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'Thank God he eventually lost consciousness; it was only when he relaxed that I could free the buckle'

Maurice Hamilton recalls the near-death crash suffered by Formula One legend Niki Lauda.

The Austrian Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda with scarred face, head bandage and burns during a press conference after a near-fatal accident.
The Austrian Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda with scarred face, head bandage and burns during a press conference after a near-fatal accident.
Image: DPA/PA Images

Updated Dec 28th 2020, 12:04 PM

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Niki Lauda’ by Maurice Hamilton.

Niki Lauda had dealt with the potential hazards of Fuchsröhre, the descent to Adenau and the rest. Reaching 130 mph through a left-hand bend — so innocuous it was one of many Stewart had never mentioned — the rear of the Ferrari suddenly twitched right and then left. It immediately speared through catch fencing and into an earth bank on the right before rebounding and spinning into the middle of the track with one side of the car on fire, the left-hand fuel cell having been ripped off by the impact.

The flames became an instant inferno when the Ferrari was rammed amid ships and sent 100 metres further on by the Surtees of Brett Lunger after the American slammed on his brakes and desperately tried to avoid the wreck; the tangled mess was compounded by the arrival of Harald Ertl’s Hesketh.

At some point during this shocking sequence, Lauda’s helmet had been ripped off, fracturing a cheekbone in the process. That injury would be the least of his worries. Lunger and Ertl were joined by Guy Edwards (who had squeaked past the wayward Ferrari as it came away from the grass bank) and Arturo Merzario, who had just managed to stop short in his Williams. They found Lauda partly conscious in the cockpit in the middle of this blaze.

With just one hopelessly equipped and inadequately dressed marshal on hand, the drivers knew they had to act quickly. Ertl found an extinguisher, thumped it into life and began spraying the cockpit area. Lunger, a veteran of the Vietnam War, straddled the middle of the car, but it was impossible to make progress until Merzario, a former Ferrari driver and familiar with the seat belts, dived into the intense heat and released the buckle on Lauda’s six-point harness.

‘It wasn’t easy,’ recalled the little Italian. ‘Niki was obviously in agony, straining hard against the belts, trying to get away from the flames. Thank God he eventually lost consciousness; it was only when he relaxed that I could free the buckle… ’ The release of body weight caused Lunger to topple over, taking Lauda with him.

They helped Lauda to the side of the track as other drivers, including John Watson, arrived on the scene. Now in his third full season of F1, Watson was driving for the American Penske team.

Watson said: “I pulled up just as they were getting Niki out of the car. I had no idea what had happened, but it was clearly a mess with the Ferrari on fire. The racetrack around the car was soaking. I didn’t know whether it was something from an extinguisher or whether it was fuel, but the best thing was to move him away. Niki needed a bit of help, but he was able to walk the 20 yards or so before we got him to lie down.

“I kneeled down and got him to put his head on my thighs, which meant I was looking down on his head and his face. He was conscious, obviously in shock, but he was able to talk and ask what his face looked like. I told him it was fine. I could see his forehead and the right side of his face had been burned and his skin had peeled off. The worst injury I could see was his scalp, which was charred in places.

So, my immediate thought was: ‘Okay, he was going to get treatment for the burns. He has some other fractures but they’re not particularly significant.’ It was a matter of waiting for an ambulance to come. That took maybe three or four minutes; I can’t be sure. But it didn’t seem that long because, in all likelihood, there would have been access at Adenau Bridge, which wasn’t far away and that was the most likely place for an ambulance to be stationed. Other drivers had stopped; some had driven slowly by and gone on to the pits.

“Once the ambulance had picked him up, I got back in the car and drove back to the pits. After a while, the grid reformed and they restarted the race. It seems surreal to say that, having been with the guy who had just had a very big accident and seen the extent of his injuries — or at least, the ones that were visible. But to then blank it out, anaesthetise yourself, get back in the car and go racing again; a contemporary driver could never conceive of doing something like that.”

The burns Watson referred to were bad enough, but the potentially lethal damage was out of sight. Lauda’s windpipe and lungs had been seared by the combination of fumes from the burning petrol, bodywork, deformable crash structure and the well-intentioned but caustic contents spewed by the fire extinguisher.

At the time of the accident, Hunt had been pressing on, intent on winning this race. He said: “I knew nothing about the accident. I was into the third lap when I saw the ‘race stopped’ flag signals. I eased up and there it was, with all the cars stopped. Niki had gone by this time and I chatted around with the other drivers to find out what had happened. I was told the car had been on fire.

“They said Niki was burned a little around his face and wrists but it didn’t look serious and everything was fine. Niki was off to hospital and obviously wouldn’t be racing again that day, but he’d have his burns patched up and we’d see him at the next race in Austria; that was the story we had then.

“It was still the story when we were getting ready for the restart. There was a suggestion that he had broken a cheekbone from a smack on the face and then it was said his helmet had come off and that was how he had come to be burned. But there were no alarm stories and, at that time, it was evidently not serious at all.”

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The race was eventually won by Hunt, with Mass finishing third. Hunt said: “I was very pleased with that win – and then we started to find out a bit more about what had happened to Niki. It began to appear he might be very bad indeed.”

The mood in the paddock was sombre. There had not been an official statement regarding Lauda’s condition and the teams were as much in the dark as everyone else. Max Mosley, looking after an entry of two cars, had followed Lauda’s progress with interest since he had left March at the end of 1972. Even though fluent in German, Mosley had been unable to establish little in the way of hard fact.

He recalled: “Neither of our drivers [Ronnie Peterson and Vittorio Brambilla] could add much. The thing that sticks in my mind is Huschke von Hanstein [65-year-old former racing driver and president of the Automobilclub von Deutschland, organisers of the German Grand Prix] saying everything was going to be fine; that Niki was okay; that he had been talking to people and they’d taken him to hospital for treatment to his burns. I hadn’t seen the footage of the accident but, from what we’d heard, that didn’t sound altogether right.

There was always that tendency with what you might call ‘old school’ people like Huschke to play down things like this. He was also probably being defensive because of the previous strong criticism of the ’Ring being unsuitable for racing.”

As word of Lauda’s injuries began to spread, drivers’ opinion about racing on the Nürburgring Nordschleife was hardening exponentially.

For one, Chris Amon, this was the final straw. He had raced here in eight Grands Prix, finished third when driving for Ferrari in 1967 but, more often than not, suffered retirement through mechanical failure. That was more typical of the New Zealander’s atrocious luck, Amon being considered one of the greatest natural talents never to have won a Grand Prix.

In 1976, he was coming to the end of a career stretching across 14 seasons. Having driven with top teams, he was racing with Ensign, a small British outfit with more promise than money.

“I was in the Marlboro caravan. Chris Amon came in, sat down and said: ‘That’s it. I’m not doing this any more, I’ve had enough of this shit.’ He actually refused to take the restart. While I understood why he had reached that decision to quit racing, it was such a complete waste of talent.

“He’d taken that little Ensign and put it third on the grid a few weeks before in Sweden. But he’d had enough. Even as we were sitting there, the reports on Niki were getting progressively worse.”

John Watson said: “Having seen what I had seen, these reports were hard to take on board. Usually, if a driver dies in a motor-racing accident, he dies at the scene because it is such a big accident. I couldn’t put into context the fact that he had been able to walk away, with assistance, from the car; he was able to lie down, have a conversation, look to all intents and purposes that he would be okay because the burns, while being unfortunate, were not life-threatening burns. It was only when you began to think about what he might have inhaled that it started to make terrible sense — and, suddenly, this was a very different scenario. Now we were wondering if he was going to survive.”

Helmut Zwickl, the Austrian F1 journalist and pilot who had flown with Lauda on several occasions, was shocked by what had happened — but for reasons beyond the obvious: “Three days before the race, I drove with Niki in a Fiat road car around the Nordschleife. He was talking about the dangers of racing there and pointing out various things and saying it was not safe to race on this track. At one point, he stopped the car and said: ‘Take this place, for example. If you have a crash here, you have no chance.’ This was the exact place, just before Bergwerk, where he would crash three days later. I could not believe it when I found out. As I drove back to Vienna that night, me and my photographer friend agreed that, if Niki died, we would finish with Formula One immediately. After the loss of Jochen [Rindt, at Monza in 1970], this would be too much.”

As evening began to draw in at the Nürburgring, a group of British journalists gathered for a glass of wine by a camper van parked among the trees nearby. Each news bulletin being received from their passing Austrian and German colleagues seemed worse than the previous one; apart from extensive burns, Lauda had inhaled toxic fumes; he was in a very bad way indeed. As the reporters headed for home, they began mentally preparing obituaries for the following morning.

‘Niki Lauda’ by Maurice Hamilton is published by Simon & Schuster UK. More info here.

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