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Brother, Am I Legend

FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
26/06/2019

Those moments of film and high art that transcend the everyday are the ones we as a race remember. A noted art critic once proclaimed; "All art aspires to the condition of music".

By which he was stating that music crosses all cultural and language bounds. The instrumental directly, requiring only our innate ability to sense rhythm, while possessing a modest ear for melody. Yet even the melodic flow of words in a foreign language can still be joined with a cheerful hum mirroring their ebb and flow as the listening is transported on an emotional journey.

Then sport. Those moments that generate a nationwide gasp of delight or despair sweeping down every street as the ball is called in, the player off-side, or the perfect jump safely landed.

In many instances one does not even need to know the precise letter of the rule, or the strict judging criteria to know that one has just briefly Touched the Face of God as a dedicated player, filled with earnest passion and mighty capability, has just brushed the immortal by striking to the very peak of human capability. In awe, we smile, cry, and vicariously share the achievement.

Yet all human achievement is fleeting. The spirit burns bright and then fades away. That long good night calls us all eventually. It is not an "if", but a "when" for us all, when that final curtain will, often unexpectedly, call to a close the final act.

So to Niki. Mr Lauda. World champion. Airline founder. Driver. Pilot. Business leader.

Crash survivor. Warrior with a passion burning in him that has never been brighter through the ages. Admitted patient being cared for as he edges closer to the infinite and further away from FIA rules, and company board meetings.

Human.

First and foremost a human who lived each day filled with a passion to be the best he could be. And what mighty achievements he claimed!

Driven on the race track, driven in business. Wonderful. Twice married and with four children. Very human. Long after the casual fan has forgotten his racing victories, long after his airlines have been purchased and consumed by larger businesses... His family legacy will be remembered with a smile by those who loved him. That is a true legacy, those who dearly know you smiling when recalling you and go: "You know, he really was a great man. My friend."

No race wins required. No world breaking earnings. No stadiums named in your honour. No trophies with your name inscribed. Just your honest striving to be all you can be to those around you each and every day.

Niki just happened to have a genius for driving, coupled with a sharp intellect, wit, and disarming directness that he elected to focus on battles within Formula One with a passion and focus most cannot muster even in the most dire need. His Formula One career spanned 14 years from The Austrian Grand Prix of 1971, to the Australian Grand Prix of 1985. His last win was the Dutch Grand Prix of 1985, while his first came in 1974 at the Spanish Grand Prix.

A total of 25 wins, 54 podiums, 24 pole positions, and 24 fastest laps. Leading to his racing legacy being three World Driver's Championships. His Spanish win in 1974, was the first for Ferrari in two years. Under the direction of Luca di Montezemolo (remember him?) Ferrari was staging a fight back from a slump in form (sound familiar?). That season Niki claimed six consecutive pole positions, and finished fourth in the championship due to a mix of his (relative) inexperience, and increasing mechanical unreliability as the season progressed (again, any of this sounding familiar...?).

1975 saw Niki partnered with Clay Regazzoni. He started the season slow, and then mid-season won four out of five races at the wheel of the newly released Ferrari 312T. Finishing third at Monza, Niki claimed his first driver's title, while Clay finished first to seal Ferrari's first Constructors' Championship in eleven years.

That year Niki also became the first driver to lap the Nordschleife (then a touch over 3 km longer than today) in under seven minutes. Anyone who has matched or beaten this feat on the Playstation knows that in the safety of your own living room this is a feat that brings sweat to the brow, and fries the mind in a few furious laps. How Niki achieved this in real life is a testament to his capability, his self-belief, his remarkable courage, and his other-worldly driving capability.

So 1976 commenced with Niki in utterly dominant form. Four wins in the first six races, ensured that when his fifth win came at the British Grand Prix that he was on double the points of Jody Scheckter and James Hunt, languishing an increasing number of points behind (again remind you of anything more recent...?). Surely his second World Championship was a mere formality?

The week before the German Grand Prix, scheduled for 1st August that year, Niki urged his fellow drivers to boycott the race, as he felt the organisers did not have anywhere near enough safety measures in place, especially fire marshals and medical aid and evacuation. The others drivers voted against the boycott and the race proceeded.

Lap two, flying through the fast left kink just before Bergwerk, Niki lost control of his Ferrari, swerved off track, before clipping Brett Lunger's Surtees-Ford and with considerable damage burst into flames. Other drivers on arriving at the crash scene dashed to help the stricken Lauda.

Arturo Merzario, Brett, Guy Edwards, and Harold Ertl were all present with nut a track marshall with fire-fighting equipment to be seen. It was Merzario that succeeded in pulling Niki clear of his wrecked Ferrari. Eventually formal aid arrived and Niki was rushed to a local hospital only to be given the Last Rites, mainly due the damage incurred by the smoke he had inhaled, rather than direct physical trauma, or the appalling burns he had suffered.

Carlos Reutemann replaced Lauda while he was recovering, and Ferrari elected to boycott the Austrian Grand Prix, grumbling about their view of preferential treatment for James Hunt (driving for McLaren) at both the British and Spanish Grands Prix (not like we see Ferrari complaining these days folks... Oh, wait a minute...)

Six weeks later, blood seeping from unsealed wounds, having missed only two races, Niki climbed back in to his Ferrari, and finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

And that, dear reader, is legend. To face fear, to know what your own racing death might well look like, and still climb back into another Ferrari racing machine and press for the podium... Knowing full well your body could break, your last breath could arrive, and that family so recently gathered around your hospital bed fearing for your loss that dark night, now has to endure you doing it all over again.

Like the greatest art, like the soaring emotion of the finest music, how stunning that achievement is, what it took, and what a legend Niki was to proceed to miss that year's championship by a single point to James Hunt, before winning the title again with Ferrari in 1977, and a third time with McLaren in 1984 needs no complex explanation. It is visceral, it is passion, world class achievement and legend writ big.

His remarkable sporting achievements, his mighty business achievements, all fine work. To achieve the majority of that after such a crash? That is a Titan striding around us.

To be remembered with love and tenderness by friends and family. To have Lewis Hamilton remark that above all else he was most proud to be able to call Niki his friend?

Brother, you are legend.

Max Noble

Learn more about Max and check out his previous features, here

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by Flying Irishman, 16/07/2019 1:31

"I was lucky enough to see him, Long Beach late 70's early 80's
So, You think he is organizing things up, up there! "

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2. Posted by Max Noble, 01/07/2019 22:16

"@Toado - thanks for sharing a wonderful story. Truely a unique character!"

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3. Posted by Toado, 30/06/2019 17:45

"Fitting tribute to a truly great racer, a genuine hero and loyal friend. The bravest chap I ever knew, and I agree it was stopping at Fuji which defines that, and the man. I asked him why he stopped once, and he talked me through how he accessed risk. To this day he is the only driver I have ever met who openly considered this realistically. Mad final judgement, but arrived at completely logically. What tipped the scales for Niki that day, in a race that no sane race director would allow today, was rain water getting into his eyes and being unable to blink properly. He could cope with not seeing, he could cope with the aquaplaning, but not both together. It exceeded his 20% chance of dying threshold. He had new eyelids fitted for the next season. "

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4. Posted by Max Noble, 29/06/2019 12:33

"Gentlemen my thanks. I dip my red cap to Niki and you all. Go do something that counts with those you love this weekend. And damn the track limits..."

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5. Posted by Uffen, 28/06/2019 18:25

"Damn, that was nice. Well said, Max. "

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6. Posted by Redphyve, 27/06/2019 5:26

"A very good piece encapsulating Niki....well-written!"

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7. Posted by ClarkwasGod, 26/06/2019 14:48

"A touching piece. Maybe Lauda's bravest moment that year was not returning to the cockpit in Monza, but climbing from it at Fuji in October - very well aware of the likely outcome."

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