It’s a story that has been told a thousand times. Anyone aged over 50 who has (or had) a passion for Formula 1 will never be able to forget that Sunday and those flames that have been immortalised time after time, which were destined to change the history of racing circuits, a team, a driver, and in fact the entirety of Formula 1®.
In truth the Nurburgring is more than just a circuit. It consists of nearly 23 vertiginous kilometres of corners and switchbacks, no single one quite identical to another, nearly always going up or down, with a distinctly old-fashioned feel to it: diverse cambers and patchwork asphalt as a result of the potholes caused by the severe winter frost in Northwest Germany and the subsequent repairs. Rather than the safety features that were the general rule even in the 1970s, any drivers going off the track were instead greeted by the trees of the Eifel Forest. “ If I go off the road here; if I destroy the car and fall unconscious, they’ll never find me”. These were the thoughts of every driver who sought glory on the rollercoaster crests and countless corners of this legendary gladiatorial arena.
Niki Lauda thought exactly the same. And yet when he got there during the 1975 season, his second year with Ferrari, he became the first driver to set a Nordschleife lap time of under seven minutes. “I’m never going to do that again,” he said afterwards. “It’s too big a risk.” That year, his stunning pole position time of 6m58.6s meant that the Austrian could comfortably take the lead once the race got underway. But a simple puncture, which should not have been such a big deal under normal circumstances, dropped him down the order (although he recovered to finish third). The main problem was that the 20 kilometres or so left of the lap were too many to cover with a flat tyre before getting to the pits. It’s a thought that would go on to torment him in a different context: what if an ambulance had to cover a similar distance in the event of a serious accident, on an emergency dash to hospital?
By the time the end of July 1976 came round, Lauda arrived at the Nurburgring as reigning world champion and the man to beat. After a dominant start to the season, again with Ferrari, his championship advantage appeared untouchable. But he still had some unfinished business with the Nurburgring. He had never won there, yet he didn’t want to get sucked into a personal battle that was contrary to every logic. So he tried to convince his colleagues that, as legendary as it was, the German circuit was by now an anachronism and simply too dangerous to race on. In a drivers’ meeting the previous winter, he had proposed that Formula 1® should not race at the Nurburgring in the summer but instead go to Hockenheim: a circuit that was even faster and had sadly witnessed the death of the great Jim Clark, but was nonetheless reckoned to be much more modern and safer than the Nordschleife. Especially if there was a wet race. But Lauda’s proposal was never voted through. Among the most vocal opponents was James Hunt. The charismatic McLaren driver, two years younger than Lauda, was the only man still to harbour ambitions of beating Lauda in the championship that year. Just like a filmscript, pole position went to the Englishman for the 1976 German Grand Prix. And on Sunday, as if cursed, the Eifel forest woke up to the sound of rainfall.
What happened next is more than just a story: it’s part of Formula 1® history. The race got underway in changeable weather, so it was soon necessary to pit for slick tyres. Lauda rejoined the race towards the back while Hunt appeared unstoppable in the lead. Many questions would be asked later about the information that Niki had at his disposal, about the levels of frustration that perhaps drove such an empirically logical man to take more risks than were necessary. The fact remains that not long afterwards, the number one Ferrari lost control in the dip heading towards Bergwerk and then hit the barrier hard. The red car was bounced back into the middle of the track and collected by another competitor, breaking in half and catching fire. Trapped by his belts, Lauda could only get out once other drivers had come to his aid, including Italy’s Arturo Merzario: the man whose Ferrari seat he had taken three years earlier, and yet who plunged fearlessly into the flames to release the Austrian’s belts and save his life.
The rest is Lauda’s personal calvary of hell on earth. The archives reveal famous film footage in which Lauda, on a stretcher, stares disbelievingly at his burnt right arm. He asks too if his face is burned. He’s not to know then that this is the least of his problems. The fumes from the fire, which he breathed in before and during his rescue, have poisoned his lungs. For the next few days he will hang between life and death, receiving the last rites twice, before beginning a recovery that almost seemed impossible.
And yet Formula 1® went on as normal. The German Grand Prix was won by Hunt, and that kick-started a championship fightback that seemed so unlikely prior to Lauda’s accident. Lauda was forced to miss next two races in Austria and Holland but incredibly he was back in the car just five weeks after the accident that nearly claimed his life.
He underlined his greatness by taking the title again in 1977. He then left Ferrari for Brabham the following year, before subsequently quitting Formula 1® after growing tired of the whole routine. His next venture was to start an airline that was subsequently sold to Lufthansa. Finally, Niki made a Formula 1® comeback to end up as a three-time world champion by the end of 1984 (ironically with McLaren: the car that was the main protagonist of his nightmares during the dark days of 1976). That 1976 title, which had been practically in Lauda’s pocket following his stellar start to the season, of course went to James Hunt. But there would be a series of wider repercussions to Lauda’s accident, which, as previously mentioned, changed the face of the whole sport.
Among these consequences was the end of the Nurburgring’s illustrious history as a Formula 1® venue. It continued of course to host endurance races, with German driver Stefan Bellof setting an incredible lap record of 6m11.13s in 1983 with a Porsche 956. But the German Grand Prix had by then moved onto Hockenheim. Where Niki Lauda won in 1977 with Ferrari. And where this year’s world championship will host the 12th race of the season on Sunday 31 July.