Last week Formula 1 and the world of motorsport lost a legend, ambassador, and valuable link to a bygone era with the passing of three-time world champion Niki Lauda.
Sports icons of years past are often romanticized and exaggerated; legend and lore become intertwined and historic sports heroes sometimes undeservedly grow in stature with every year that passes.
But the truth is that Babe Ruth probably wouldn’t call many home run shots against modern pitching, and while this author is inclined to believe that #23 could launch himself from center court over the entire Golden State Warriors squad, if need be, MJ would probably have his hands full.
The thing is though, unlike in the more conventional sports, motorsport has fundamentally changed through the decades. Prominent Drivers’ of the mid-twentieth century really were a different breed.
Niki Lauda learned to race and rose to motorsport prominence in an era when death lurked around every corner, and the cars were a perilous combination of wickedly difficult to drive and not protective. (Note head exposure as compared to a modern F1 car.)
Today’s F1 stars have plenty of engineering complexity to contend with to be sure, and prodigious driving skill remains a requirement, but the drivers’ relationships with their cars and the race track is not nearly as precarious.
The first of Lauda’s three F1 world championships was won with Ferrari in 1975. The following year he finished second in the championship and then captured another World Drivers’ Championship in 1976.
After retiring from F1 in 1979, Lauda staged a comeback and secured a seat with McLaren in 1982. In 1984 he claimed his final world title, besting teammate and four-time world champion Alain Prost in the process. The third world championship demonstrated Lauda’s adaptability and multigenerational driving talent.
Perhaps even more well-known and popularized than his three world championships is Lauda’s 1976 Nurburgring crash and incredible return.
Despite his own warnings and vocal opposition to the Nurburgring as an acceptable F1 track, Lauda suited up for the race in 1976. On lap two he was involved in a fiery crash that was nearly his demise, leaving him visibly and permanently burned and scarred.
After lapsing into a coma following the crash, then opting for only rudimentary reconstructive surgery to restore eyelid function, Lauda returned to the F1 grid some five weeks later.
The 1976 crash and recovery is an oversimplification of Lauda as a racing driver and a man, but so acutely captures his renowned determination and tenacity.
Niki’s aptitude for motorsport and lasting influence is on display to this day. His fingerprints are all over the modern juggernaut that is the Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, and Lauda was also instrumental in recruiting Lewis Hamilton to the team. That recruitment has resulted in four World Drivers’ Championships for Hamilton and five Constructors’ Championships for the team to date. (One more of each appears to be in the works this year.)
With Lauda’s passing, we’ve lost a true legend and hugely valuable connection to a different racing era. The safety innovations and technological advancements of modern motorsport are categorically good things, but all of that progress only enhances the deep appreciation for the drivers who persevered through much more difficult circumstances.
Lauda typifies the bravery, determination, and skill that was once required to be a world champion motorsport driver. He will be missed.
“A lot of people criticize Formula 1 as an unnecessary risk. But what would life be like if we only did what is necessary?
– Niki Lauda