There are comeback stories and then there are comeback stories.
The tale of the 1976 Formula One season and three-time world champion Niki Lauda’s miraculous return to racing is the latter.
While F1 mourns the loss of the Austrian, who passed away peacefully at the age of 70 on Monday night with his health having deteriorated since a double lung transplant last year, Lauda’s achievements will forever be celebrated. His feats from 1976 stand out.
Already a world champion with Ferrari the year before, Lauda came into the season as favourite to go back-to-back having won four of the first six races, holding a mighty points advantage over his then-to-be rival James Hunt.
The eventual champion in Hunt began to build momentum heading into his home race at Brands Hatch, which was the scene of a contentious post-race disqualification where the Briton was excluded from the race result. This resulted in the win being inherited by Lauda and Ferrari.
What followed at the next race in Germany and at the much feared Nürburgring circuit could not have been scripted. Neither could have the aftermath, when an on-track inferno did everything but claim Lauda’s life, only for him to survive and fight to race on.
Only six weeks after having almost half his face burnt off, inhaling what should have been a lethal amount of toxic fumes and having the Last Rites read to him in hospital, Lauda stunned all to arrive in Monza to contest the Italian Grand Prix.
With burns still visibly bandaged on his face and the fact he was literally on death’s bed, the Ferrari driver bravely placed fourth to keep the championship battle with Hunt alive right until the final race in Japan.
On the verge of what would have been an unprecedented comeback to win championship glory, Lauda withdrew from the rain-marred race at Fuji. In conditions deemed too risky for the man who just cheated death, McLaren’s Hunt went on to claim his one and only title by a single point.
As an outsider, it’s difficult to believe this isn’t fiction. The events of 1976 were immortalised on screen in Ron Howard’s 2013 film Rush, depicting the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt, as well as the Austrian’s accident and recovery.
In an era for Formula One where driver, car and spectator safety was nowhere near as paramount as it is today, to see and hear of what Lauda accomplished is truly fascinating and only cements the grit and determination, already accompanying his traits as a meticulous and sharp racing driver.
Only the year after did Lauda win his second championship for Ferrari before a switch to Brabham and a brief retirement from the sport. In 1982 he joined McLaren to win a third and final crown in 1984 by half a point over the decorated Alain Prost.
Management consulting with his former Ferrari team and then the ill-fated Jaguar, as well as managing his own airline businesses, was what life after racing held for the three-time world champion.
Lauda’s greatest achievement away from his on-track feats though arguably was his role as non-executive chairman at the world beating Mercedes AMG squad, where he lured the now five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton away from McLaren in 2012.
Never again will the world of sport see such a tale and echoing the sentiments of Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, who said the steely and straightforward Austrian is “quite simply irreplaceable.”
Vale Niki Lauda.