To mark a year on since Niki Lauda’s death, Kevin Turner picks out the three-time Formula 1 world champion’s 10 greatest drives
It’s now a year since Austrian Formula 1 legend Niki Lauda died, aged 70.
The three-time world champion’s remarkable driving career included 25 victories from 171 world championship F1 starts during two spells either side of a two-year sabbatical, having walked away from Brabham during practice for the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix.
The nearest there was to a benchmark driver in the era between Jackie Stewart’s retirement in 1973 and the arrival of Alain Prost as a true force, Lauda left an indelible mark on the sport both in and out of the car, his role in recruiting Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes as its non-executive chairman proving vital in the team’s recent domination of F1.
One year since his passing, now seemed a good time to look back at Lauda’s 10 greatest F1 drives.
10. 1973 Monaco GP, Monte Carlo
By 1973 Lauda was in considerable debt thanks to the loans he had taken out to pursue a motorsport career, and was paying for a BRM F1 drive via instalments.
Some financial jiggery-pokery had sorted the first one but, just before the Monaco Grand Prix, the second was due and Lauda had no way of paying it. He realised he had to make his mark so that he would be kept on for his driving merits rather than the money he could (or could not) bring.
“It appears that I had caught the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who had watched the Monaco GP on television” Niki Lauda
The BRM P160E’s main issue was power, but the chassis was decent and Lauda qualified sixth – ahead of team ‘leader’ Clay Regazzoni. Helped by some hiccups ahead, Lauda reached third in the race and held off Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari until the BRM’s gearbox failed.
“That evening [BRM boss] Louis Stanley suggested that we forget the instalment payments,” wrote Lauda in his autobiography To Hell and Back.
Even more importantly, the race was key in getting an approach from Ferrari for 1974.
“It appears that I had caught the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who had watched the Monaco GP on television,” added Lauda.
9. 1977 South African GP, Kyalami
This race is mainly remembered for the horrific crash that killed Tom Pryce and a marshal. That should always remain the case, but it should also be remembered as a milestone in Lauda’s recovery.
The comeback from his Nurburgring crash in 1976 had already been remarkable but, heading to round three of 1977, Lauda had still not won since the accident.
Reigning world champion and poleman James Hunt led at the start, with Lauda slotting in behind. The Ferrari tracked the McLaren and, at the start of lap seven, Lauda slipstreamed into the lead. While Hunt turned his attentions to defending second, Lauda pulled clear.
He led the rest of race and won by 5.2 seconds, but Lauda was closer to failure than it looked.
“He described the car as ‘completely gone’,” wrote Autosport’s reporter Jeff Hutchinson. “By that he meant oil pressure and water temperature, which had been flashing their warning at him for the last 25 laps.
“His Ferrari had picked up part of the wreckage of Pryce’s accident and damaged the water system. He ended up with only one third of the usual 12 litres of water left. Almost certainly the engine would have blown up during the next lap or two.”
Nevertheless, Hutchinson added: “It was a brilliantly judged victory. Watch out – Lauda’s back!”
8. 1982 United States GP West, Long Beach
A Donington Park test with McLaren persuaded Lauda he could be competitive if he made an F1 return in 1982, and he proved it to everyone else in just his third race back.
Beaten to Long Beach pole by a last-gasp lap from Andrea de Cesaris, Lauda had to follow the Alfa Romeo in the early stages of the race. Although the gap grew as much as 5.4s, Lauda soon closed.
On lap 15, de Cesaris gave Lauda the chance he needed.
“Through the chicane at the start of Shoreline Drive, de Cesaris was held up by Raul Boesel, and at the exit chose to vent his feelings, shaking his right fist when he should have been using it to change gear,” reported Autosport’s Nigel Roebuck.
“You have to watch yourself when you pass someone who is so busy shaking his fist that he forgets he has to change gear” Niki Lauda on Andrea de Cesaris
“I saw him raise his hand in a threatening gesture and I said to myself: he should be changing gear now,” said Lauda in To Hell and Back. “I pulled out past him, giving him a wide berth. After all, you have to watch yourself when you pass someone who is so busy shaking his fist that he forgets he has to change gear.”
Lauda completed the move at the first corner and started to edge away. When de Cesaris retired shortly before half distance, Lauda was left with a lead of almost 50s over Keke Rosberg’s Williams.
“He made the matter of lapping Long Beach quickly seem deceptively undramatic and simple,” wrote Roebuck, who likened the drive to Lauda’s Ferrari performances in the mid-1970s.
Although he outbraked himself at one point as the track surface broke up, Lauda cruised home. In his first career, Lauda reckoned he’d always been afraid that the car would break in that position, but this time he felt euphoric.
“I have never felt like that before,” he said. “It was beautiful. Coming back and winning the third race of the season – I liked it.”
7. 1983 South African GP, Kyalami
Lauda argued with designer John Barnard that McLaren’s new Porsche turbo car should run before the end of the 1983 season, to iron out the bugs.
“John wouldn’t give an inch, so I had no option other than to go through the back door and do some lobbying and scheming at [main sponsor] Marlboro,” recounted Lauda in To Hell and Back. “Marlboro promptly put pressure on Ron Dennis.”
As Lauda had feared, the MP4/1E did reveal some problems in the McLaren-Porsche combination but, by the season finale at Kyalami, they had largely been resolved and Lauda’s machine had revised intercoolers.
Lauda started only 12th, but swiftly moved through the field. He was 10th at the end of lap one, and gained another spot when Jacques Laffite’s Williams went off after a contretemps with Eddie Cheever. Lauda passed the misfiring Lotus of Elio de Angelis on lap three and two tours later overtook Rene Arnoux’s Ferrari for seventh.
Rosberg was Lauda’s victim on lap six, and on lap nine the McLaren went by poleman Patrick Tambay in the Ferrari. The Alfa Romeo of de Cesaris and championship contender Prost’s Renault were next.
“This was Niki driving with an aggression we have not seen for a long time, and doing it, as ever, with perfect line and judgement,” reported Roebuck.
After just 18 of the 77 laps, Lauda was behind just the dominant Brabham-BMWs and had set a fastest lap beaten only by the lightly fuelled and charging Nelson Piquet.
The leading Brabham built up such a big advantage that Piquet was able to pit and emerge still in the lead, while Lauda pitted shortly afterwards from third. A sticking right-rear wheel meant a long stop and the McLaren rejoined in seventh. Lauda had to charge again.
With eight laps to go Lauda was just 2.9s behind Patrese, but then the Brabham responded and looked safe when the Porsche turbo broke
When Prost retired his Renault just before half distance, Piquet only needed fourth to be sure of his second world title. The Brazilian backed off and eventually team-mate Riccardo Patrese, then Lauda – having again risen to third – went by.
With eight laps to go Lauda was just 2.9s behind Patrese, but then the Brabham responded and looked safe when the Porsche turbo broke. “Lauda will be faster in 1984,” prophesied Roebuck…
6. 1984 French GP, Dijon
For much of the 1984 season, Lauda struggled to match team-mate Prost in qualifying and often needed a bit of luck to beat him in the races. One of the exceptions was at Prost’s home race. Prost suffered wheel problems, but Lauda felt he could have beaten him anyway.
Two engine failures and rain in qualifying meant Lauda started ninth. He immediately went on the offensive, rising to third after 21 of 79 laps, behind Tambay’s Renault and Prost.
“I had to drive harder and more brutally than I really wanted to in case the leading group got away,” said Lauda in To Hell and Back. “I was driving like a madman, pushing beyond what the tyres would take. I had to. There was no point in wait-and-see tactics: all I could see were those two ahead of me.
“Just as I pulled up on Prost, he turned into the pitlane, one wheel loose. Pity he’s gone, I thought to myself, because he hadn’t a hope today.”
Lauda applied pressure to leader Tambay, his attack being more urgent than usual: “I was prepared to risk everything,” he added. “My habitual calm had deserted me.”
Eventually, Tambay made a mistake and Lauda moved into the lead, but then there was confusion. He had planned to make a tyre stop at half distance, but had seen no signal and had lost track of how far into the race he was.
“They hadn’t signalled because Dennis had persuaded himself that it perhaps wasn’t necessary,” recounted Lauda.
“It always makes me angry when you have to drive harder to win than absolutely necessary. Taking unnecessary risks is always stupid” Niki Lauda
Thanks to his earlier charge, Lauda’s tyres were finished so he came in with a third of the race to go and the stop was not swift. Tambay swept by and Lauda drove “like a maniac” to reel him in and retake the lead.
“I was really angry with Ron,” wrote Lauda, “because he hadn’t respected our halfway agreement. It always makes me angry when you have to drive harder to win than absolutely necessary. Taking unnecessary risks is always stupid.”
But this time they paid off. Lauda had scored a vital victory that kept him in sight of Prost in the championship fight.
5. 1975 Monaco GP, Monte Carlo
Lauda’s dominant 1976 performance around the streets of Monte Carlo almost made this list – he took pole and led every lap – but his 1975 win stands out because it was a more challenging event.
Lauda arrived having not won for nearly a year, but took pole by 0.69s. A fast-starting Jean-Pierre Jarier attacked at Mirabeau but only succeeded in damaging his Shadow, and he crashed later around the first lap. That left Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus and the second Shadow of Pryce chasing the Ferrari as they pulled clear of the rest in wet conditions.
As the track dried, Pryce was the first of the trio to dive in for slick tyres, and a change of nose. Lauda came in next, leaving Peterson to lead a lap, but a slow Lotus stop (thanks to a dropped wheelnut) put the Swede out of contention.
Lauda moved back to the front, now chased by reigning world champion Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren. Fittipaldi put on a mighty charge, but the gap came down slowly until the Ferrari flat-12’s oil pressure began to fall and the cushion started coming down more quickly.
Fortunately for Lauda, the early slow running meant the two-hour rule kicked in and the chequered flag was waved after 75 laps instead of 78. But given his performance, that was a little bit of luck he probably deserved.
“He always had pressure on him, for whether in the rainy conditions of the start or the dry of the finish he had either Peterson or Fittipaldi ready to profit from the slightest falter,” reported Pete Lyons in Autosport.
Lauda’s first win was also the first part of a hat-trick that took him into a lead of the world championship he never lost.
4. 1978 Monaco GP, Monte Carlo
After the politics of Ferrari, Lauda enjoyed working with Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone and designer Gordon Murray. His time in Brabham-Alfa Romeo machinery was, however, hampered by poor reliability.
There were highlights and perhaps Lauda’s best performance came at Monaco, a venue he didn’t like but at which he invariably excelled.
Lauda qualified third, behind team-mate John Watson, and ran third in the early stages behind Watson and Patrick Depailler’s Tyrrell. Watson led until lap 38 of 75, when worsening brake problems sent him down the chicane escape road. Shortly after that, Lauda pitted from second to take on fresh tyres following a puncture.
“This was Lauda at his best, and you could not help but think of Jochen Rindt’s drive in 1970” Nigel Roebuck in Autosport
Now came “as great a drive as we have seen for years”, according to Autosport’s Roebuck. “We were about to see why this man is world champion.
“In the past 18 months, we have seen him triumph so often on canniness and consistency. But that policy went out of the window after his pitstop. This was Lauda at his best, and you could not help but think of Jochen Rindt’s drive in 1970.”
Lauda rejoined sixth, which became fifth when Peterson’s Lotus retired. He then caught Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari and was attacking when the 312T3 suffered a puncture and crashed.
Watson waived his team-mate through for third, allowing Lauda to chase after Jody Scheckter’s Wolf. He forced his way into second with less than three laps to go. During his charge he lapped faster than he had in practice – and 1.9s faster than anyone else managed in the GP.
“It is a long time since we have seen a drive like this one,” reckoned Roebuck. “It was a storming and majestic performance.”
3. 1984 Portuguese GP, Estoril
A race in which a driver finishes 13s behind his team-mate would not normally feature strongly on a list like this, but Lauda selected the 1984 Portuguese GP as his Race of My Life when asked by Autosport. Largely that’s because Lauda did what he had to do to take the title at the end of what he believed was his toughest season, alongside upcoming great Prost at McLaren. If Prost won, Lauda had to finish second to take the crown.
Things did not start well. Lauda’s chances weren’t helped by electrical and engine issues, despite a change of his TAG Porsche powerplant. He also made a rare error and could only qualify 11th, nine spots and 1.4s behind Prost.
Despite topping the warm-up session, Lauda also suffered a water leak, which meant another engine change, and the pressure was on. “Psychologically, this turn of events must have been hard to deal with,” opined Roebuck.
Lauda also had to bide his time early on because he had a problem with his left-hand turbo.
“I was stuck in traffic for half the race,” Lauda told Autosport. “I couldn’t pass anybody because right at the beginning my turbo broke. I couldn’t develop the power, so I couldn’t pass anybody. I was handicapped. It was a very difficult race.”
On lap nine Prost took the lead and thereafter controlled the GP. At this point Lauda was only ninth and still had a lot of work to do. He gained one place when Derek Warwick’s Renault spun on lap 13 and another when he overtook the Lotus of de Angelis on lap 19.
Prost and Nigel Mansell were now well clear of the five-car gaggle, led by Ayrton Senna’s Toleman, that Lauda was at the back of. But then things started to go his way. He overtook Stefan Johansson – escaping damage from minor contact – and moved into fifth when Michele Alboreto made a mistake. Lauda then picked off Rosberg on lap 31 and Senna on lap 33, but Mansell – who held the second the Austrian needed – was 37.5s ahead.
The gap came down a little for a while, but was still 26.3s at the end of lap 43 and thereafter started to creep up again in traffic. Lauda believed he would have caught Mansell, but that is far from certain.
“I liked my win in 1977, coming back after the accident, but this was much harder. When you win the title against a man like Prost – and the equipment is the same – you can’t relax for a single race” Niki Lauda
“All things being equal, Niki was not going to catch Mansell,” reckoned Roebuck.
Then came Lauda’s piece of good fortune. Just after two thirds distance, Mansell started suffering from brake trouble and on lap 51 he spun. Lauda moved into second as the Lotus toured into the pits to retire.
Prost took victory, but Lauda crossed the line 13.4s later to secure his third world title by half a point.
“This championship means more than the others,” said Lauda. “I liked my win in 1977, coming back after the accident, but this was much harder. When you win the title against a man like Prost – and the equipment is the same – you can’t relax for a single race. There has been pressure all the way.”
2. 1985 Dutch GP, Zandvoort
If Lauda was fortunate at times in 1984, all that evaporated the following year as he struggled to finish races. He started to lose interest and decided to retire, but there was still one more great victory to come.
Lauda was down on power in the quickest practice session and found himself only 10th on the grid at Zandvoort, but – as usual – the McLaren-Porsches were impressive in race trim.
Poleman Piquet failed to move at the start and neither did Thierry Boutsen’s Arrows, and Lauda completed the first lap in a remarkable fifth place. He soon dispensed with the Toleman of Teo Fabi and on lap 14 he overtook the Lotus of Senna. Only Rosberg’s Williams and team-mate Prost were now ahead, and on lap 20 of 70 the Finn suffered an engine failure.
Lauda was suffering with oversteer, thanks to choosing a harder-compound tyre for the left-rear, and pitted for new rubber. He later admitted that he felt the change had been too soon, but it was better than Prost’s later stop on lap 33 that dropped him to third, a quarter of a minute behind leader Lauda.
Contrary to what Lauda believed had been planned, the team had fitted the same combination of three softs and one hard as he’d had before. He still had oversteer.
“Now the real race began,” wrote Autosport’s Roebuck.
Just as in the Austrian GP a week before, Prost started closing on his team-mate. That finely poised battle had been ruined when Lauda’s turbo failed, but this time the two McLarens raced to the end.
On lap 47, Prost – with softs all round – went by Senna. The gap to Lauda was 10.7s with 23 laps to go.
“The classic place to take me was at the end of the long straight. I had to concentrate particularly hard on driving the corner before so cleanly that I could drive flat out away as early as possible” Niki Lauda
“With a supreme effort on lap 57 Alain closed the gap to 2.6s, setting another record lap, but on lap 60 Niki actually pulled out a quarter of a second,” enthused Roebuck. “Yes, indeed, this was a race.”
With seven laps to go they were together.
“I was absolutely flat out, on the limit,” admitted Lauda. “The classic place to take me was at the end of the long straight. I had to concentrate particularly hard on driving the corner before so cleanly that I could drive flat out away as early as possible.”
There was one other place Prost could try – and he did right at the end of the race.
“He tried to force through on the inside into the chicane,” recounted Lauda. “I’d been expecting this and I held the middle line. Prost was forced onto the grass verge with his two nearside wheels.”
Lauda held on to take his 25th and final F1 victory by 0.232s from the man that would take his mantle as world champion before season’s end.
1. 1976 Italian GP, Monza
“I said that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly. That was a lie, but it would have been foolish to tell the truth and play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza I was rigid with fear. Training in the rain on Friday before the race was so terrifying that I got out of the car at the first available opportunity.”
Lauda’s own words, from To Hell and Back, help explain why this is number one. It might not technically have been his best race but, just six weeks after he was nearly killed in the fiery Nurburgring crash, surely this was his greatest. It’s almost certainly the greatest comeback in motorsport.
Having scared himself on the first day of practice, Lauda regrouped on Saturday: “What I had done wrong was attempt to drive as fast I had done before the shunt, quite irrespective of my weakened condition and the rain. I hadn’t held the car in check as I usually would have done.”
Lauda gradually got quicker and quicker. Unimpressed by Ferrari’s mixed response internally to the accident, Lauda outqualified both his team-mates, regular colleague Regazzoni and Carlos Reutemann, brought in to ‘replace’ Lauda.
He was, however, caught out by the seemingly premature start and briefly fell to 12th. The Ferrari worked its way up the field and coped with intermittent rain. When both Tyrrells started losing power, the remarkable Lauda moved into fourth.
With three laps to go the oil pressure started to fall, but he kept going and held off Scheckter’s Tyrrell by 0.1s to secure fourth. His pain and discomfort after an hour and a half of averaging over 120mph can scarcely be imagined.
“Hero of the meeting was Niki Lauda who never relaxed from racing speed right the way through,” wrote Lyons. “When he took off his helmet his balaclava was soaked in blood where his healing burns had opened up.”