The fast show: Niki Lauda’s five greatest F1 races | Giles Richards

From the astonishing performance at Monza 42 days after serious injury, to his thrilling battle with Alain Prost in his final F1 victory

1974 Spain, Jarama

Finished: first

Niki Lauda celebrates winning the Spanish Grand Prix after mastering difficult, slippery conditions.
Niki Lauda celebrates winning the Spanish Grand Prix after mastering difficult, slippery conditions. Photograph: Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Having taken out loans to ensure a drive in Formula One, Lauda did enough to be recruited by Enzo Ferrari at the end of 1973. He did not immediately endear himself to il Commendatore by declaring their new car was “shit” after testing. But Lauda was convinced they could improve it and working with the team revised the front end and found eight-tenths of a second over the winter. That it had worked was clear when he took his first podium at the opening round in Argentina. He followed it with a first win in Spain, mastering difficult, slippery conditions. In doing so he lapped the entire field except for his teammate Clay Regazzoni for a maiden win he said was the hardest of all. It was Ferrari’s first win for two seasons and although inexperience cost him the title that year, Lauda had definitively proved his ability as a driver and as a sharp technician in the garage.

1975, Monaco

Finished: first

Niki Lauda, in his Ferrari 312T, turned round a slow start to the season to finish first in Monte Carlo.
Niki Lauda, in his Ferrari 312T, turned round a slow start to the season to finish first in Monte Carlo. Photograph: Tony Duffy/Getty Images

With the beautiful and all-conquering Ferrari 312T, designed by Mauro Forghieri with its innovative transverse gearbox, Lauda and Regazzoni had machinery that was the class of the field. It was the Austrian who exploited it to best effect and turned round his slow start to the season in Monte Carlo. Qualifying as always was key and Lauda admitted he had to put in an exceptional lap to take pole. “I’d pulled so much out of the bag to beat Tom Pryce’s Shadow to pole that I was trembling when I got out of the car,” he said. The race began in the wet but Lauda made it away cleanly and soon opened up a 16-second gap on Emerson Fittipaldi. However in the closing stages the lead shrank as he nursed falling oil pressure. Ever tactically astute Lauda knew the race would end at the two-hour mark before full race distance and did just what was needed to take the flag by 2.78sec. It was Ferrari’s first win at Monaco since 1955 and Lauda went on to take the title and the Scuderia’s first constructors’ since 1964.

1976, Italy, Monza

Finished: fourth

Just 42 days after the horrific accident at the Nürburgring that had left Lauda fighting for his life and undergoing extensive surgery, astonishingly he climbed back into his car at Monza. The title had looked firmly in his grasp before the German Grand Prix and he was fiercely determined not to let it slip. With the burns to his face still covered in bandages and still in considerable pain, his performance was remarkable. He qualified in fifth, the fastest of the three Ferraris entered and then put in a hugely courageous drive to take fourth place, despite having dropped to 10th after he made a poor getaway because they were using lights instead of the flag he had expected at the start the race. When he climbed from his car he had to tear the balaclava from his head as blood had caused it to become stuck to the bandages. He later admitted he had been “rigid with fear” at Monza but refused to submit to it.

1984, Portugal, Estoril

Finished: second

Lauda had retired from F1 in 1979 but was persuaded to come back by Ron Dennis for McLaren in 1982. By 1984 the team boasted the Porsche‑powered MP4/2, designed by John Barnard. But Lauda was now paired with Alain Prost who had proved he was a champion in waiting at Renault the previous year. Lauda had to adapt his style to deal with Prost who was quicker in qualifying and did so by focusing on set-up for race pace. “It happened because I changed my way of attacking him,” he said. “He was a difficult bugger because he was so quick, no question.” The pair traded wins (and retirements) all season until the last round at Estoril. Prost had to win but Lauda needed only second. The Frenchman duly took the flag but Lauda came back from 11th on the grid into third and when Nigel Mansell retired Lauda had his place and his third world championship by just half a point.

1985 Netherlands, Zandvoort

Finished: first

Niki Lauda (centre) celebrates winning the Dutch Grand Prix after a thrilling battle with Alain Prost (left) and Ayrton Senna.
Niki Lauda (centre) celebrates winning the Dutch Grand Prix after a thrilling battle with Alain Prost (left) and Ayrton Senna. Photograph: Dominique Faget/Afp/Getty Images

Having already announced his intention to retire again, Lauda endured terrible luck to the opening of the season with eight retirements in the first 10 races. By the Dutch Grand Prix he had a point to prove and did so with one of the finest of battles with Prost, a blow-for-blow scrap that required every ounce of Lauda’s skill and technique against the charging young Frenchman. Lauda had started from 10th with Prost in third but after one-stopping the win only belonged to one of the two. For the final 12 laps of the race they went ceaselessly head to head and the lead changed hands multiple times. With five laps to go Lauda clung on to the lead, relentlessly denying Prost. He took the flag just 0.232sec ahead. It was a fittingly heroic performance for his 25th and last F1 victory.


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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