Let’s step back more than 40 years ago. Halfway through the 1976 championship, Lauda was dominating the standings, having claimed the title the previous year as well. His Ferrari was a rocket ship and had got him off to a flying start in the title race. Then there was the Nurburgring and the flames that engulfed him early in the race, the precarious recovery at the university hospital of Mannheim, the seriousness of the burns to his face, but above all the life-threatening coma occasioned by breathing in the noxious fumes. That happened on August 1: James Hunt went on to win the German Grand Prix for McLaren. They were clearly the only possible combination capable of depriving Lauda of the title that year, with their prospects on the up. When Niki was given the Last Rites, only to pull through just four days later, people thought that the Austrian still perhaps had some chance of claiming the 1976 title – but that it would certainly be his last one. And Lauda’s enforced absence from the next two races (Austria and Holland, with Hunt winning the latter) then made them wonder whether or not even the 1976 title would be a step too far for the disfigured Lauda.
But they hadn’t reckoned on the Austrian driver’s famed stubbornness, or his unshakeable self-belief. On 8 August, he entered rehabilitation at Ludwigshafen hospital – which specialised in burns – to begin an astonishing recovery. Ferrari, having elected to run Argentina’s Carlos Reutemann alongside Clay Regazzoni at Monza, was stunned at what happened next. The Maranello team had initially contacted Emerson Fittipaldi as a potential stand-in, but Fittipaldi declined as he didn’t want to let down his Copersucar squad, which was effectively a Brazilian national team. Ferrari’s sporting director was then in touch with the rapid Ronnie Peterson, but this never happened as Lauda disagreed. And so, it was down to Reutemann. Bernie Ecclestone, who owned Brabham at the time, happily turned his driver over to Enzo Ferrari, creating an important political and commercial axis that would be felt for years to come. Lauda agreed to Reutemann’s arrival – but only on condition that he too could take part in the race. To begin with, he asked for and obtained a private test at Fiorano. From that point on, the Austrian’s only goal was to come back at Monza.
That Thursday 9 September was a day that Formula 1 will never forget. Niki arrived at the circuit and the first hurdle he had to overcome was convincing the doctors that he was fit enough to race. Permission was granted, yet he was bleeding from the wounds on his face every time he put on his helmet and balaclava. But by Saturday, the fastest Ferrari in qualifying was his. And in the race, on Sunday 12 September, he finished fourth: first was Peterson, then the Ferrari of Regazzoni and then the Ligier of Laffite. Next was Lauda. His face was still marked by the terrible wounds that would go on – even once they had healed – to become his trademark for the next 40 years. But he was born again.
For the record, Lauda never did manage to win the 1976 title. He lost it by just a point to his nemesis James Hunt, at the end of a rain-battered race in Fuji, Japan: the final act in a season that was probably contained the most drama in the history of the sport. But it was at Monza where Lauda emerged as a true phoenix from the flames. The Austrian would go on to claim the world title again the following year, in 1977, once more with Ferrari. Then there was a disappointing period with Brabham, followed by two years away from the sport where he concentrated entirely on his airline. Finally a comeback in 1982 and one more title in 1984, this time with McLaren. Despite what everyone thought, it was never game over for Lauda.