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King Rat



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XXXIV Monaco GP (30 May 1976)


The Rat at the absolute height of his powers. After his Monaco win Niki was a huge 45 points ahead of the man who would ultimately take the 1976 title from him. 25 years ahead of the second period of Montezemolo success Lauda's performance was very much like the Schumacher World Championship steamroller of the early 21st century. In a season that was fought over on the tracks as well as in the FIA courtrooms between the "old school" McLaren and Ferrari teams (giving many of the followers a sense of deja-vu during the 1999 and 2000 seasons), Ferrari lost an assured title when Lauda crashed out at the "old school" 'Ring. The inferno captured everyone's imagination and while Niki miraculously survived, for years the accident - graphically captured on film - stood out as the single most imposing illustration of the fact that motorsports are dangerous. Moreover, through the crash and Niki's subsequent perseverance the Austrian became the proverbial Grand Prix driver for an entire generation.

First he was known as just the "Rat", later he became the "Super Rat" and finally he reached "King Rat" status. Some drivers seem to be born winners and they come to Formula 1 racing surrounded by a whirl of expectations. Apart from Niki Lauda himself however there could hardly have been many who foresaw a future triple World Champion in the slightly-built young Austrian, when he did his Formula 1 debut at his home GP in 1971. His racing performances during the next seasons hardly changed the mind of that many. However, Niki Lauda would prove to have abilities, not immediately recognizable, but essential for him to become one of the greatest racing drivers ever. We will show those abilities here.

"I was careful not to let education get in the way."
Niki Lauda

Making bold decisions

Andreas-Nikolaus Lauda was the "black sheep" of a wealthy family of Austrian industrialists, who owned a string of paper factories. Born in Vienna on 22 February 1949, the idea of his parents was that Niki should, like the rest of the family, make a career as a business man. However, Niki had other plans. He had made up his mind to become a racing driver.

Niki's performance at school was no success and he ended up a year running errands for a garage before admitting to his father that he was ready for another go at school. By showing a forged school diploma to his family he finally got the money to buy his own car, a VW. The car was soon swapped for a Mini Cooper that he crashed first day out, leaving Lauda with a wreck and £1750 in debts. He managed to get his grandmother to give him the cash needed.

Lauda repaired the car and then swapped it for local racing driver Fritz Baumgartner's race worthy 1300cc Mini Cooper S. Lauda now had his own racing car and another £650 in debts.

Lauda started his first motor race in a hill climb at Mühlbacken on 15 April 1968, a week after Jim Clark's death, and Lauda was 3rd in the first heat and 1st in the second, finishing second overall. Once his father heared about it, he promptly forbade him to ever race again. But nothing could stop Lauda once he had decided to do something and it would be 3 more starts that year in the Cooper and 9 starts in a Porsche 911. Results: 1 victory plus 7 class victories.

In 1969 Lauda's talent had earned him a factory ride in the Austro-Kaimann's Formula Vee team. He did 13 Formula V races, mostly in central Europe. Score: 2 victories and 4 second places.

In 1970 Niki raced in Formula 3 driving for Francis McNamara without too much assessment, a second place at Brünn being the best result. The races he did in a Porsche 908 that he had bought proved more successful, with victories at the Diepholz airfield and at the Martha Grand National race at Österreichring.

In 1971 Lauda managed with his family name to make a deal in an Austrian Bank, the Erste Österreichische Spar-Kasse, to get the £20,000 needed for a F2 contract with March as teammate to Ronnie Peterson. In the first heat of the Rouen GP Lauda was able to challenge Peterson, passing the Swede to take the lead on lap 10 only to be re-passed on the next. Peterson with ignition troubles was unable to shake off Lauda and was on the last lap almost taken by surprise by a late slipstream manoeuvre from the Austrian.

Lauda had lost the heat with just a tenth of a second to the new GP top driver and that must have been enough ensuring for himself to take the final step and sign on for a F1 & F2 season for March in 1972. The deal cost a further £100,000 for Lauda who had to contact the bank for a new loan. But then grandfather Lauda intervened with his bank contacts and managed to break the sponsor deal pulling the carpet from Niki. When Niki realized the fact he broke his contacts with the family, never talking with his grandfather again. Finally Lauda was able to borrow the money from another bank.

"For me it was undrivable."
Niki Lauda about the March 721X

Making fast and correct analysis

The idea for 1972 was to learn from Peterson and then with some good drives take some points and make enough a favourable impression for the big teams to become interested in a 1973 deal. During the first tests with the new F1 car Lauda complained that he found it undrivable. However, Peterson thought the car was OK and the team was convinced they were on the right way. However, that was not to be. The March 721X proved to be a catastrophe, and by mid season the team was forced to replace the car with the 721G, a rebuilt F2. Lauda did manage to win the minor British John Player F2 series. And he also came to realize that even top drivers like Peterson were not infallible and that Lauda's initial conclusions about the car had been right after all.

Lauda had done his most packed season ever with starts in F1, F2, Endurance and Touring cars. He had made enough earnings in the lesser classes to pay off £20,000 of his loan but was still in debts of £80,000 and he had no contract for 1973. March had by now realized that Lauda was an excellent test driver but was only offering him a test driver contract in F2.

"It was madness."
Niki Lauda

Sticking to decisions

Somehow Lauda managed to become invited for a BRM test at Paul Richard. During the tests he was fast enough to get a contract as third driver for the team in 1973, beating Vern Schuppan to the deal. It was the beginning of a four year period as teammate to Clay Regazzoni, a man Lauda found to be easygoing and friendly.

The problem was that once again Lauda had to pay for the drive. He had to pretend that he had a deal with a major sponsor and managed to live from day to day with money from another £80,000 loan and what he was able to earn from racing touring cars for BMW team Alpina. Lauda realized that it would be nearly impossible to honour the pay-by-race deal unless something extraordinary happened.

The start of the F1 season was hard as the team concentrated their efforts on Regazzoni and Beltoise leaving Lauda to struggle with an inferior car. The situation was precarious, the money was no more. Then, in the last second, when Lauda's career as a racing driver seemed to be over, came the break. In the Monaco GP Lauda qualified sixth and fastest of the BRM drivers and then during the race he held third position in front of Ickx' Ferrari before having to retire with gearbox troubles. After the race Lauda got a new contract from Stanley, committing Lauda to BRM for a further two years. From now on Lauda was to get paid to drive.

Just as important was the fact that Enzo Ferrari, who had seen the race on TV, had been impressed by the Austrian's racing style. Lauda did some other good performances during the season, notably in Canada where he took the lead and opened up an early 20 second gap, taking the advantage of the Firestone wet weather tyres. A good result in the confusing race was destroyed when the BRM team gave him a new set of rain tyres instead of slicks during the pit stop. However, by 1973 BRM was a team in regression and Lauda ended up the season with a total of only 2 points.

Late 1973 Ferrari made up his mind about his second driver for 1974, Lauda or Jarier, and bought out Lauda of his BRM contract.

Niki Lauda: "The car is a disaster."
The interpretor: "You cannot say that!"

Technical ability

For Lauda coming to Ferrari was like coming to another world. With the resources available, it amazed Lauda that the team did not win every single race they entered. Soon he started to understand the system of Scuderia Ferrari, where all information was sent upwards from man to man to finally reach Enzo Ferrari himself. Then the orders what to do went the other way. Lauda realized the disadvantages of the system as no one dared to send uncomfortable information upwards. And Lauda also soon found out the way to shortcut the system. The first thing needed for him was to learn to speak Italian. Then he did what no driver had ever imagined to do before. After each practice session he stepped into Ferrari's office and talked directly with Il Commendatore himself.

Ferrari had signed Regazzoni as first driver but as soon as Lauda got to put his test driving abilities to good use, he proved to be the quicker of the two. It could have been a difficult situation in some teams, but Regazzoni did not make any trouble, a thing Lauda appreciated and never forgot. Regazzoni was used to the way Ferrari worked and was just glad that he was back in an winning team.

There were many reasons why Scuderia Ferrari made a comeback to the top in the mid 70s, but Lauda was the key element that made all wills pulling in the same direction. Soon results started to show, Lauda took his first F1 pole at the South African GP and at the Spanish GP, after a fast tyre change by the team, Lauda took his first GP victory with Regazzoni behind him making it a Ferrari 1-2.

Lauda also managed to win the Dutch GP but the British GP was to be the turning point of the season. A victory would have put Lauda into a quite comfortable 10 points lead in the championship, but on the penultimate lap while in the lead he had a tyre failure. Then Lauda was prevented from leaving the pit by crowds in the pitlane. After long arguments he was finally awarded a fifth place. After that nothing seemed to go right. Five DNFs pushed Lauda back to fourth in the final championship order. However, during the season he had taken nine poles and had proved to be the man to beat.

If things had been problematic in later parts of the 1974 season then 1975 was the year when everything worked. After starting off with last year's car, Ferrari introduced the new transversale gearboxed Ferrari 312T in the South African GP. That car proved to be a winner. The result for Lauda was 5 victories (Monaco, Zolder, Anderstorp, Le Castellet, Watkins Glen), from 9 pole positions in 14 races, enough to give Lauda his first World Championship.

"There are more important things to me than the World Championship."
Niki Lauda


The story about the 1976 season is one of the greatest legends in Formula 1 racing; how Lauda dominated the early part of the season, winning at Interlagos, Kyalami, Jarama, Zolder, Monaco and Brands Hatch, only to have a horrible accident at Bergwerk during the German GP. The Nürburgring car (chassis 028) was never properly investigated. Possibly the crash was caused by a component failure in the left rear suspension after Niki had run hard over a kerb earlier.

From near death caused by breathing toxic fumes Lauda returned to racing just six weeks later to fight off his fears and take an incredible fourth place in the Italian GP. Then at the final GP in Japan, raced in appalling conditions, Lauda took the bold decision to retire from the race on the second lap, taking the chance that Hunt wouldn't finish higher than 5th. It almost paid off.

In a season of open hostility between Ferrari and McLaren it is to the credit of Lauda and Hunt that they came to respect each other as drivers and only once during that season came to a short verbal fight (through the papers).

The points score Lauda/Hunt in 1976 looked like this, race by race:

Brazil: 9-0
South Africa: 18-6
Long Beach: 24-6
Spain 33-6
Belgium: 42-6
Monaco 51-6
Sweden: 55-8
France: 55-17
FIA Court of appeal: 52-26 (Spain)
Britain: 58-35
Germany: 58-44
Austria: 58-47
Netherlands: 58-56 Italy: 61-56
FIA Court of appeal: 64-47 (Britain)
Canada: 64-56
Watkins Glen: 68-65
Japan: 68-69

The Nürburgring accident and his comeback within a few weeks made Lauda probably the most famous racing driver ever. Ferrari really did not know what to do with Lauda, especially after the Japanese GP. It was never in Ferrari's plans that Lauda should do a fast return, and Ferrari had already prepared to write off the 1976 season, declaring themselves as "moral winners" defeated by faith and had signed Reutemann as a replacement almost immediately after the accident.

Fortunately for Lauda, Ferrari had insisted him to sign a contract for 1977 before the accident occurred, but he was firmly told that he would be second driver from now on. Niki couldn't stand his new teammate, Carlos Reutemann, "a cold, unappetizing character". It was a sinister atmosphere in the team when the 1977 season started off.

Niki raced, wrestled back the position as first driver in the team and won the world championship for the second time by winning at Kyalami, Hockenheim and Zandvoort plus six second places. Then Niki refused to do another race for Ferrari and signed for Bernie Ecclestone and Brabham instead.

Everything looked good on the paper for 1978. However, there proved to be two problems, the speed of Lotus wing cars and the troubles with the Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine. The engine accounted for several of Lauda's uncharacteristic nine retirements that year. In 1978 Brabham is of course mostly remembered by Gordon Murray's genius fan car. Introduced at the Swedish GP Lauda and Watson did a lot of sandbagging during both practice and race to hide the car's enormous superiority over the rest of the field. Now, 24 years later, one could of course ask if the fan car idea was that more in conflict with the "spirit of the rules" than the turbos introduced a year earlier. But once the BT46B was forbidden to race again, Brabham's challenge was over and CSI had more or less handed the championship to Lotus. Apart from Anderstorp Niki's only other victory came in controversial circumstances at the Italian GP.

"I'm fed up with driving round in circles."
Niki Lauda

Knowing when to call it a day

1979 was the year with the radical but unsuccessful Brabham BT48 wing car. After a catastrophic season Niki at last managed to win at the non-championship Imola GP. During that season, Lauda instead took great joy in the new BMW M1 Procar series, racing for Ron Dennis' Project 4 team, and taking the Procar Championship with victories at Monaco, Silverstone and Hockenheim.

During practice for the Canadian GP Niki tested the new Brabham-Cosworth. Niki had raced V12s since 1973 and for him the noise of the Cosworth was boring, possibly reminding him of the troublesome 1972. He jumped out of the car and said to Ecclestone that he wanted to retire, there and then. In a hurry onlooker Ricardo Zunino was drafted in to replace Niki.

While the Brabham years were hardly any success there is no doubt that the team could lean on the fundamental work made by Lauda in the great years to come. There had been lacklustre performances but also races like Monaco 1978, where Lauda after a puncture just went for it and in possibly his most inspired driving performance ever just cut through the field with the wide Brabham flat-12 sideways in the streets of Monaco, racing faster than he had done during qualifying to retake his second position. That was a driving performance of the higher school.

"I considered Ferrari but by this time I had outgrown the Ferrari fee structures."
Niki Lauda about 1985

The business deals

Just before the start of the 1977 season Niki's sponsor Römerquelle told him more or less straight out that one couldn't expect more than half the sponsorship if one had just half the face left. It was too late to find a new sponsor so Lauda raced on with Römerquelle on his helmet. But it was an event that would make sponsors and team owners cry for years to come. Niki by now knew his value and if he had been hard in negotiations earlier, he would from now on never take any prisoners when making deals.

Niki was the first driver to reach the £1 million mark. He is also one of the few people who can claim to have got the better of Bernard Ecclestone. When Lauda told Bernie what fee he expected for the 1979 season, Bernie answered: "There's no way I'm paying that." Then Lauda immediately contacted Parmalat and asked whether they preferred to sponsor Lauda or Brabham in the future, as it seemed they would be unable to do both. After hearing the answer from Parmalat Bernie gave in, gave Lauda a nasty look and signed. Lauda stuck with Parmalat as a sponsor for 25 years.

In 1981 he could say to Ron Dennis, when again asking for more money than any driver had ever earned before. "You'll be paying just one dollar for my driving ability, all the rest is for my personality." It is interesting and typical of Lauda that he thus managed to turn the Nürburgring accident to his own advantage.

"There are no chequered flags in the real world."
Niki Lauda

Challenging the system

In 1974 Lauda was given a lift in a Cessna. It was the start of Lauda's interest for flying. As usual once interested Niki was determined to go the full way, he started off with a pilot license and then advanced to finally qualify to pilot a full passenger jet airliner.

In 1978 he founded Lauda Air. Starting off with two Fokker F27 Friendships, Lauda had imagined cooperation between his company and Austrian Airlines. However, Austrian Airlines proved to be a jealous and intolerant opponent with deep connections in the Austrian Ministry of Transport and an interest to keep absolute monopoly with sheer power politics. Just as Niki earlier had shortcut the system at Ferrari, he once again went for the very top, in this case in an open letter to Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. In the meantime he leased the Fokkers to Egypt Air.

In August 1982 the enemy hit back and tried to revoke the Lauda Air license on "economic grounds". Fortunately someone "leaked" before the ministry was able to send the orders and Lauda managed in the last second to reach Chancellor Kreisky and save his license.

"I know that people pay a fortune for antiques nowadays, but this is ridiculous!"
An Italian F1 driver, early 1982

The Phoenix

South Africa 1982 and Niki Lauda was back in Formula 1 with a bang (and with a new white helmet design). John Barnard's promising MP4 had to be sorted out and Niki Lauda was the man for the job but he had not come cheap. Lauda had made a great effort to come back in shape with the assistant of "health guru" Willy Dungl, a man Niki had met in 1976 after Niki had crashed a tractor, breaking a rib.

However, at Kyalami the main attention regarding Lauda wasn't to be about his driving ability. Niki had obviously learned a lot from his fight with Austrian Airlines and immediately saw the troubles with the new super license application he was supposed to sign: "I could envisage transfer fees like in soccer, and all the horse trading and contract buyouts that implied. A veritable paradise for the Bernie Ecclestones of this world."

Lauda immediately contacted Didier Pironi, president of the GPDA. The result: The big driver strike at Kyalami. Racing fans are used to complain about GP racing and its current management, but we can only imagine what kind of farce Formula 1 would have turned into hadn't Lauda been there at the right moment.

Soon Lauda - here seen in the Zandvoort pitlane - showed that he still had the speed and skill. He won the third race that year at Long Beach and also won at Silverstone later that year. Lauda lost four important points in Belgium as excessive tyre and brake wear had made the McLaren 1.5 kg underweight. (Ironically, he had lost in 1976 to a McLaren that was 1.8 cm too wide.) When he then retired from the Italian GP where the car performed miserably, it was the end of his championship hopes.

In 1983, as Michelin was concentrating on the turbo teams, McLaren was to be in serious trouble, especially during qualifying. It all culminated in the double DNQ at a rainy Monaco GP. At Long Beach Lauda finished second to his teammate Watson, the McLaren cars coming through the field from their bottom start positions. The rest of the season is best forgotten.

Lauda pushed hard to let the TAG-Porsche turbo engine be raced as soon as possible, against Barnard's will. Lauda fully understood the troubles with testing too late (as Jaguar were forced to in 2002). As Barnard totally refused to give in, Lauda again used his sponsors as a weapon and convinced Marlboro to put some hard pressure on Ron Dennis. History has shown that Lauda was again right. Without the seven McLaren-TAG starts in 1983 (four for Lauda, three for Watson, with seven retirements as result), we surely would have seen quite another kind of 1984 season.

"He had an unerring instinct for consolidating and developing his position in the team."
Lauda about Prost

As hungry as ever

1984 was a year of new challenges as Prost joined the team. Lauda was prepared for the worst from the Frenchman, but it seems that Prost actually had some kind of respect for Lauda, his idol from the time Prost started racing. The real problems seemed to come from Ron Dennis who turned the whole team behind Prost.

Brazil: Prost wins, Lauda retires with an electric failure Situation: 0-9
South Africa: First Lauda victory of the season. 9-15
Belgium: The low point for McLaren as both retires. Still 9-15
San Marino: Another engine failure for Lauda. 9-24. Looking grim.
France: Second victory. Prost in technical troubles. 18-24.
Monaco: Lauda stalls, Senna shines, Prost scores. 18-28.5
Canada: Piquet and Brabham-BMW turbo reign. 24-32.5
Detroit: Yet another engine failure for Lauda. 24-34.5
Then Tyrrell is disqualified and the situation changes to 24-35.5
Dallas: Lauda hits the wall once and Prost twice. Situation as before.
Britain: Third win for Lauda. Prost retires. Suddenly it is 33-35.5
Germany: Prost leads another McLaren 1-2. Situation: 39-44.5

By the middle of the season Dennis had offered Lauda a new contract for 1985 with half the payment of 1984. Subsequently, Lauda did not hesitate to give Larrousse at Renault a verbal agreement. However, there were elements at Renault who were not keen on the idea and immediately they leaked the news to Ron Dennis. A shaken Lauda now refused to sign on anything before the championship was decided.

Austria. Two hours before the start Dennis demanded Lauda to sign on for half the fee right there or he would take Rosberg instead. Lauda refused and got on to take his first and only home victory while Prost spun off. Lauda took the lead of the championship for the first time.

Situation after Austria: 48-44.5
Netherlands: The third McLaren 1-2 of the season: 54-53.5
Italy: The decisive race. Lauda in pain with a slipped disk takes his fifth victory.
Prost is an early retirement. 63-53.5

Early in September Larrousse told Lauda that the French trade unions were against Lauda racing for Renault and that he couldn't honour the agreement. That left Lauda at the mercy of Ron Dennis. With assistance from Marlboro Lauda finally managed to better the contract and sign for two thirds of the fee.

Nürburgring: A troublesome race for Lauda. 66-62.5

No one can hesitate about which driver Dennis preferred to be the champion. With Lauda it would be a Lauda victory over McLaren, while with Prost it would be a McLaren championship. There were incidents at the last race of the season when Lauda's car "happened" to have an electrical failure at a critical moment during practice and that someone in the McLaren team "happened" to open a box with "Prost is the 1984 champion" posters and hang them on the walls in the pit. However, while Prost was notably nervous, Lauda was immune to that kind of psychological war. Final results: 72-71.5 and a third championship to Lauda.

"Ron Dennis congratulates me and says how pleased he is. I don't believe him for a minute."
Niki Lauda

Keeping the calm in adverse winds

During the 1985 season there was much speculation whether Ron Dennis would be taking his revenge on Lauda. Lauda himself says that it is nonsense and that the team naturally concentrated their efforts on Prost. Possibly he is right or then it just proves that Niki cares less about such things than his fans. Whatever the reason, in the first ten races of the season Lauda had technical troubles with the car every time.

In the 11th race at Zandvoort however everything finally worked and Lauda raced as in the old days, surely knowing that it could be his last ever chance for a victory. Not even the fact that the team "happened" to give him wrong tyres during the pitstop could hinder "King Rat" that day and he took the chequered flag after an incredibly hard six-lap duel with Prost where the cars were high up on the kerbs and sometimes up in the grass.

At the Austrian GP Lauda held a press conference about his retirement. Ron Dennis invited himself to the conference and made a complete fool of himself, refusing to acknowledge any of Lauda's efforts for the team during the past four years.

The Australian GP at Adelaide, 3 November 1985, was Lauda's last race and after a cautious start he moved up the field to take the lead before his brakes failed and Lauda ended up against the wall.

"Reverser's deployed!"
Flight officer Josef Turner

In search of perfectionism

Step by step Lauda wore down the obstructive Austrian bureaucracy to begin jet operations with two leased BAC 1-11s in 1985. In May 1986 the company applied for licenses for flying Boeing 767 on international scheduled flights. In 1988, after 18 months of tireless work, Lauda finally got the necessary papers to fly 737-300s, 737-400s and 767-300s to Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South and Central America. Being a small company Niki aimed to use high standard as a weapon against the competition. "Service is our success" became the motto of Lauda Air and it fulfilled it excellently.

The worst seemed to be over. Lauda Air prospered and Niki was selected "Man of the Year" by a leading Austrian business magazine. Then, on May 26, 1991, came the catastrophe as the less than two years old Lauda Air Boeing 767 "Wolfgang Mozart" mysteriously crashed into the Thailand jungle soon after leaving Bangkok with 223 passengers and 10 crew members. There were no survivors. For Lauda, who once again was at the center of media attention this time as he was walking around debris in the jungle, it was a hard blow. He planned to quit the aviation industry altogether if Lauda Air was found culpable. His philosophy that keeping the highest quality and close attention to details would minimize the risks had failed.

After much talk about sabotage the investigation proved that the reason had been that the port engine reverser had deployed during the flight making the plane to turn sharply left and break up, a situation comparable to a racing driver at full speed changing from top gear straight into reverse. Exactly why the computer had given the engine the order to reverse was never fully explained, but the fact that errors in the construction had allowed the computer to override the safety systems made Boeing do some major changes to the 767s.

Perhaps the great magic of flying was over for Niki. It surely cannot be by accident that the next year he was seen back in the GP circus, this time as a consultant to Ferrari.

"The reason I spun is because Pedro told me where to brake."
Niki Lauda

Finding new challenges

Austrian Airlines had not forgotten nor forgiven. In November 2000 the company had managed to buy themselves the major shareholding of Lauda Air from Lufthansa and then forced Lauda out: "The two guys running Austrian were government people who think only of unions and bureaucracy. I couldn't stop it so I resigned."

Lauda was now back in Formula 1 for real. His next challenge was to get to grips with the troublesome Jaguar team. In the position as Jaguar Racing boss he did not hesitate to get back behind the wheel of a F1 car (at Valencia in Spain, doing a lap time of 1.29.481) to try and get a better understanding of the problems of the team.

So far Lauda has failed to deliver and criticism is increasing. However Lauda appears to thrive on crisis, and it isn't entirely impossible that he will be able to come out on top yet again. Time will tell.

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