And not just because Niki passed away only two months ago, leaving behind him the memories of a very special person to last many lifetimes. No, at Hockenheim it’s going to be impossible not to think of Lauda because Hockenheim was Lauda.
For those who aren’t aware of the story, it provides an interesting insight into the person Niki was at the time. Back then, he had a reputation as a bit of a computer. To the outside word, he was coldly logical, analysed everything, and simply did his own thing in his own way: characteristics that would last well beyond the 40 years since the events we’re talking about here in the second half of the 1970s took place.
In 1976, as everyone knows, Niki barely survived an accident at the wheel of his Ferrari in the opening laps of the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. His scarlet car was split in half by the impact and Niki was only saved by the courageous actions of a small group of fellow drivers. In hospital, Niki received the last rites; yet not even six weeks later he was back in the car at Monza, with burns to his face and forehead that stained his balaclava with blood. He would go on to fight James Hunt for the title right up to the unforgettable finale that took place in monsoon-like rain at Fuji, ending the most epic Formula 1 season in history.
This is all well-documented. What fewer people know is that Niki did absolutely everything to avoid racing at the Nürburgring in 1976. Because he was scared. Or, as his computer-like persona would have preferred, because there was no rational reason to race there.
At the time, going round the Nürburgring in a Formula 1 car was truly placing yourself in the lap of the gods. Lauda knew this only too well. One year earlier in 1975 he was the first driver to lap the track in under seven minutes, sealing a pole position that will remain forever etched in history. When it came to the race, a banal puncture deprived him of a near-certain victory. With nearly 23 kilometres of non-stop corners and crests through the Eifel Forest, coming back to the pits with a flat tyre seemed to take an eternity. Even in a Formula 1 car. And so Niki asked himself: what would it be like for an ambulance to cover all that ground to bring an injured driver back to the medical centre close to the pits?
He pointed this out at the drivers’ meeting before the 1976 race, as if he were presaging history. Two years earlier, again at the wheel of a Ferrari, he had experienced what it was like to go off at the Nürburgring and hit the barrier hard. There were no such things as modern escape roads and crash protection structures back then. Whenever it rained, the risk became even higher. And in 1976, all the weather forecasts predicted rain for the German Grand Prix.
Lauda tried to convince all the other drivers not to race, but he didn’t succeed. Sure enough, as the race started, it was raining. Everyone knows what happened next: as per the title of his autobiography, Lauda went to hell and back.
When Formula 1 returned to Germany one year later, the Nürburgring was off the calendar. Lauda’s accident at Bergwerk and his subsequent disfigurement – broadcast across the world in technicolour – was judged unacceptable even for a circuit that had made history in Formula 1. There was just no way it could have met the safety standards that were demanded even back then: with all the will in the world, the physical layout made this impossible.
Once he was back in action, Lauda repeated what he had always said: Hockenheim was a better choice. Sure enough, Formula 1 returned to Hockenheim. This track, of course, was hardly a paragon of safety itself: less than a decade earlier, Jim Clark had lost his life after hitting a tree during a Formula 2 race. And the crazy speeds reached in the depths of those forests heading down towards the legendary Ost Kurve were hardly reassuring. Never mind. Back then the Nürburgring was a problem and Hockenheim was the solution.
The German Grand Prix returned to the calendar there in 1977 and Lauda won it: a crucial race in his successful campaign to regain the world title that he had claimed two years earlier.
Hockenheim, close to the city of Heidelberg, has since then become an established Formula 1 venue – and it’s always been grateful to Niki. In the three most recent races (2014, 2016 and 2018) ‘his’ Mercedes team always won. That’s why Hockenheim is Lauda: the person to whom it owes everything. Still today.