The man that saved Ferrari…These are the first words that came in mind when you heard about Niki Lauda, “The computer”. He was fast, tough in the head, a great, straight political animal and a hard working guy that amazed team mate Regazzoni sufficiently so to put a few good words as he prepared to a return to Ferrari following an unsuccessful BRM time.
The so called 312B3 was the fastest thing in 1974 and Niki underlined this by taking 9pole-positions. But his driving was still marred by errors and was somehow savage. The Niki of later would have flourished and taken the world title by the scruff of the neck. This still inexperienced Austrian was emerging as the leader of the post-Stewart era. “Autocourse” ranked him only fifth in their classical top 10 of the season, and here are the reasons why:
“Nine pole-positions in a year when nobody emerged head and shoulders above anyone else is a fantastic achievement itself, but just how superior was the Ferrari over the Ford-engined brigade? That’s really the big question mark hanging over Lauda. How good is he? He is undoubtedly extremely quick and possesses great confidence, but his judgment under duress is open to doubt as Brands Hatch and Nurburgring performances testify. If he can survive the unjustified treatment given by the Italian press, Lauda will continue his climb up the ladder”.
A year later, this errors ironed and armed with the excellent Ferrari 312T he destroyed the field in a clinical manner, reminiscent of Nazarro and Varzistyles. Other nine poles were transformed in 5 wins and a string of podiums. It was the first championship for the Rampant horse since Surtees’s unexpected coronation in 1964.
But an even greater achievement was the way he conducted the team, rounded aside him and with his test track abilities and the help of Mauro Forghieri transformed a car as vain as the 312B2 into a winner. This qualities were unique among his fellow drivers and it will take over 20 years before another driver will match (and eventually surpass) him in this department.
The script of the 1976 season was even better than that in “Rush”. Before that famous Nurburgring crash, Lauda had a 35 points lead over Hunt, who’s Mclaren M23 became the benchmark car of that year. So the title would surely have been his for the second time in succession. As it was, he might still have been crowned had he not considered conditions in the final race at Fuji too dangerous, recent events having given him a fresh perspective on life’s value.
”Life, he said, was more important than being champion.”
Still, his heroic comeback at Monza, only six weeks after the horrific Nordschleife accident must have been the bravest thing ever in Formula 1 history. He wasn’t happy that Ferrari signed Carlos Reuteman during his convalescence because it implied that Scuderia hadn’t fully believed in Niki’s strength to recovery. And also because it opened the door for his close friend Clay Reagazzoni. If anybody thought the Austrian lost his edge, 1977 provided the answer: with a dazzling consistency and a car concept that was getting older he secured title number two, then offered the team a time-honored salute and walked away with two races to go.
Arguably he lost some of his speed and panache but that simply laid bare the colossal scale of his other resources. Now, almost four decades after his Ferrari era, even amongst sport’s greatest, Niki stands as an embodiment of what can be achieved by reserves of human spirit usually untapped.