Rush: Formula 1–Life and Death

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 Nürburgring, 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 Nürburgring. At a drivers’ meeting in spring 1976, Lauda proposed a driver boycott of Nürburgring 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 Nürburgring 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 Nürburgring 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 critically burned.

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.

Hunt Moves Up, Lauda Returns

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 crash. Miraculously, Lauda qualified fifth and scored an amazing fourth-place finish in Italy. He extended his points lead over Hunt, who struggled in qualifying and failed to finish the race.

Hunt bounced back to win both the Canadian and U.S. Grand Prix, while Lauda placed eighth and third, respectively, in those events. In between, Fédération 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 Grand Prix.

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 Nürburgring 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.”

End of Era

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 racing.

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.