Reliving Niki Lauda’s incredible story

I woke up this morning to learn that one of my superheroes is dead. Rest in peace, Niki Lauda - I know I am not alone is shedding a little tear this morning — you influenced my generation like few others…

Back in the ‘70s following racing was a bit more difficult than it is today — seeking out French short wave radio stations, sifting out the static and trying to figure it out what they were saying in French, waiting for the Radio Highveld news every hour and Autosport airmail ten days after the fact (or wait a month for it in the shop) was how we got the news.

I first saw Niki Lauda at the SAGP in that funny old March he raced, then the BRM and then he drove for Ferrari. They called him the Rat, but he and Clay Regazzoni were our ultimate heroes back then — our gods, so when Niki drove that B3 to his first win in Spain the race after such a disappointing outing at Kyalami, we went dilly. That was the first Ferrari win in a while — longer than the current drought. 

I was fortunate enough to be in the Ferrari pit box in ’75, ’76 and ‘77, so pretty close to the action and I'll never forget that ’76 SAGP win — don’t think we’d ever been that excited! Niki went on to win the championship for us that year — the Rat became the King!

Then came that dreadful Sunday afternoon. At first we could not understand what that Frenchman was saying from the Nurburgring as we huddled over the Hallicrafter SW radio set, but it was clear the news was not good. It wasn’t, Niki was fighting for his life. 

But he was back in Italy three races later and then drove into the pits in Japan to allow James Hunt to steal that title in Japan. All very well chronicled stuff we had the extreme privilege of living out live. Ecstasy surrounded Niki’s ’77 SA Grand Prix win — sadly tempered by the Top Pryce tragedy — that up and down so typical of the Niki Lauda story. 

My cousin Massimo and I had bunked school as we did every year (with the help of our dads!) for the two weeks leading up to that ’77 SAGP and we manned Ferrari’s Heuer speed trap at the end of the straight before sitting at pit wall doing the team’s lap chart in the race — an incredible time for two South African schoolboys, but Niki Lauda made it heavenly for us.

Of course Niki abducted to Brabham-Alfa with that second, incredible world championship in pocket and retired a year or two later to run his airline, only to return a couple of years later — lo and behold with the enemy McLaren. He took five wins en route to his third title on the third year of his return and won his last race at Zandvoort before retiring for good after ’85.

Niki returned to F1 as a consultant to Ferrari in ’93, popped up again as Jaguar’s F1 manager in 2001 and then had a stint as an F1 commentator in typical controversial Niki Lauda style, before being appointed non-executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 Team, where he was instrumental in engineering the success of that team’s F1 present dominance.

In spite of his incredible comeback from the brink of death and living life to the full ever since, it was that fiery Nurburgring accident that ultimately claimed Lauda's life — his lungs never fully recovered and despite a 2018 transplant, Lauda’s health ebbed in recent months leading to his passing on 20 May.

Rest in peace King Rat — thank you for the thrills.