|Niki and James (ESPN photo)|
The Niki Lauda/James Hunt championship battle in 1976 was the most
dramatic in F1 history. Niki nearly died in the German Grand Prix, James won it - this last last ever F1 GP at the terrifying, original Nurburgring, otherwise known as The Green Hell...
The tenth race of the 1976 season was the German Grand Prix at the monumental Nurburgring - the mother and father of all road racing circuits. Carved out of rugged terrain in the heavily forested Eiffel mountains west of Koblenz, its tortuous, tree-lined 14.19 mile length punctuated by 177 distinct corners and many lesser curves and kinks, represented the ultimate challenge for the bravest men in the fastest racing machines.
But the daunting test of courage and skill around the madly writhing roller-coaster-ride-of-a-track - where speeding cars slewed sideways through the eccentric swoops and swerves, hurtled inches from the trees over a surface made damp by the nearly always present mist and fog, flew six feet into the air over the blind brows, - was also a great leap of faith for the drivers. And over its 50 year history, the treacherous Nurburgring had become notorious for creating as many martyrs as heroes.
Fatalities had claimed an estimated 130 lives since the circuit opened in 1920. Deaths and injuries had been reduced in recent years by safety measures - mainly more catch fencing and steel guardrails to keep cars from flying into the trees - but the circuit remained the most dangerous in the world.
Fastest race lap speeds had increased from 66.49 miles per hour, recorded during the first German Grand Prix here, in 1927, to the 119.79 mph clocked by Clay Regazzoni in a Ferrari in 1975.
The accident potential had increased multifold, the circuit was simply too long to marshal effectively, there were too many places where crash scenes could not be reached quickly by safety crews, and many drivers thought the Nurburgring should be put out to pasture before it claimed another life.
Jackie Stewart was one of the most vociferous critics, though he won the German race three times and his victory here - by over four minutes in pouring rain and thick fog - in 1968 was probably the most impressive of his illustrious career.
"Nothing gave me more satisfaction than to win at the Nurburgring and yet I was always afraid," Stewart admitted. "When I left home to race in the German Grand Prix I always used to pause at the end of the driveway and take a long look back. I was never sure that I would come home again."
Jackie Stewart was afraid at the Nurburgring
yet won there three times
In qualifying for the 1975 version of the race Niki Lauda had put his Ferrari on pole with the first ever lap under seven minutes at the track. But this year, at a drivers meeting, he had proposed that they boycott the dangerous Ring but was voted down and relcutantly accepted the decision of the majority of his peers.
"Some of them wanted to seem brave", Niki said, "others were simply too stupid to know what they were doing. I steeled myself to drive that fast lap in 1975, although my brain kept telling me it was sheer stupidity. The antithesis between the modern-day racing car and the Stone Age circuit was such that I knew every driver was taking his life in his hands to the most ludicrous degree."
Speaking before practice began, Niki was particularly worried about the proximity of guardrails to the tarmac and the lack of runoff areas to slow down an out-of-control car.
"My personal opinion is that the Nurburgring is just too dangerous to drive on nowadays. On any of the modern circuits if something breaks on my car I have a 70/30 chance that I will be alright or I will be dead.
"Here, if you have any failure on the car, one hundred percent death! We're not discussing if I make a mistake, but if I have failure on the car. If I make a mistake and kill myself, then tough shit."
Still, the circuit was tremendously exhilerating. The Swedish driver Gunnar Nilsson (who died of cancer two years later), after his first exploratory trip around the Nurburgring in his Lotus, was moved to exclaim: "It's so exciting, each corner is like a porno movie!"
"I'm frightened, I don't mind telling you", said James Hunt after qualifying his McLaren. "I'm glad to see the finish line every lap. But whether they're frightened of the Ring or not, everybody wants to win here. When it comes right down to it, you either don't come, or you get on with the job of racing. So I've got on with the job and I've wound up on pole position again."
Niki, who had clocked a time just under a second slower than James, was alongside him on the front row as they sat waiting for the commencement of their 14 lap journey into the great unknown.
Both men had set their fears aside in qualifying - they were over a second quicker than the next fastest drivers - and looming over the prospect of another instalment of the season-long Hunt versus Lauda battle was the irony that both men loathed the circuit.
Their trepidation was heightened by the overcast sky from which drops of rain began to fall, at least at the start line, and showers were reported on other parts of the circuit. The atmosphere was tense with dramatic foreboding as the field blasted away into the gathering gloom.
At the end of the second lap only 14 cars came past the pits and in the ensuing ominously eerie silence it became obvious that there was trouble somewhere out on the treacherous Nurburgring. The red flags were shown and an announcement was made that a serious accident had blocked the track at Bergwerk, the most northerly corner of the circuit. News filtered in that Niki Lauda's Ferrari had left the road due to a suspected mechanical failure...
Niki Lauda's horrendous accident (Colin Rowe-Youtube)
Travelling at an estimated 120 miles per hour the Ferrari flew through the catch fences on the outside of the corner, scattering wooden posts and wire, slammed heavily into an earth bank which ruptured the fuel cells, then rebounded back out onto the track where it slithered to a halt and erupted in flames.
The first following car, a Hesketh driven by Guy Edwards, managed to avoid the burning Ferrari by zig-zagging through the wall of fire that surrounded it. But Brett Lunger's Surtees slammed head on into the flaming wreckage and the carnage intensified when Harald Ertl's Hesketh skidded into both the stationary cars.
As Lunger and Ertl clambered unhurt from their wrecked machines through the flames they could see the Ferrari driver waving his arms as if to ward off the fire from his face. Somehow his helmet had been knocked askew and Niki Lauda was trapped in the blazing cockpit.
All the following cars stopped safely short of the accident scene and several drivers ran to Lauda's aid. The heroic rescue efforts were led by the American Lunger (a Viet Nam veteran and a member of the wealthy American Dupont family - he had just learned of his father's death the day before), the Englishman Edwards, the German Ertl (a journalist/driver who, like Edwards was driving for Bubbles Horsley's resurrected Hesketh team) and the diminutive Italian Arturo Merzario (driving a Williams).
Fearlessly, the four in their fireproof driving suits and helmets charged into the searing flames and worked frantically over Lauda, trying to lift him out. But their best efforts at first met with failure because he because he was being held firmly in place by his safety harness.
The rescuers became increasingly desperate and after a few moments, as Ertl ran off to get a fire extinguisher, Lunger straddled the cockpit and pulled on Lauda's shoulders while Merzario reached into the red hot cockpit to search for the release mechanism on the seat belts.
In the awful struggle Lauda's helmet fell off and the flames licked around his fireproof balaclava. Ertl quelled the fire somewhat by emptying an extinguisher over the rescue operation but the conflagration soon flared up worse than ever.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Merzario was able to unfasten the belts and Lunger and Lauda tumbled out of the horrific inferno and onto the ground. Some of the other drivers who had stopped pitched in to attend the stricken Austrian.
Astonishingly he was still conscious and with the help of Lunger, John Watson, Emerson Fittipaldi and Hans Stuck, he was able to stagger to the other side of the track where he was made to lie down.
As they stripped off his scorched driving suit Niki began babbling in Italian to Merzario but his face was badly burned and when they removed his charred balaclava both Merzario and Lunger got blood on their hands.
Only those drivers who had witnessed the gruesome holocaust at Bergwerk understood the implications of Niki's crash: having sat for so long in the fire he must be seriously hurt. The accident had happened some distance behind the frontrunners and for them the news that he was able to walk and talk was reassuring. To James it seemed that Niki had got off remarkably lightly.
"He was taken off to hospital and obviously wouldn't be racing again that day but we thought he'd have his burns patched up and we'd see him at the next race in Austria. That was what we felt then, there were no alarm stories so one was able to get into the car and go racing again with no qualms."
While James and the others readied themselves for the restart of the German Grand Prix, Chris Amon had had enough. The veteran New Zealander had already suffered several serious accidents in his Ensign this season and after crashing badly at the race in Sweden he sat in his shattered cockpit for a while "sort of taking in the fact that I was still alive." He was one of those most reluctant to race at the Nurburgring and now, after seeing how slowly and inadequately the circuit's emergency services had responded to Lauda's accident, he withdrew.
As the 14 lap race began all over again James cleared his mind of everything but the task at hand and streaked into a lead that was never threatened. He called that first lap: "probably the most aggressive piece of driving I did all year. I was absolutely determined to get as big a lead as possible and everything turned out right."
Round and round he roared, taming the desperate challenges of the mighty Nurburgring with great skill and daring, his pace scarcely slackening over the full 198.66 mile race distance.
By the time he had finished, half a minute ahead of the second and third place men, Jody Scheckter and Jochen Mass, James had accomplished what he always considered to be one of his most satisfying drives. As for the absence of any competition from Niki Lauda, James, whose victory had brought him to within 14 points of his rival, pointed out that he was well ahead of the Ferrari when the accident happened and felt that this was always going to be his race to win. But he wished his friend a full and speedy recovery.
"The thing I want most of all is for Niki to be fit and well and back on the track again. The last thing I would want would be to win a World Championship with him watching me on a television set from his hospital bed."
Sadly, Niki was then in no condition to watch anything. In fact he was nearly dead and on Monday morning when James heard the bad news he felt "so utterly hopeless and helpless.
"I couldn't visit him so I went home and sent him a telegram. I can't remember exactly what I said but it was something provocative to annoy him and then I told him to fight, because I knew if he was annoyed and fighting, he would pull through. If he relaxed and gave in, he would probably die. You've got to stay conscious and physically fight it yourself, and I knew Niki would be aware of that.
"I got on very well with Niki and always had done since we first met in Formula 3 and gypsied around Europe together. We raced against each other but we also teamed up as mates, not just casual acquaintances.
"It was suddenly very important for me that Niki should live, in a way I hadn't realised, and I felt awful because there was nothing I could do about it. There I was sitting at home enjoying life even when I didn't particularly want to, when I wanted to go and help or do something and I couldn't. It was a strange time for me."
From the Nurburgring Niki Lauda was flown to a special burns hospital in Mannheim where a team of six doctors and 34 nurses tended him round the clock. His injuries were diagnosed as first to third degree burns on his head and wrists, several broken ribs and a broken collarbone and cheekbone.
Much more serious were the poisonous fumes and toxic gases inhaled from the Ferrari's burning plastic bodywork, from the burning fuel and from the fire extinguisher powder. His windpipe and lungs were scorched and the buildup of fluid in his lungs was life threatening. The medical people told his wife Marlene, who never left his side, there was nothing more they could do for him.
'To Hell And Back' was the apt title Niki chose for one volume of his memoirs. In it he says his 'last recollection before the race is of changing from wets to slicks and driving away from the pits. Next, the chatter of a helicopter. I'm lying in bed. I'm tired. I want to sleep. I don't want to know any more. It will all be over soon.'
On the third day a priest was brought into his room to give him the last rites. Niki wavered in and out of consciousness but he understood what was going on as the man of God laid his hands on him and prayed over his body. They were giving up on him.
'He speaks in Latin. It sounds like a judgement. You can die from extreme unction like that just as you can die from shock. The priest says nothing kind, never mentions the possibility that I might recover. This is very bad. They should give you some encouragement. I was so cross I wanted to shout: "HEY, STOP THIS!THIS IS THE WORST FUCKUP YOU MAKE IN YOUR LIFE!. I AM NOT GOING TO DIE!"'
His 'lungs had turned to shit' but Niki kept himself alive, according to the doctors, by sheer force of will. After the fourth day he was declared out of danger and began an astonishing recovery that made the medical profession marvel.
Mercifully, it was some time before he was able to read the headline in a German tabloid newspaper which asked the question: 'My God, Where Is His Face?...it is no more than raw flesh with eyes oozing out of it...how can he face life without a face?'
After many skin grafts his face was made reasonably presentable, his eyelids were rebuilt with plastic surgery but angry scars remained and no attempt was made to replace the missing half of his right ear. Niki said it made it easier for him to talk on the telephone.
- excerpt from James HUNT The Biography by Gerald Donaldson