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Niki Lauda: The Comeback King

Successful Comebacks in Formula 1 are exceptionally rare – once a driver has retired it is perceived as the end of his career, however one man proved everyone wrong back in 1982 fuelled by the desire to raise funds for his Airline – that being none other than Niki Lauda.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

August 10th, 2012 (F1plus / James Parker).- Comebacks in Formula 1 – If I asked you to name all of them in the history of the sport, my guess is you could easily count them on both hands, furthermore if I asked you to count successful comebacks in Formula 1, where a driver has won races and even won a world championship, my guess is you would be struggling to count further than one hand.

In the past three years Formula 1 has witnessed comebacks from two of the modern legends of the sport, however both stories can be told in stark contrast to each other, while 43 year old Schumacher – arguably the greatest Formula 1 driver in the history of the sport, has struggled to even get on to the podium before 2012 yet alone win races, the flying finn - Kimi Raikonnen, since returning this season after a 2 year hiatus has set the F1 grid alight, just as he did through 2003, 2005 and 2007 achieving 5 podiums in the first 11 races, and with the car improving all the time is set to become a title challenger through the remainder of the season.

If Kimi does indeed go on to challenge for the title over these next two years and become WDC he will join an elite group of drivers including Alain Prost who have won titles on their return to the sport.

When people think of successful Formula 1 comebacks, many fans will instantly look to Alain Prost, throughout the 1993 season he dominated, capturing 13 pole positions, winning 7 times and finishing off the podium only 3 times all season long. However we have to factor in the dominance enjoyed by the Williams team with a car (the FW15) that was upwards of 1.5 seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field in some cases, including the late great Ayrton Senna, thanks to ABS, TCS and active suspension.

Bearing that in mind I think we have to look even further back – more specifically to the early to mid 80’s to find the king of Formula 1 comebacks and with it one of the legends of the sport – Niki Lauda.

Now Niki was an exceptional human being – for reasons I will explain later in the article, however to start with I will focus on what made his comeback the most revered in F1 history. He retired first time around in rather fiery circumstances in 1979, clashing numerous times with Bernie Eccelstone who was then the Brabham team boss at the time and the man that lured Lauda away from Ferrari. However the Brabham team was a bit of a mess at the time and with the most successful F1 driver on the grid, the famous Gordon Murray, and Bernie at the helm great things were expected. However with the rise of Lotus and Colin Chapman, an unreliable engine and Bernie focussed more on the commercial value of F1’s duties, Lauda found himself in no man’s land.

The lack of direction within the team infuriated Lauda and announced his immediate retirement from the sport at the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix – Telling Bernie famously “I’ve had enough of driving round in circles driving your cars”. At the time of his retirement he had achieved 2 world titles with the famous Ferrari team, and went down as one of the most successful drivers in the history of the sport.

However if everyone thought that was the end of Niki Lauda in Formula 1, they would be horribly wrong. In 1982 the double World Champion started his comeback after wanting to raise capital for his fledging airline business. He contacted Ron Dennis who immediately signed him up on a 4 race contract, wanting to assess how quickly Lauda adapted back to Grand Prix driving. It was a decision that would reap huge reward as boy did Lauda answer his critics winning on his 3rd race back at Long Beach, and then further winning at Brands Hatch to finish off a successful first season back.

1983 would be a hugely troublesome year for Niki however, achieving just two podium finishes and suffering horrific reliability problems from the new V6 Porsche/TAG turbo engine that was being tested by McLaren through the latter part of the year. Although the season was considered somewhat of a disaster, the Austrian was positive ahead of the recent testing for the 1984 season knowing the new turbo engine had hit the sweet spot.

So all the cards were drawn for the following season in favour of Lauda landing a magnificent 3rd world title, with all the tools at his disposal. However it would be in the manner that he won his 3rd world title that will sum up exactly what Niki Lauda the racing driver is all about. For 1984 McLaren had signed the young Alain Prost, the extremely fast Frenchman that was somewhat of an unknown back then. In the McLaren and TAG Power, Prost was easily the fastest man throughout the season, and from the outset it had looked like Lauda would be put into the shade.

However Niki had not won 2 World Championships by beating exceptional team mates such as Carlos Reutemann for no reason, he was a mastermind behind the wheel and an exceptionally clever man, and it was this he applied with pin point precision throughout the 1984 season to beat his, younger, faster team mate by half a point and win his 3rd world title. He achieved this success having posted not a single pole position throughout the whole season and seldom started on the front row. Niki Lauda was a realist in every sense of the word and it was this that allowed him to claim the title.

Knowing his team mate was faster over one lap he discarded Qualifying being important and focussed on pure race setup. Picking up points when Prost failed to finish and podiums when he claimed victory, he was the true master at applying exceptional race craft mixed with an exquisite racing brain.

Lauda images of his crash in 1976 at Hokenheim (LAt Photo).

Lauda was possibly one of the slowest drivers ever to become a triple world champion, known to avoid unnecessary risks, and play it safe at every opportunity, what he lacked in raw speed he made up with raw talent in other areas. He was possibly the start of a different generation of “thinkers” and “outwitters” that used Formula 1 as a maths calculation rather than lights to flag race. Utilising all his guile and intelligence he outwitted all his revered and faster team mates to championships. His intelligence shines through when we realise he has published 4 books and gone onto become a hugely successful businessman off his own back.

Now his achievement might not mean a lot to some people, however when you consider what exactly Niki had been through it was a marvel of humanity. For alongside his 3 World Championships, Lauda is probably most famous for his horrifying accident at the Nordschleife in 1976, only 8 years before his title triumph.

It is ironic now that before the Grand Prix was due to start, Lauda signalled he wanted to boycott the event ahead of safety concerns on the 14km “Green Hell”. With the decision overthrown by fellow Grand Prix drivers, the rest they say is history, as during the race his Ferrari 312T suffered rear suspension failure and catapulted into the bank, bouncing off Brett Lunger’s Ford and engulfing itself in flames. Lauda was dragged out of the car by fellow drivers and suffered horrific burns to his face and damaged lungs.

It was an incident that would be enough to make any Formula 1 driver retire on the spot, however 6 weeks later having missed two Grand Prix’s he was back behind the wheel of his Ferrari achieving 4th Place at Monza – it was an achievement of such magnitude that words cannot describe it. A man that was on the brink of death some 6 weeks beforehand was one place off standing on the podium in front of the Tifosi.

It was this typical no nonsense attitude Lauda became revered for; he only cared about two things – Winning and acquiring lots of money. The rest of his duties were considered irrelevant and it is something that perhaps we can look for in Kimi Raikonnen of the modern day.

So where does this leave us then?

Well although Lauda will not go down in history as one of the fastest drivers to tame an F1 car around the world’s best circuits, he will go down as a character that was totally unique in the Formula 1 world, much Like Senna and James Hunt. Out thinking fellow F1 drivers became his forte and something he executed with sheer brilliance in order to obtain the kind of success he did in Formula 1.

He was a man that epitomised self confidence and was not scared of anyone in the Formula 1 paddock, famously disagreeing with Enzo Ferrari publicly, refusing to be intimidated by the legendary Ferrari owner. His comeback has become one of the best stories in F1 folklore, coming back out of retirement 5 years after, and then winning the title within 2 years shows everything you need to know about Niki, slick, clinical and quick was his motto which is exactly what he lived by, and for that it is why he is considered the best of the F1 Comeback kings.

Niki Lauda on the wheels of a McLaren during a testing session at Estorial in 1984 (LAT Photo)

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