Niki Lauda: Sports Greatest Comeback
When the question is asked "what is sports greatest ever comeback?" you might hear some familiar answers, Tiger Woods at this years Masters, Muhammad Ali after years in the boxing wilderness or maybe Hermann Maier at the 98 Winter Olympics. However, in terms of sheer determination, willingness to never give up and the ability to battle physical and mental torture, Niki Lauda's comeback after his horrific crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix stands above them all.
After the sudden passing of Niki Lauda today at the age of 70 many have been reflecting on what was Lauda's most traumatic experience on a circuit but one that cemented his legacy as one of the sports greatest ever drivers.
The day was 1st August 1976. Dominating the season is his classic Ferrari 312T, Lauda was pipped to pole over the 14 mile circuit by his fierce rival James Hunt. Starting 2nd and with the circuit damp, Lauda opted for wet tyres while everyone around him decided that the drying circuit required dry tyres. His rivals were correct. Lauda made a horror start, falling down the field while cars overtook him fast.
Admitting defeat on their bold strategy, Lauda pitted for dries and started work on making a formidable comeback through the field. However, cold tyres on a still damp circuit was the recipe for disaster awaiting Lauda. Coming towards Bergwerk, Lauda lost control, spinning wildly into the barrier, his helmet immediately flying off. The car caught flame as fuel poured from his Ferrari but Lauda remained in the cockpit trapped.
Burning and with little hope of escaping alone, fellow drivers Harald Ertl, Guy Edwards and Brett Lunger all came to his rescue, but it was mainly thanks to Arturo Merzario, who pulled him out of the flaming cockpit who saved the Austrian's life. However, Lauda was in a very serious condition, partly due to the horrific burns causing damage to the right side of his head and face, but because of the poisonous fumes he had inhaled that might have proved lethal.
In the hospital and with little chance of survival, Lauda made a miraculous recovery, only spending 7 days in the ward he was destined to die in. Travelling towards a specialist burns unit to start work repairing the severe damage to his head and face, it was believed that Lauda had cheated death but would no longer be able to race, the severity of his injuries causing Lauda to end his racing career.
But those should never have doubted the will of Lauda. After a series of operations to repair his eyelids, as well as repair the damage caused by smoke and debris in his lungs, Lauda announced just six weeks later that he would compete at that years Italian Grand Prix. Sporting bandages caused by the burns to his scalp, forehead and right ear, Lauda returned.
Shaken by fear, doubt and the eyes of the world Lauda began the Grand Prix poorly. Starting 5th on the grid Lauda started to fall down the field, mentally unable to compete at the level he knew he could perform. It seemed that as he fought his Ferrari around the famous Monza circuit, Lauda had returned far too early. But as the race wore on the magic reappeared, the Austrian gaining confidence and began to work his way back up the field to finish a superb 4th, arguably overshadowing the achievements of Peterson, Regazzoni and Laffite.
It was a miracle Lauda came back to drive, his sheer determination and willingness to fight his way back meant that the Austrian only lost the drivers championship by 1 point to his rival and dear friend James Hunt. Both will be remembered, but Lauda's recovery, his belief he could compete, battling against the odds and fighting mental and physical torture, ensures that the Austrian's comeback will be forever known as the greatest of all time.
Niki Lauda (1949-2019)