Niki Lauda, the Iron Man of Formula 1

Adreesh Ghoshal
9 min readDec 3, 2020
Niki before his accident. Source

Imagine being trapped in a burning Formula 1 car for 55 seconds. The burns, the fumes, and the very thought that it’s the end. The helplessness and the pain, coupled with the mind-numbing terror of it all. Imagine being given up for dead, then winning the Formula 1 World Championship a year later. Only superhuman determination could make it possible.

That, of course, wouldn’t be surprising if you’re Andreas Nikolaus Lauda or Niki Lauda.

Niki Lauda, the Austrian F1 legend, was a symbol of everything that motorsports stand for; resilience, courage, intellect, determination, and precision. And above all else, a burning will to win. And to forgo everything else in the sole pursuit of victory.

On Feb 22, 1949, Nicholas Lauda was born into a family of wealthy industrialists and bankers. He had no interest in the family business, however, since he wanted to drive more than anything else. This created a lot of strife, his grandfather soon turning out into his worst enemy and blocking all his efforts to break away from the family’s plans for him. They wanted him to become a business magnate, whereas he wanted to set lap records.

Never one to back down from a goofy photo-op. Source

Like all young men, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He started his career in Formula Vee with a Mini, in 1968. Then, a few crash-filled years later, in 1972, he entered Formula 2. All of this needed money, of course, so he borrowed as much as he could from banks. Formula One was another ball game, however. It required a much larger investment, which is why he gambled away his life insurance policy to apply for a loan. This got him a seat in the March Formula One Team.

The slow, cumbersome Marches, however, proved to be a bad choice.

The 1972 March 721X was an experimental version of the March 721 car. It used a Ford 3-liter V-8 engine a Hewland transversely-mounted gearbox and a new crank-and-lever rear suspension. This car was designed around Porsche and Alfa designs. It had a full-width, tea-tray like front nose, a roll cage, and an exposed engine. They were let down by bad tyre compounds supplied by Goodyear, causing the front suspension to overload. This resulted in demonic handling characteristics, making it a beast to drive. The car was quickly replaced by the 721G, which used a Formula 2 chassis, larger fuel tanks, and a widened engine compartment to accommodate the Ford 3-liter engine.

This car was one of the best that they ever made

The March 721. Source

In 1973, he again applied for a loan in order to race with British Racing Motors (BRM), a considerably more successful team in the 70’s F1 world. He was paired with Clay Regazzoni, an Italian who marveled, and some times dreaded the Austrian’s single-mindedness on the track. This friendship would prove to be of value when Ferrari came calling. Regazzoni put in a good word about the Austrian, and Enzo Ferrari agreed to take him along. Luca Di Montezemolo found a friend in the Austrian and later on made him a Ferrari F1 consultant in 1993.

The 1975 Ferrari 312T. Source

The 1975 Ferrari 312T was an updated version of the Tipo 312B3, a car that suffered from overheating and chronic engine troubles. The 312T, therefore had an improved flat-12 engine, a new de Dion rear axle, and a new transversely-mounted five-speed gearbox. Hence, the “T” in the name. This gearbox created a near-perfect weight-split between the front and rear wheels. It also had in-board front suspension and was rated at 480 bhp at 12,000 rpm.

This was the turning point in his career.

Niki Lauda now had a team and car to back his prowess. And the handsome salary was much welcome, too, especially since he owed the banks a truckload of money. As the 1973 season commenced, even Ferrari seemed to have trouble finding the necessary race pace. In spite of that, he secured a second place win at his debut race at the Argentine Grand Prix. His first win came three races later at the 1974 Spanish Grand Prix.

This was the prancing horses’ first win since 1972.

Lauda riding high. Source

At the start of the 1975 F1 season, Lauda took control in his classic, calculative style and clinched four F1 wins with the new 312T. This was also the year that Niki Lauda won his first F1 title and Ferrari finally won a constructors’ title after 11 years. After that, Niki Lauda was unstoppable. He was in such brilliant form that in 1976, he became the first driver to lap the dreaded Nürburgring in under seven minutes, a record that stood for years. Ferrari was under new management, with Daniele Audetto taking over as team manager from Luca Di Montezemolo. In spite of ongoing tensions, Lauda won four of the six races that year, finishing second in the remaining two.

Now, 1976 was one of the best and the worst years in Lauda’s career. In spite of that mercurial record-setting drive at the Nürburgring, he was against the commencement of the ongoing German Grand Prix. He complained to the race authorities when he realized that the track wasn’t safe enough for no-holds-barred F1 racing. A drivers’ vote was held, and he lost. The race was on, for all intents and purposes.

During the second lap of the race at the “Green Hell”, Niki Lauda’s Ferrari spun, hit an embankment and burst into flames. The car stopped moving, trapping the Austrian driver in the wreckage. His helmet had fallen off in the impact, and there were flames and poisonous fumes all around him. Thanks to the brave efforts of his fellow drivers, he was rescued from his car. But the damage was already done by then. He suffered severe burns to his head and face.The toxic smoke he inhaled damaged his lungs and poisoned his blood. He went into a coma and was airlifted to safety.

Due to the accident, Lauda lost most of his right ear, the hair on the right side of his head, and on his eyebrows and eyelids. Reconstructive surgery could repair the damage, but he chose against it since it would degrade his vision, and he wanted beyond anything else to get back on the track.

Flames that melted the famous Lauda-Hunt rivalry. Source

In a display of the traditional Lauda spirit that we know came naturally to the Austrian legend, he was back in the office within six weeks. He missed only two races, and appeared at the pre-race press conference at Monza, his face and scalp still bandaged. Incredibly, he raced and even finished fourth in the Italian GP. Niki Lauda followed up with double wins in the Canadian and the United States Grand Prix and was on the verge of winning another championship that year.

Now, the next race was the famous 1976 Japanese Grand Prix. It was so wet that cars were spinning during practice laps. The incessant rain made driving almost impossible for him. His eyes were watering excessively due to his burnt tear ducts and his inability to blink. In spite of that, he was at the starting grid, but withdrew after two laps, incensing fans and Ferrari management alike. 1977 was a tough year because he didn’t like his teammate, Carlos Rautemann. He endured the constant infighting and won a sedately-raced 1977 F1 title. Lauda parted ways with Ferrari that year.

In 1978, Niki Lauda landed a $1 million contract with Brabham Alfa- Romeo. His steed? The fantastic Brabham BT46B also called the “Fan Car”. He won the Swedish GP, but the car was deemed illegal after that. The car was replaced by the troublesome flat-12 version of the BT 46B, causing Lauda to retire in 9 out of the 14 races. The 12-cylinder engine was replaced by a v-12 design for the 1979 season, which was again dotted with engine failures and retirements.

The 1978 Brabham BT46B was the brainchild of genius designer Sir Gordon Murray. It was powered by a flat-12, 3-liter Alfa Romeo engine that developed 500 bhp at 11,500 rpm. The most peculiar feature about this car was the addition of a huge fan below the rear wing. This fan was driven by the engine and provided an aerodynamic suction effect that massively increased the downforce. This increased the car’s mechanical grip the faster the engine ran. This effect was first demonstrated by the Lotus Type 79 and the Chaparral 2CJ.

Completely frustrated by Alfa’s ineffective engineering, Lauda temporarily retired from F1, saying he did not wish to “drive around in circles”. The same year, in 1979, he also founded Lauda Air, a charter airline. This airline became operational in 1985 and was subsequently merged with Austrian Airlines in 2013. Interestingly, Lauda was a certified pilot and often captained many flights.

How could someone with racing in his blood stay away from the white-hot world of Formula 1, though? Lauda came back to F1 after signing a historic $5 million deal (alleged) with McLaren. Marlboro, the main sponsor doubted if Lauda still had it in him to race at the bleeding edge of motor racing. Lauda proved them wrong by winning the Long Beach Grand Prix, just three races after he returned to F1.

Five years after his retirement and two years after his comeback to F1, Niki Lauda steered his McLaren MP4/2 to the 1985 world championship, making it the third in his career. This time, his teammate was another mercurial driver, Alain Prost, and the two became good friends.

The car looked good on him, even in 2015. Source

The 1984 Mclaren MP4/2 was one of the first cars to feature a chassis made completely out of carbon-fiber, a revolutionary new material in the 1980s. The car was powered by a TAG-Porsche 1.5-liter 90-degree v-6 engine, rated at a massive 800 hp when turbocharged. The cars were so good that they often ran together and finished together. To make matters worse for other teams, they were driven by a string of successful drivers like Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, and Ayrton Senna. The MP4/2 was very light, which is why it offered superb fuel consumption and razor-sharp handling. The McLarens of the 80s weren’t the fastest on the grid but were the most reliable ones in every race.

1985 was a bad year for the tenacious Austrian. He suffered 11 retirements in fourteen races. He announced his retirement at the end of the year, marking the end of a legendary F1 career.

The Iron Man of Formula 1, Niki Lauda has been portrayed in the 2013 Chris Hemsworth-Daniel Bruhl-starrer, Rush. The veteran was often seen on the sets of the film, assisting Daniel Bruhl and offering key advice to the film staff. He has also worked as an advisor for Ferrari, served as a team principal for Jaguar and even took to the camera as an F1 commentator, a role which he actually was quite suited for. The Austrian racing driver also worked as the Non-Executive Chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, board member of Mercedes AMG Powertrains and special advisor to Daimler AG.

And, to top it off, here are some Niki Lauda moments for you to enjoy


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  2. The Guardian —
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Adreesh Ghoshal

Automobile Engineer. Content Writer. Biker. Defense Enthusiast. Indian.