Before the Production: Dawn of a Rivalry
In 1975, Austrian racer Niki Lauda drove to the
Formula 1 (commonly known as F1) world title in a
Ferrari-powered car, ending a seven-year reign by Ford.
Lauda's run to the top set the stage for the dramatic
1976 season in which our story is told.
The early stages of the 1976 racing season gave no
indication as to the incredible drama that would unfold
between two of racing's fiercest competitors. Defending
champion Lauda of Ferrari drove to six victories in
the season's first nine races, capturing the top prize
at Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, Monaco and Great
Britain. Lauda also earned a spot on the podium as
runner-up in the Spanish and the United States Grands
Prix and made it to a third-place finish in Sweden.
By the midway point of the season (eight
races), Lauda and Ferrari had built up a seemingly
insurmountable lead in the point standings, more than
doubling the total of their nearest competitor. While
Lauda dominated, James Hunt -- the driver who would
ultimately emerge as his greatest rival -- struggled for
the most part. In his first year with Team McLaren, he
failed to finish four of the season's first six races.
Controversy even haunted Hunt in victory. Although
he beat Lauda to the finish line in the season's fourth
race, the Spanish Grand Prix, officials disqualified
Hunt after the race -- ruling that his Marlboro McLaren-Ford M23 was too wide. McLaren protested on the
grounds that the discrepancy was due to the expansion
of the tires during the race. McLaren eventually won
its appeal, but only after two months of haggling were
Hunt's points reinstated.
Hunt claimed victory at the French Grand Prix
(Race No. 8), when Lauda was forced to retire due to
engine trouble. At that point, it was the only race that
the Austrian had failed to finish.
Following his triumph in France, Hunt returned
home a hero to compete in the British Grand Prix at
Brands Hatch. However, Lauda disappointed the British
faithful as he won the pole and led throughout the first
half of the race. When Lauda experienced gearbox
troubles with only 15 minutes left, Hunt took the lead
and sent the home crowd into a frenzy. Hunt went on to
victory, and Lauda held on for second.
But controversy would again slap Hunt in the face.
The British Grand Prix was finished after a restart on
the first lap. Clay Regazzoni, Lauda's Ferrari teammate,
immediately challenged Lauda. Their cars touched.
Regazzoni spun and was hit by Hunt and
Jacques Laffite. Although the remainder
of the field passed by safely, the debris
on the track necessitated a restart.
Hunt had jumped into his team's
spare car for the restart, as did Laffite
and Regazzoni, although they were
forced to retire. After the race, Ferrari
and two other teams protested Hunt's
win in a backup machine. McLaren
maintained that, since no lap had been
completed, the restart rules did not
apply. F1's governing body upheld the
protest, stripped Hunt of the victory
and promoted Lauda to first place.
Heading into the 10th race of the season, the
German Grand Prix, Hunt had inched slightly
closer to Lauda in the point standings but remained
a whopping 23 points behind, with seven races re-
maining. Lauda still seemed a sure-fire bet to win his
second straight title.
All that changed in Germany.
Although F1 began introducing greater safety
innovations in the 1960s, the measures were often
outpaced by technological advancements that allowed
the cars to go faster. In its first 56 years of the sport,
driver fatalities had averaged nearly three per year.
From 1967 to 1975, a total of 13 F1 drivers lost their
lives in racing accidents.
No turn at any track was more infamous than the
Nordschleife (northern loop) at Nurburgring, Germany,
a racing circuit nicknamed "The Green Hell" by F1
driving legend Jackie Stewart. Nestled in the Eifel
mountains about 70 miles south of Cologne, "The
Ring" was often damp, misty or foggy. Varying weather
conditions at different ends of the track were not
unusual, and the 14.2-mile, tree-lined course featured
an incredulous 177 turns.
Lauda, one of the sport's most vocal advocates on
the subject of driver safety, was a vocal opponent to
racing Nurburgring. At a drivers' meeting in spring
1976, Lauda proposed a driver boycott of Nurburgring
but was voted down. Prodded by driver Stewart, the
track had spent substantial sums in 1974-76 to improve
safety with catch fencing and guardrails. But "The
Ring" still loomed as an ominous racing venue.
"The problems posed by Nurburgring were obvious
at a glance," Lauda wrote in his autobiography, "Meine
Story." "Its layout made it the most difficult circuit
imaginable. It was well-nigh impossible to render safe
14.2 miles of tree-lined track."
Despite his concerns, Lauda qualified second, to
Hunt, for the 1976 German Grand Prix. On the morning
of the race (August 1, 1976), the weather forecast for
Nurburgring was typically unpredictable. Near race
time, rain began to fall, and most teams switched to
their wet-weather tires -- in retrospect, a strategic error
as the rain subsided and stiff winds dried the track.
Lauda started poorly, dropping quickly in the field.
He remembers pulling into the pits, changing from
wet to dry tires: his last memory of the race. As he
approached a corner, a tie-rod broke on his Ferrari.
The car went sideways, slammed into an embankment,
became airborne and then smashed onto the track.
The first racecar through was able to avoid Lauda
and the wreckage. A second car, driven by Brett Lunger,
crashed into Lauda, whose Ferarri burst into flames.
The next car, driven by Harald Ertl, plowed into both
wrecked cars. Lunger and Ertl were unhurt, but Lauda's
car was engulfed in flames. Several drivers, including
Lunger and Ertl, worked frantically to remove Lauda
from his burning vehicle. They eventually succeeded
in pulling Lauda to safety, but not before he had been
Lauda was airlifted to an intensive care unit in
Mannheim where a team of six doctors and 34 nurses
worked to save his life. He had suffered third-degree
burns on his head and wrists, several broken ribs, a
broken collarbone and cheekbone. Of even greater
immediate concern was the damage to his lungs that
resulted from breathing toxic fumes delivered by the
fire extinguishers at the crash scene.
Although Hunt ended up winning the German
Grand Prix, the headlines the following day were
rightfully dominated by Lauda's crash and how the
defending F1 champion was clinging to life. For four
days, Lauda hovered near death.
But Lauda wouldn't let go. Nearly blinded, he
focused on voices to maintain consciousness. After his
recovery, he immediately began to form plans for his return to racing -- that season. With a therapist as his
constant companion, he exercised 12 hours each day.
"I made a quick recovery as far as damage to the vital
organs was concerned," Lauda wrote, "but my superficial
injuries turned out to be a bit more complicated."
In addition to the severe burns on Lauda's face, both
eyelids had been burnt away. Plastic surgeons offered
different opinions on his therapy, but Lauda settled
upon a Swiss surgeon who grafted skin from behind
his ears to form new eyelids.
With Lauda out, Hunt narrowed in on the points
lead. He won the pole for the Austrian Grand Prix and
placed fourth in the race. He followed Austria with a
win at the Dutch Grand Prix, cutting Lauda's points
lead to two, 58-56. Only four races remained and, with
Lauda presumably done for the year, it appeared the
World Championship was Hunt's for the taking.
Then came the unbelievable news from Lauda's
camp: The reigning world champion would return to
the track for the Italian Grand Prix on September 12,
1976, only six weeks
after his near-fatal
Lauda qualified fifth
and scored an amazing
in Italy. He extended
his points lead over
Hunt, who struggled in
qualifying and failed
to finish the race.
back to win both the
Canadian and U.S.
Grand Prix, while
Lauda placed eighth
and third, respectively,
in those events. In
between, Federation Internationale de l'Automobile
(FIA) took away Hunt's July 18 victory at the British
Grand Prix. Now, Lauda held a three-point advantage,
68-65, with one race to go in the season, the Japanese
Although Hunt still trailed Lauda, the dashing
young Brit was now racing's hottest property. While
Lauda had won four of the year's first six races, Hunt
was the champion four times in the latest six.
In Japan, Hunt and Lauda qualified second and
third, respectively, behind Mario Andretti. Perhaps
Lauda may have been more concerned about the
weather forecast, but he knew Hunt's car would handle
better on a wet track; as well, he was also worried about
his eyes and reduced visibility in the rain.
Lauda's worst fears were realized when rain poured
all night on the Fuji International Speedway, followed
by fog and more rain on race day. Hunt and Lauda,
both members of the drivers' safety committee, urged
organizers to postpone the race. Their plea fell on
deaf ears. Although the start was delayed by 1:40, it
otherwise went off as scheduled.
Hunt got off to a fast start while Lauda quickly fell
back. After two laps, Lauda pulled into the pits and shut
off the car. "It's too dangerous," the Austrian said.
The Brit led 61 of the 73 laps, then went on to
place third behind Andretti and Patrick Depailler. Hunt
earned four points for his performance, enough to wrest
the season championship from Lauda by a single point.
The championship came as a surprise to Hunt, who had
been unsure of his position following a late pit stop.
"I think it was really a brave decision for Niki to
stop. I really feel for him," Hunt told Sports Illustrated.
"Under the circumstances, he was incredibly
courageous. To tell you the truth, I feel that the race
should not have been started in those conditions. Niki's
decision not to carry on was perfectly reasonable. In
his situation, with the accident at Nurburgring and
everything, who wouldn't have made the same choice?"
Lauda left the track immediately, too emotional to
wait for the inevitable post-game media blitz. Years later,
he expressed few regrets for his decision: "I see the loss
of the 1976 World Championship differently from how
I did then, although I do not reproach myself. If I had
been a little less tense at the decisive moment, if I had
taken it easy and coasted to the couple of points I needed
for the title, then I would have four titles to my credit
instead of three. But, to be candid, I couldn't care less."
Lauda would return to win the World Drivers
Championship again in 1977 for Ferrari, but 1976
would be etched into fans' memories for decades to
come. He later switched to McLaren and won his
third title in 1984 by one-half point over teammate
Alain Prost. Following the 1985 season, Lauda retired
From the severe burns to his head following the
1976 crash in Germany, Lauda suffered extensive
scarring. He lost most of his right ear, as well as the
hair on the right side of his head, eyebrows and eyelids.
He had reconstructive surgery to replace the lids and
get them to work properly, but never felt the need to do
more. Since the accident, he has worn a cap to cover the
scars on his head. The author of five books, Lauda ran
his own airline, Lauda Air, before selling it to Austrian
Airlines in December 2000.
Hunt's dramatic battle with Lauda would result in
Hunt's sole World Championship. Following the 1979
season, Hunt retired from racing and worked for years
as a racing commentator for BBC Sports. He also
served as an adviser and consultant to young drivers.
Hunt died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 45.
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