When Austria finally understood that it had a future world champion in its hands by the name of Niki Lauda, the country was somewhat behind the times. The man himself had realised that fact considerably earlier. This polar moment of realisation probably dates back to 1974: the first season that Niki competed at the wheel of the Ferrari. By then pole positions came as no big surprise, then there was his first win in Spain and just a few weeks later, the same magic again in Holland. The Prancing Horse was back at the top of the championship, which hadn't been the case since 1964 with John Surtees.
But Lauda already knew deep down within himself that he had everything it took to make Austria a country of winners again. Yet he believed in actions rather than words. And national pride probably wasn’t that important to him either. Niki was a man of substance, ambitions, and pragmatic, down-to-earth wisdom. He had no real time for emotions or sentiments.
In the racing world, Austria back then was a country yet to recover from the grief of losing Jochen Rindt. To the Austrians, Rindt was motorsport throughout the 1960s, as the decade headed into the 1970s. But Rindt was to see little of them: his terrible accident at Monza in 1970, with the car sliced in two at the Parabolica, led to him becoming Formula 1’s only posthumous world champion.
Rindt may have been no more, but even his most ardent rivals were unable to close the unbreachable gap that the Lotus driver had built up over the summer that. Rindt had already become a legend: an enduring symbol of speed who knew no limits, and a celebrity who had already begun to take Formula 1 from the sports pages into the society pages as well.
“I remember seeing Jochen in the pits wearing this long fur coat once,” remembered Lauda. “On anybody else, it would have looked ridiculous. He looked magnificent…”
To the young Niki, who was outwardly detached, an emotional vein was touched that day, which might just have helped inspire him to aim for Rindt’s throne – even though Niki himself would never admit it.
He was the heir to an aristocratic Viennese family, and he understood by the age of 18 that there was no real point in persisting with his studies. One day, a school mate showed him how to cheat on his school reports. A bit of careful rubbing out and meticulous substitution of the content looked convincing enough from a distance.
Niki applied himself diligently to the forgery and proudly waved the document in the air as he returned home; proof that he had successfully completed his studies. The family were fooled – and satisfied. Which meant that Niki could finally concentrate on what had been his main focus before even getting hold of his driving licence: becoming a racing driver.