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Testing the limits

For many years, Lauda championed safer racecar and track designs, and urged tighter controls over driving conditions and rules governing race organisers

Robert D McFadden | NYT 

Niki Lauda, the Austrian driver who won three world championships in Formula One, the sport’s highest level of competition, and was regarded as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, died on Monday in Zurich. He was 70.

The scion of an industrial family that opposed his daredevil driving career, Lauda (pronounced LAO-da) was a road warrior who dazzled motoring experts and crowds that lined the twisting, turning courses of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas for gruelling all-weather races. For a driver, it took guts, focus and precision moves among the shifting packs roaring at high speeds.

is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits,” Lauda told The Telegraph of London in 2015.

“This is why people race — to feel the speed, the car and the control. If in my time you pushed too far, you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive.”

In his 17-year career (1969-85) in the open cockpit of Porsches, Ferraris, and other high-tech torpedoes on wheels, mostly in competition, Lauda won 25 races. Points were awarded to the top six finishers in a race (today it is the top 10), and by amassing the highest point total in 16 authorised races, Lauda won the world driving championships in 1975, 1977, and 1984.

Since the crowns were first awarded, in 1950, only five drivers have surpassed Lauda’s three titles. After winning his first world driving championship, Lauda seemed destined to repeat in 1976. He won five early events and came in second in two more.

But in his next race, the German at Nürburgring, a 14-mile, 76-curve course, things went drastically wrong for him and his 1,300-pound blood-red Ferrari.

It had rained, and he hit a slippery patch at 140 miles per hour. He spun out, broke through a restraining fence, which snagged and tore away his helmet, then hit an embankment and bounced back onto the track, where he was hit by several following cars. His ruptured fuel tank burst into flames, which engulfed him in the cockpit.

By the time three other drivers pulled him from the wreckage, he had severe burns on the face, head and hands, a concussion, a broken collarbone and other fractures. His right ear was badly burned. Noxious smoke and gases from the car’s burning interior seared his lungs. He was taken to a hospital in a coma, then to a burn centre, seemingly near death.

On Lauda’s third day in intensive care, a Roman Catholic priest gave him the last rites of the church. Lauda was conscious, and the rites only made him angry. “I kept telling myself, If he wants to do that, O.K., but I’m not quitting,” Lauda told Newsday after he began a remarkable recovery. He had a series of operations and skin grafts that left permanent scarring on his head.

He lost part of his right ear, the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows and both eyelids. He chose to limit reconstructive surgery to the eyelids, and thereafter wore a red baseball cap to cover the worst disfigurements. But he began talking, walking and making plans for his return to racing.

Six weeks after his devastating crash, Lauda returned to competition in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, near Milan. He finished fourth. Against all odds, he began winning again, and finished as runner-up to the 1976 world champion, his British friend James Hunt.

Sustaining his comeback a year later, Lauda again won the world championship, beating Jody Scheckter. Seven years later, after a series of poor racing seasons and a two-year “retirement,” Lauda won his final Formula One championship. He retired from racing in 1985.

For many years, Lauda championed safer and track designs, and urged tighter controls over driving conditions and rules governing race organisers. “Racing on substandard tracks or in unsafe weather doesn’t test courage,” Lauda told The Boston Globe in 1977.

Over the years, in response to deadly crashes and the increasing power of engines, sanctioning organisations have mandated many changes in safety regulations and technology, including electronic driver aids and grooved tires, to improve the road grip and cornering controls of cars, as well as rules limiting racing in extreme weather conditions to minimise dangers of aquaplaning. Tracks have been redesigned and stronger barriers built to increase the safety of spectators. Major accidents in Formula One racing have steadily declined.

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First Published: Sat, May 25 2019. 02:36 IST