Niki Lauda is lucky to be alive. It was 37 years ago on August 1 that he was trapped in a fiery hell. And it was a miracle that he survived.
As the Ferrari driver steamed into the fast left Bergwerk kink on the 73-corner Nordschleife Ring on lap two of the German Grand Prix, his world was about to be turned upside down.
The 27-year-old Austrian was reigning F1 champion and was comfortably cruising towards his second consecutive title. With just seven races left, he had almost double the points of his closest rival.
The German circuit, however, was unlike any other. Narrow and bumpy, it had limited run-off areas and several sections inaccessible to fire marshals. It was by far the most dangerous on the calendar. Many were already saying that the speed of modern F1 had outgrown it.
After the 131st fatality in 49 years was recorded at the track two weeks before the race, Lauda called for a boycott. It fell on deaf ears. The race went ahead.
Lauda started second, but on a damp but drying track he dropped to 10th and was trying to recover after pitting for slick tyres at the end of lap one. His title rival, James Hunt, was running third and he needed to claw his way back.
Then something went very wrong.
At a speed of around 120mph Lauda's Ferrari snapped right – some reports claim suspension failure. It was pitched into an embankment, rebounded and spun back onto the track.
The wreck was hit by the Surtees of Brett Lunger and, with the fuel tank ruptured, it burst into flames. Lauda was trapped. And Harald Ertl, steaming into the crash site at 90mph, had nowhere to go.
“I saw yellow flags and braked hard,” Ertl told a German magazine. “I saw the whole mess in front of me – the burning Ferrari, the Surtees and the rest of the track covered with debris. Niki’s Ferrari slid across the road and I hit it.”
Ertl’s car went into a spin and Lauda’s Ferrari hit the Surtees a second time. When it all came to a halt, Ertl raced out and ran as fast as he could to the burning wreckage.
“Niki sat there with his head bent forward and did not try to free himself - and I had to take a second look to believe it, but he was not wearing a helmet any more,” recalled Ertl, who joined Lunger and fellow drivers Guy Edwards and Arturo Merzario, who had both stopped at the scene, in a frantic rescue effort.
Lauda was sitting in the middle of the fire, conscious but unable to do anything to save himself.
With the rescue vehicle on its way, Ertl and a marshal tried to put the fire out but their small extinguisher did little with fuel still spewing out. They could only keep the fire under a level of control while the others tried to release Lauda from the wreckage.
“I would guess it would be about a minute before we managed to get the belts undone,” Guy Edwards told the BBC at the time. “Lauda was conscious most of the time and was saying 'get me out'...”
Several times, Lunger and Merzario tried to climb onto the burning car to get Lauda out, but it was not until the Porsche Carrera rescue car arrived that the fire was extinguished and Merzario pulled Lauda from the wreckage.
“If you consider the time he sat in the burning car, which was about 45 seconds, he didn’t look that bad,” recalled Ertl.
But the burns were severe.
Lauda’s helmet had slid off in the accident and he had inhaled hot toxic gases that damaged his lungs and blood. He face was bloodied and all the hair on the right side of his head had gone. Part of one ear was burnt off, as were his eyebrows and his eyelids, and he had severely damaged his tear duct.
He lapsed into a coma.
That night, at the hospital in Mannheim, he was read the last rights – but he fought for his life for several days, and somehow came to.
Determined to make a quick comeback and try to hold onto his title, he limited surgery to just replacing his eyelids and he was back six weeks later, in time for Ferrari’s home race at Monza.
His amazing gamble to return so quickly almost paid off. Hunt ended up winning in Germany and then won three of the next four races as well, but Lauda was still in the driving seat and three points clear going into the season finale in Japan.
But it was not to be: heavy rain made the track Fuji almost undriveable, and this time Lauda, who had qualified third, was taking no chances. He declared that "my life is worth more than a title" and was one of several drivers to withdraw before the race began. Hunt drove and finished third to win his only F1 driver's crown by a single point.
As for his call for a boycott of the Nordschleife? It turned out the crash made people listen. F1 has never been back.
Rush: A biography of Austrian Formula 1 champion driver Niki Lauda and the 1976 crash that almost claimed his life. Mere weeks after the accident, he got behind the wheel to challenge his British rival, James Hunt. Released 13th September.
- Sports & Recreation
- Motor Racing
- Niki Lauda
- Harald Ertl
- James Hunt