The Austrian Grand Prix:
the first one without Niki Lauda

The Austrian Grand Prix: the first one without Niki Lauda 01

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.

The Austrian Grand Prix: the first one without Niki Lauda 02

The rest is famous history: his debut in a Mini at the end of the 1960s, with hillclimb races and a few results worthy of note. Then there were the first small sponsorship deals, a few outings on racing circuits in touring cars and also single-seaters. His first steps in single-seaters were in the local Formula SuperVee series, then Formula 3 and finally Formula 2. It was in Formula 2 that he found a benchmark against which his true merits and racing future could be measured. 

The team was March and his team mate was none other than Ronnie Petersen: a super-quick Swede seemingly able to do anything in a car, getting effortlessly sideways like a rally driver but at speeds of more than 240kph in sixth gear. 

Lauda, by contrast, was metronomically precise with no taste for flamboyance. For him it was all about testing and strict procedure, driving by the book and working on technical developments with his engineers until late into the night.

Robin Herd, also recently deceased, was the boss of March at the time. “I saw Lauda for the first time and thought that he just didn’t have the physique to be a driver; that he would never be a great,” he admitted.

And then one day Herd decided to take Niki with him as a spectator, to look at how the March was handling on track in the hands of Ronnie Peterson. Niki had driven earlier. When the Swede got to a particular corner, he turned the March in like an act of aggression, coming out of the corner in a controlled power slide with the outside wheel of the car brushing the barrier.

Niki couldn't believe what he was seeing. “I’ll never be able to drive like that,” he said. Then, the boss and his Austrian employee went back to the pits to look at the lap times. Niki’s best was something like a 1m14s time. The hell for leather laps from Peterson were expected to be under 1m13s, at least. But in fact the Swede’s best lap was 1m14.4s.

“At that very moment, I understood that hidden within Lauda’s neat and apparently conventional style, was something very special,” reflected Herd.

When it came to racing circuits, Austria for many years had been synonymous with the Osterreichring. Or rather Zeltweg, to give it the name of the small farming community nestled deep within the green Styrian countryside that it was also known by. Lauda realised that if he truly wanted to be a top driver, this was the arena he needed to conquer: one of the fastest and most technical tracks in the pantheon of racing. He made his debut there (and also his Formula 1 debut) in a March in 1971. And retired. He tried again in the March the following year and finished 10th. In 1973 he was driving a BRM but didn’t start the race. The dream of home glory was beginning to turn sour. Even 1974, his scintillating first year with Ferrari, disappointed the local fans at Zeltweg: another retirement. In 1975, the year in which he won his first title, he finished sixth: a result that was largely overshadowed by Vittorio Brambilla’s one and only victory in his bright orange March, in heavy rain. The overjoyed Italian raised his arms in joy at over 300kph at the finish, losing control and clattering into the wall: the only driver in F1 history to crash after taking the chequered flag.

The uneasy relationship between Niki and his home race continued. In 1976 he didn’t even drive there: he was still in hospital, intubated and with open wounds following the horrendous fire at the Nurburgring only two Sundays earlier. In 1977 though he was on a winning streak: he won in Germany, won again in Holland two weeks later, and finished second in Austria: a priceless contribution to his second world title, prior to his divorce from Ferrari in general and the Commendatore in particular.

Then there were two home retirements with Brabham in 1978 and 1979, before Niki’s retirement from racing. He was away for two seasons, establishing Lauda Air, but returned to the Austrian Grand Prix with McLaren in 1982 and finished fifth. He was sixth the following year and then finally, in 1984, he won: his first and only F1 victory at his home circuit. The one that he most longed for and had most often eluded him. At last.

While never his happiest hunting ground, the Styrian track – even in its modern incarnation as the Red Bull Ring – is still strongly associated with Niki’s exploits over the years. Recently, Lauda even put on his overalls again and took the wheel of an F1 car once more, for a few memorable exhibition laps in front of an adoring public. And this year, during the last weekend of June, those memories will feel even more poignant.

This is the first year, for nearly half a century, that there will be an Austrian Grand Prix without Niki Lauda. And that will be painful. A pain that everyone in Formula 1 still feels acutely.

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