The following is an excerpt from the new book: “Niki Lauda: His Competition History,” by Jon Saltinstall. The hardcover book contains 375 pages and 500 photos and is available for pre-order from The RACER Store. Click here for more information.
From the introduction…
For those with little more than a passing interest in the history of Formula 1 motor racing, Niki Lauda is the man who survived a near-fatal conflagration at the Nurburgring in 1976 and came back to win the World Championship a year later, having lost out to James Hunt following the accident.
Those concerned with the history of the sport in a little more depth know of him as the teenager who started racing against the wishes of his family, bought a March works drive, wheedled his way into BRM and, having shown his mettle there, got the call from Ferrari just when things were on the up and was able to shape a winning team around him. A man who turned his back on the Scuderia (after two world titles) much as Enzo Ferrari had done to him following the accident, went to Brabham in a big-money deal with Bernie Ecclestone, then walked away from the sport and went off to run his own airline. A man who then came out of retirement two years later and took a third world title before retiring for good, but stayed close to the sport with roles as a TV presenter and a team principal.
But a closer analysis of Lauda’s career on a race-by-race basis reveals a lot more than this. It shows a man who was always fiercely assured of his own capabilities, but who from the earliest days had a level of self-control and racecraft that would epitomize his career. He had a well-developed awareness of the sport’s risks – he got out of Formula 3 in the last year of its ‘screamer’ era as he found it inhabited by madmen – but was as quick as anyone on the great unsanitized road circuits at Spa, Brno and the Nürburgring; indeed, he holds the outright Formula 1 and touring car lap records for the Nordschleife.
He was a versatile all-rounder who won hillclimbs on alpine mountains and grass-roots ‘Flugplatzrennen’ on concrete airfields, who competed successfully in Group 6 sports prototypes and who was acknowledged as one of the best touring car drivers of his day. In Formula 2 and later Formula 1 he had to measure himself against a teammate who was regarded at the time as the fastest in the business, Ronnie Peterson, and he emerged also with a reputation as a great test and development driver. In 1979, while enduring a season in one of the least reliable Formula 1 cars of his career, he had the motivation and competitiveness in more equal machinery to win the concurrent Procar Championship.
His status as the definitive ‘comeback king’ stands up not just in the context of his return to racing after his Nurburgring accident in 1976, but perhaps, more significantly, in his return to the cockpit after retiring from the sport in 1979. Few other drivers have delivered championships in different eras, let alone after having a two-year hiatus when they did not compete at all. Formula 1 in the 1980s was a very different sport from the one it had been in the 1970s, requiring a step-change in driving style and technique; Lauda not only adapted to it, he mastered it.
Whether or not his family believed in his abilities as a racing driver, Niki Lauda certainly did. Self-confidence was never an issue for the young Viennese, who built his career entirely independently from the wealthy background into which he was born. Living on his wits and his undoubted street-wise intelligence, he later said that in the beginning he was always one car ahead of his career (and his bank account); the one he was actually racing at any one time had not yet been paid for.
The foundation for his first racing season is a story that has entered motor racing folklore. In late-night high jinks on an icy road, he wrote off a Mini belonging to school friend Peter Draxler’s father, then bought the wreck for 38,000 schillings that he borrowed from his grandmother, and almost immediately part-exchanged it for a full-blown two-year-old Group 2 racing Austin Mini Cooper S from state champion Fritz Baumgartner. Baumgartner hit it off with the forthright youngster and helped him reassemble the Mini’s 1,275cc engine in the garage of the Lauda residence, Niki’s parents having been persuaded that he was merely looking after the machine for a friend and that working on it would help him develop his engineering skills. His ability to talk his way out of trouble was already well-developed…
Listed in the program as ‘A.N. Lauder’, the young Austrian’s first motorsport event was the Bad Muhllacken hillclimb, organized by the Motorsportclub Rottenegg. He took part in his ex-Baumgartner Mini that he and the car’s former owner had fettled to deliver some 100hp. The purchase price had included a few exploratory laps at the Semperit tire company’s Kottingbrunn test track, where, to the surprise of the Mini’s vendor, Lauda had immediately found the ideal line, showing none of the hasty overexcitement so often displayed by newcomers.
Baumgartner, one of the quickest touring car drivers in Austria at the time, was impressed, but cautioned the youngster that as these few laps represented his only experience of the car, for his first competitive outing he should use no more than 8,000rpm rather than the 9,000rpm the engine would accept.
Lauda surprised more experienced drivers at Bad Muhllacken with his self-discipline as he dutifully stuck to his self-imposed speed limit to avoid overreaching himself – and also to avoid incurring any damage that he could ill afford to pay for. A clean, steady first ascent was good enough for third quickest time. Using another 500rpm, his second run was fastest outright and gave him second place on aggregate in his class, 1.5 seconds adrift of the overall victor. He reflected later that he could have gone quicker; the car still had something to spare.