not for his horrific accident at the Nürburgring.
Grit and Determination
Despite his extensive injuries, he returned to the cockpit just six weeks later and lost the 1976 World Driver’s Championship to James Hunt by just one point as he abandoned the Japanese Grand Prix after two laps due to the monsoon conditions, clearly stating that the it was insane to race in those conditions. Four other highly-experienced drivers withdrew because of the conditions as well, including fellow World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
In 1978 Niki Lauda moved over to Brabham, then retired in 1979, but returned a few years later to drive for McLaren, winning his third World Championship in 1984. Interestingly, the change in attitude among officials toward racing in the rain benefited his teammate that year, Alain Prost, at Monaco, but that’s a story for another day.
But those are the facts about Lauda that most of you reading this already know. Here in the office, the only comparison we could come up with is A.J. Foyt, both tough, intimidating, uncompromising, and ruthless straightforward.
Niki Lauda: Touring Car Ace
What many are not aware of, and may be of greatest interest to readers of TURNology, is that Niki Lauda raced production car-based Touring Cars in Europe early in his career, not only posting an impressive series of results but also providing photographers with some of the best action shots of the era. Lauda saw Touring Cars as a means to an end. Heavily indebted by having to buy seats with March and BRM, he needed the starting money drivers were paid in those days to help boost the gate at Touring Car races.
24 Hours of Nurburgring
In an interview with the DTM (Deutsche Touring Masters) Magazine, Lauda was asked about his experiences in Touring Cars. One of his most impressive results came at the wheel of a Jägermeister-sponsored BMW-Alpina 3.0 CSL. He told the DTM Magazine “There was a stunning race, the 1973 Nürburgring 24-Hour Race I contested together with Hans-Peter Joisten. I’m charging around in this car and set exactly the same lap times on three consecutive laps. No joke. Exactly the same lap times, up to the tenth of a second. They were totally wowed to see that it’s possible to do so at the very limit, at the Nürburgring.”
What was even more amazing is the outcome of the race. Lauda admits he was inexperienced and drove the car off the track in the first corner and hit the wall breaking the seat loose from it’s mounting. Lauda takes up the story “I jump out, re-erect the seat, back behind the wheel and drive to the pits. The car was repaired (and) at the end of the day we won the race. In spite of the accident.” Lauda still holds the lap record he set in the 1973 race for normally-aspirated production-based race cars at 8:39.6 on the original 14.189 mile circuit (which we’re told would be around a 7:45 on today’s Nordschielfe – not bad for a 45 year-old race car on 1973 technology tires).
Practical and Pragmatic
Lauda was well-known for his pragmatism in Formula 1, but he demonstrated that early in his career as well. The owner of the two-car BMW team for whom he was driving felt the drivers had built up enough of a lead so that he could call them in for a pit stop to wash the cars before a staged one-two finish for their sponsor. Conscious of the risks of any pit stop, Lauda dissuaded him of the idea and the dirty cars finished one-two.
Factory Ford and Ferrari Anger
His outings in the privately-entered BMWs lead to a contract in 1974 with the factory Ford team, running Capris powered by 462 horsepower V6 engines with DOHC four valve per cylinder heads developed by Cosworth, The contract with Ford was signed before his negotiations with Ferrari were completed. Knowing the animosity in which Ferrari held Ford, it was a constant irritant for Enzo, though he wanted Lauda badly for his F1 team. According to Lauda “Enzo seethed with anger but just had to accept that the deal existed. And at the end of the day, he allowed me to contest the races. But the discussions were exhausting.” Needless to say, after breaking Ferrari’s 22 race losing streak Lauda no longer had to run Touring Car races for extra cash.
Comparing Touring Cars of the past to Touring Cars of the Present
So how did Niki Lauda compare the Touring Cars of his day to those modern DTM cars his son was driving at the time? “In my racing days, touring cars were real touring cars. (3,000 lb.) vehicles with a lot of power, but no(t) racing cars. While today’s DTM cars are on an absolute top level when it comes to the technology … they just don’t handle as a Touring Car. Remember the old times when Frank Gardner was famous for taking the front wheel of his Lotus Ford Cortina one meter up into the air. Furthermore, there were all these Abarths, racing only on three wheels, all the time.”
Lauda then summarized his Touring Car career thus: “In the Touring Car events, I was able to demonstrate my skills. But when I moved to Ferrari, the Ford deal came close to representing a handicap. And then, with all the testing and the commitment I had to display, my own logic told me to stop racing these touring cars. After all, there also was the risk of getting involved in an accident. But first of all, it deflected (my) focus from Formula 1. So, I have to say that you could do it when starting your career. But not when fighting flat out for the title. Then, it was just impossible.”
Our sincerest condolences to the family, friends, associates, and the millions of Niki Lauda fans around the world. He was singular and he will be missed.