When Austrian racing driver Niki Lauda crashed during the German Grand Prix 37 years ago, immediately he became the most talked-about sportsman on the planet and, for the next few weeks at least, he’ll be experiencing a deluge of déjà vu. Rush, the latest film from director Ron Howard, went on general release yesterday (including throughout the UAE) and is one of those incredibly rare pieces of work: a Hollywood blockbuster about motorsport that does its subject justice.
With a budget of $38 million (Dh139.6m) and the help of Lauda himself, Rush tells the story of his on-track battles with the British driver James Hunt in the days when motor racing was seen as little more than a blood sport, such were the chances of being killed. And so far the critics and crowds (it was released two weeks ago in other regions) have been showing it a great deal of love.
Born in Vienna, Austria, on February 22, 1949, Andreas Nikolaus Lauda started motor racing against his well-heeled parents’ wishes. Family wealth and motor racing are inextricably linked, because of the sheer cost of competing even at an amateur level, but Lauda had to fund his entry into Formula Two in 1971 by taking out a large bank loan, after which he signed up to the March team, itself just starting out.
His driving skills were obvious from day one, and he was quickly promoted to compete in Formula One, but a disastrous season followed and Lauda, deep in debt, contemplated ending not only his career but also his own life. Thinking better of it, he took out another loan and joined BRM – in hindsight, not the wisest move, as the team was on its way out – and he continued to set impressive lap times. Lauda was a speed junkie and it wasn’t long before Enzo Ferrari started taking an interest in him.
When Ferrari signed him up for his own team, the signature made in his trademark purple ink immediately cleared Lauda’s debts. At the upper echelons of motor sport, one cannot allow one’s drivers to be distracted by worries about paying the bills, after all. With his fractured relationship with his parents but a distant memory, Lauda’s determination and sheer bloody-mindedness to live life on his own terms began to pay off with podium finishes. Ferrari’s faith in the upstart had been rewarded, and by the end of the 1975 season he was World Champion.
He really made his mark at the Nürburgring, the scene of the German Grand Prix until 1976. Dubbed the “Green Hell” by Sir Jackie Stewart, this circuit is still viewed as the world’s most challenging. Porsche has just entered the record books by setting a lap time of six minutes and 57 seconds – the fastest ever time for a road car – with its new 918 Spyder supercar. Lauda did it in under seven minutes in 1975, and the track was 3.2km longer and even more perilous than it is today. Perhaps it was inevitable that, one day, he would come unstuck.
Lauda, like Stewart before him, was becoming militant about safety (or, rather, the lack of it) in the sport, and attempted a mass boycott of the German race in 1976. He failed to get the support of the majority of his fellow drivers and the race went ahead, but his protestations must still be ringing in the ears of race officials even now.
By the start of the race, Lauda was already comfortably ahead of the pack when it came to points, having amassed double the amount of his closest competitor, Jody Scheckter, during the 1976 season. On the second lap, just as he was approaching the circuit’s most notorious corner (Bergwerk, so called as there had been a silver-and-lead mine situated there until 1900), Lauda’s Ferrari suffered an apparent suspension failure and he careered off the track, hit an embankment and rolled into the path of another car driven by Brett Lunger.
Lunger managed to escape his own wreckage, but Lauda was trapped as his car burst into flames. Lauda’s non-regulation helmet was damaged in the crash and it slid off his head, exposing his face to the ferocious inferno. Poisonous gases entered his lungs, resulting in damage to his internal organs and his blood, as if the resultant external scarring was not enough. When Lunger and three other drivers eventually managed to pull him free, Lauda was still able to stand, but this did not last. He soon slipped into a coma and danced with the Grim Reaper.
By the time that he came out of his slumber, the man who had been nicknamed “The Rat”, because of his protruding teeth, had other things to worry about. He had lost his eyelids, most of his right ear and the hair on the right side of his head. His lungs were in a state, too. But he was never one for vanity and chose to limit plastic surgery to his eyelids, saying in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that he “can’t stand plastic surgery. You have to have enough personality to overcome this beauty bull**** and find the strength to love yourself the way you are.” Over the years, he says, the scars have become less noticeable as the creases that come with age have done a good job of disguising them.
Not wanting to draw attention to his disfigurements (he says he was upset at the time, unable to comprehend the reactions of onlookers), he soon became known for his red cap. Sponsors even paid to advertise on it. And just six weeks after his terrible accident, he was back on the grid, that gritty determination to win preventing him from deferring to any other driver for championship points. It was James Hunt that had been closing the gap in the weeks that Lauda had been out of action. In the final race of the season, Lauda retired after two laps, citing the heavy rain and his inability to blink as reasons, and Hunt finished third to clinch the title by just one point.
It’s this rivalry that’s played out in Rush, although Lauda maintains that the two were good friends and that the film has over-dramatised this element of the story. He says that he wishes Hunt had lived long enough to see their story told on the silver screen, rather than dying after a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1993.
Lauda left Ferrari to join Brabham but told team boss Bernie Ecclestone at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1979 that he was fed up of “driving around in circles”. With his new-found wealth, he had founded his own airline, Lauda Air, and he returned home to Austria to run it full-time.
By 1982, he had run out of money and returned to Formula 1 with McLaren, winning the 1984 World Championship by the narrowest of margins. Soon after that he was done, retiring for good at the end of 1985 to go back to his airline. But even that wasn’t a smooth ride – in 1991 one of his planes crashed in Thailand, killing all 223 people on board.
He sold his shares in Lauda Air and, in 2003, he bought a bankrupt Austrian airline, forming flyNiki, a budget airline that has gone on to win many awards and become part of Air Berlin. Nowadays, Lauda lives in Vienna, leading what he claims is a modest existence with his second wife, Birgit, and their twins, who will turn four years old in September.
The years and his experiences seem to have mellowed him. He’s less militant, easier to get on with and, by all accounts, a genuinely likeable character. Still a fighter, still on the side of the competitor rather than the establishment and, despite the highest odds being stacked against him, still with us.
February 22, 1949 Born in Vienna, Austria
1968 Buys a Mini and starts racing
1972 Buys his way into the March F2 team
1973 After being promoted to F1, he switches to BRM
1974 Signed by Ferrari
1975 Becomes World Champion, but gives away his “useless” trophies
1976 Endures near-fatal crash during German GP
1978 Quits F1
1982 Returns to F1 with McLaren
1985 Retires from racing. Goes on to work as adviser/consultant for two F1 teams
1991 Divorces his first wife, Marlene
2005 The Austrian Post Office issues a stamp in his honour
2008 Marries Birgit, one of his stewardesses
2012 Acts as a consultant on the screenplay for Rush