While Niki Lauda dies at the age of 70, TOM LEONARD goes in search of the incredible recovery of the Grand Prix legend

At an Italian circuit in 1976, the world witnessed one of the most courageous displays of resilience in sports history.

Six weeks earlier, during the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, the Ferrari, driven by the Austrian racer Niki Lauda, ​​had fallen at a sharp angle at a speed of 140 km / h and slammed into a crash barrier. He bounced back on the track and burst into flames before two more cars were hit.

Lauda, ​​then 27, was trapped in the burning car for almost a minute before fellow drivers could pull him out of the inferno.

Niki Lauda (Austria), James Hunt (Great Britain) talks at the Belgian Grand Prix, Zolder 5 June 1977

Niki Lauda (Austria), James Hunt (Great Britain) talks at the Belgian Grand Prix, Zolder 5 June 1977

Much of his face had burned and his lungs had been burned. While he was in a coma, a priest gave him the final rituals.

And yet, only 40 days later, his terrible injuries are still raw, the Austrian three-time Formula 1 champion drove behind the wheel, determined to keep his world title.

He finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, at the end of which his unhealed wounds had soaked his refractory balaclava in blood.

Lauda, ​​who died in Zurich on Monday at the age of 70, would not have been talking about the ordeal for decades – or the fear he felt when driving back in a racing car.

& # 39; We stood by his side for every minute of the last ten months & # 39 ;, said his second wife Birgit, first wife Marlene, and children Lukas, Matthias, Max, and Mia in a statement. & # 39; We laughed, cried, hoped, and suffered with him. & # 39;

They added: & # 39; His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and remain unforgettable, his tireless action desire, his sincerity and courage remain a role model and a benchmark for all of us. & # 39;

Few people disagree.

The burning Ferrari of the Austrian Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda after an accident on August 1, 1976 in Nurburgring. Lauda escaped death in the last second, being pulled out of the burning wreck by his Formula 1 rivals

The burning Ferrari of the Austrian Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda after an accident on August 1, 1976 in Nurburgring. Lauda escaped death in the last second, being pulled out of the burning wreck by his Formula 1 rivals

The burning Ferrari of the Austrian Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda after an accident on August 1, 1976 in Nurburgring. Lauda escaped death in the last second, being pulled out of the burning wreck by his Formula 1 rivals

Doctors refused to say how many of his later illnesses were a legacy of his terrible accident – but Lauda's body had gradually fallen apart. He had two kidney transplants – in 1997 and 2005 – and last year he had a lung transplant. In January he spent ten days in the hospital with influenza and was reportedly on a kidney dialysis machine.

Dr. Walter Klepetko, who supervised the operation of the lung transplant last year, said that Lauda had been in poor condition for some time. & # 39; Niki Lauda fought. He was a wonderful man. But it had been clear for some time that we could not get it back on the & # 39; circuit & # 39 ;, & # 39; said the doctor.

The Nurburgring had the reputation of being the most dangerous circuit on the circuit. It was narrow, bumpy and full of sections that were inaccessible to fire marshalls.

Niki Lauda and wife Birgit Lauda at Rush UK Premiere held at the Odeon Leicester Square in London

Niki Lauda and wife Birgit Lauda at Rush UK Premiere held at the Odeon Leicester Square in London

Niki Lauda and wife Birgit Lauda at Rush UK Premiere held at the Odeon Leicester Square in London

Lauda had complained about safety conditions, but other drivers rejected his call for a boycott.

Only in the second lap did he slip and turn out of control, gasoline flowing out of his damaged car and igniting the track. Other drivers stopped and finally managed to get Lauda out of his vehicle.

His face, scalp, and right ear were badly burned, but the biggest damage was to his lungs, which were burned by toxic gasoline vapors and burning fiberglass.

He was taken by helicopter to the hospital where he died twice and was resuscitated.

He stayed in a coma for a few days and later admitted that it would touch & continue & # 39; while doctors tried to save him for four days. A deceased Catholic, he later claimed that his determination to survive was encouraged by the arrival of a priest.

& # 39; While I was dying there, and I knew that I was dying, the nurse asked me if I wanted the final rituals and, despite my beliefs, I said to myself: & # 39; Now I'm really in the *** and I better use all the help available, & # 39; & # 39; he said.

& # 39; The priest said: & # 39; Farewell My friend. & # 39; This was wrong. I wanted someone to help me live in this world and not pass on to the next. All I got was really p **** d that the man was so insensitive to my problem. I thought: now I'm really going to stay alive. & # 39;

He refused a plastic surgery to reconstruct his right ear and also refused his wife's supplication that he would retire. (Marlene Knaus, whom he had just married and who fainted when she first saw his injuries, never went to another of his races: they got divorced in 1991 and have two sons, one of whom is a driver) .)

Lauda underwent a rapid series of operations to replace his eyelids and remove smoke and debris from his lungs and face. Despite the fact that he had open wounds, he declared himself capable of racing against the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.

Niki Lauda with his then wife Marlene in the Ferrari pits in 1976 - before his life-changing accident

Niki Lauda with his then wife Marlene in the Ferrari pits in 1976 - before his life-changing accident

Niki Lauda with his then wife Marlene in the Ferrari pits in 1976 – before his life-changing accident

He remembered that he was trembling with fear & # 39; when he went into second gear on the first day of training and thought: & # 39; I can't drive & # 39 ;. His steely confidence, however, had returned the following day.

"I will never forget that he put on his helmet and he was in so much pain," said former British champion Sir Jackie Stewart, who commented on the race. & # 39; When he reached the end of the ride, I was there and blood was pouring from his helmet. & # 39;

Lauda had a close working relationship with five-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and was involved in signing the McLaren British driver for the 2013 season

Lauda had a close working relationship with five-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and was involved in signing the McLaren British driver for the 2013 season

Lauda had a close working relationship with five-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and was involved in signing the McLaren British driver for the 2013 season

Lauda finished fourth but ended the season just one point behind British driver James Hunt, the champion of that year.

Lauda won the championship a second time in 1977 and then again in 1984, two years after their retirement.

Lauda, ​​who insisted that he had no worries about his appearance, had never undergone cosmetic surgery and instead hid his injuries under a cap. The financially smart driver used the headgear well and earned a fortune from charging sponsors to wear their logo on the front.

The world of Formula 1 paid homage yesterday. Champion Lewis Hamilton said that Lauda, ​​a mentor when they both worked for Mercedes, was a & # 39; bright light in my life & # 39; , adding that he & # 39; was struggling to believe that you were gone & # 39 ;.

& # 39; I will miss our conversations, our laughter, the big hugs after winning races together & # 39 ;, Hamilton said.

& # 39; It is very sad news. I have known Niki for a long time and I was just starting Grand Prix races when I retired, & Sir Jackie Stewart said.

& # 39; He always had great integrity and was one of the smoothest, best drivers I have ever seen. & # 39;

The Austrian Grand Prix driver Niki Lauda watches in the late 1970s. Lauda was heavily burned during a crash during the 1976 season, but returned shortly afterwards to the race

The Austrian Grand Prix driver Niki Lauda watches in the late 1970s. Lauda was heavily burned during a crash during the 1976 season, but returned shortly afterwards to the race

The Austrian Grand Prix driver Niki Lauda watches in the late 1970s. Lauda was heavily burned during a crash during the 1976 season, but returned shortly afterwards to the race

Racing championships Niki Lauda (left) and James Hunt (1947 - 1993) argue about a collision between the two on the circuit of Zolder, Belgium. The two would develop a great rivalry, as portrayed in the Hollywood film Rush

Racing championships Niki Lauda (left) and James Hunt (1947 - 1993) argue about a collision between the two on the circuit of Zolder, Belgium. The two would develop a great rivalry, as portrayed in the Hollywood film Rush

Racing championships Niki Lauda (left) and James Hunt (1947 – 1993) argue about a collision between the two on the circuit of Zolder, Belgium. The two would develop a great rivalry, as portrayed in the Hollywood film Rush

Lauda's former British teammate, John Watson – who rocked Lauda & # 39; s after he was rescued from his burning car – said his return to racing was the most courageous act of any sportsman that I have ever seen in my life. . . his courage, his dedication, focus, determination and bloody attitude & # 39 ;.

The former British world champion Damon Hill said that he looked at Niki and thought: & # 39; I'll never be half the man he was. & # 39; & # 39;

And fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was a & # 39; good friend & # 39; and added: & # 39; I will miss this generous, pioneering hero with all my heart. & # 39;

Lauda had always had to deal with a certain amount of physical setback – thanks to his boxing teeth and harsh expression, he was cruelly nicknamed & # 39; The Rat & # 39; in racing circles. Born in a wealthy Viennese industrial family who expected him to work in his father's paper mill, Lauda rejected this safe and comfortable existence.

& # 39; I believe in a life that involves a lot of risk & # 39 ;, he once said. & # 39; If you do not take risks, you can never expect it to be a success. It would all be too boring. & # 39;

He won his first race, driving a staged Mini, in 1968 without telling his parents that he had bought a car – with money from his grandmother. After his father refused to help his racing ambitions, Lauda financed his career with loans.

He debuted in his Formula 1 debut in 1971 and joined Ferrari three years later. He soon won a series of races and started hunting with Hunt for the title of champion.

A somewhat built, silent and relatively modest man in a sport of great egos, Lauda had a reputation for Germanic seriousness, but even had a keen sense of humor. However, he could also be notoriously abrupt and waspish.

Niki Lauda attends the reopening of The Hayward Gallery with the first major British retrospective of the work of German photographer Andreas Gursky on January 24, 2018 in London, England

Niki Lauda attends the reopening of The Hayward Gallery with the first major British retrospective of the work of German photographer Andreas Gursky on January 24, 2018 in London, England

Niki Lauda attends the reopening of The Hayward Gallery with the first major British retrospective of the work of German photographer Andreas Gursky on January 24, 2018 in London, England

When Enzo Ferrari, founder of the company of the same name, Lauda asked what he thought of his machines, the Austrian shot back that the & # 39; cars *** & # 39; used to be.

Lauda won the 1975 championship for Ferrari, but only after a fierce competition from his big rival, Hunt.

Lauda long survived Hunt, who died in 1993 and whose fiery on-track relationship with him was the subject of Rush, a Hollywood movie. (Lauda was played by the actor Daniel Bruhl, who wore prosthetic teeth.)

Lauda claimed that the film exaggerated their differences. While the gentle and handsome Hunt was a hard-partying playboy, Lauda insisted that he was not completely monk-like – although he never drank for a race.

However, they could not have been different on the track. Hunt took huge risks, while Lauda was a more cautious and analytical driver, paying close attention to the mechanics of his car and his own physical fitness.

He and Hunt were real friends and he occasionally spent evenings at the home of Hunt & # 39; s London. Hunt, Lauda said, was one of the few drivers he liked and the only one he envied.

Actor Daniel Bruhl born in Spain played the role of Lauda in the Hollywood film Rush, about the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt

Actor Daniel Bruhl born in Spain played the role of Lauda in the Hollywood film Rush, about the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt

Actor Daniel Bruhl born in Spain played the role of Lauda in the Hollywood film Rush, about the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt

In 1979, the enterprising Lauda, ​​an enthusiastic pilot, started his own airline, Lauda Air, and he himself piloted a few aircraft, which were working full time after his retirement. He married one of his stewardesses, second wife Birgit Wetzinger.

A shadow casts off in 1991, when a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed on a flight from Bangkok to Vienna shortly after takeoff and killed all 223 people on board due to a mechanical fault.

Lauda said the disaster crushed him in a way that his own accident never did.

He never lost his talent for undiplomatic, no-nonsense behavior. He rejected the mountain with trophies that he won & ugly and, for me, useless & # 39 ;, and traded them with a local garage owner in exchange for free car washes and maintenance for life.

And he could be merciless with anyone who noticed his scars and adapted a famous put-down from Winston Churchill. & # 39; When people try to annoy me with comments about my face, I simply say: & # 39; I've had an accident. But you were born this way. & # 39;

Lauda could not be suppressed on and off the course.

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