Nicholas Andreas Lauda, six weeks after he was given the last rites of the Catholic church, appeared at the Autodromo di Monza, near Milan, not to spectate but to race his Ferrari in the 1976 Italian Grand Prix.
His arrival was greeted at first with amazement, then with misgivings. On the one hand this heroic return from his death bed was an act of outstanding courage never before seen in racing.
But he was obviously still very frail and weak, his badly disfigured face was difficult to look at, his head was heavily bandaged, and there were doubts about his physical, and mental, fitness. This latter attitude was reflected in the move by his employer, Enzo Ferrari, to enter a third car, for Carlos Reutemann (who had left the Brabham team) in case the brave Austrian should falter.
Jackie Stewart, the retired world champion was among those astonished.”Niki had no right to be there because he was nowhere near healed. It was the most courageous thing I have ever witnessed in sport.”
James Hunt was full of admiration for his friend and rival and understood Niki’s need to race again…
“You have a lot of time to think in hospital and once he had decided to come back he had to get on with it. He had a terrific amount of motivation too, because he was still leading in the Championship and he really wanted to win it. It was a massive stimulus to get back and get stuck in. Here was a challenge, he accepted it and it would help speed up his recovery.”
In the wet qualifying sessions on Friday James set a relatively slow time before spinning off and damaging the nose of his car, much to the delight of the tifosi, the rabid Ferrari fans. Some of them had actually spat on him when he first went out on the track and on Saturday their lusty boos at the hated Hunt turned to cheers when his understeering McLaren could only manage the ninth fastest time. On Sunday morning the announcement that the McLaren qualifying times recorded on Saturday would be disallowed was greeted with whoops of joy from the tifosi.
On Saturday the Monza race organisers took samples of fuel from several cars, paying special attention to the Texaco variety in the McLarens, but the team was not worried since tests in the Texaco laboratories had shown that their fuel was within the allowable octane limit.
Teddy Mayer, strongly suspecting that Italy’s national racing team had instigated the investigation, said: “I think Ferrari believes that if James can beat them, we must be cheating and they are trying to find excuses.”
“They cheated on cheating”, was the way James described the fuel testers at Monza, after they declared that the samples taken from both McLaren cars, and John Watson’s Penske, were illegal and only their Friday qualifying times would count.
It was later proven that the fuel readings had been wrongly (purposely, James felt) interpreted, but the damage was done and James would have to start the Italian Grand Prix from the second last row of the grid and he was effectively “stuffed out of the race.”
The actual “stuffing” was partly his own fault. James was so angry at the fuel fiasco he was tempted to not even start the race. But he needed the points and by the 11th lap had worked his way up to 12th place when he skated off the road and into a sand trap where the McLaren became irretrievably bogged down.
As was his wont in such circumstances, when his race was rudely interrupted, James was enraged and the full brunt of his ire was inflicted on the person of Tom Pryce (destined to die horribly in South Africa in 1977), whom James believed was responsible for the contretemp.
According to the Welshman, when he pulled his Shadow alongside the McLaren on the entry to a corner James became distracted and simply braked too late. From James’ point of view Pryce had unnecessarily blocked him, a manouevre which he found “absolutely brainless!”
On reflection, James amended his assessment of the incident to a terse: “I just made a mistake”, a more reasonable attitude which owed something to his more reflective frame of mind after the race. On the long walk back to the pits the throngs of Italian tifosi had spat, whistled, booed, hissed and jeered at him with a vehemence he found disturbing.
“I’d be walking along and they’d be spitting, hissing and making fun of me. But if I swung round suddenly, looked one of them hard in the eye and said ‘Boo!’ – he’d immediately smile, go all weak at the knees and thrust out a piece of paper for my autograph. It was pathetic, really.
“But I must admit I was quite pleased to get out of there unscathed. The propaganda campaign against me in the Italian press was really quite incredible. A very heavy deal for me. They really hated me in Italy, to an extent that was quite unbelievable. Anybody would think it was I who had caused Niki’s accident.”
When Niki, who had outqualified both his Ferrari team mates, took off his helmet after the race his balaclava was soaked in blood. The wounds from his still healing burns had opened up during an astonishing comeback that had exceeded all expectations.
Niki Lauda: “I was fourth in the race which some people thought was quite good. But I hid the truth. In practice I was rigid with fear. Terrified. Diarrhoea. Heart pounding. Throwing up. Being scared is intolerable. I told myself you can’t drive a car like that. So I waited quite consciously for the car to slide and began with the precision work of handling the drift. After that it was not so hard. The worst was behind me. I had crossed the threshold and was once more at my normal rate.”
“His race speaks for itself”, said James. “To virtually step out of the grave and six weeks later to come fourth in a Grand Prix is a truly amazing achievement. He just got in the car and had a go, drove a typical Niki race: well-contained within himself and within the limitations of his fitness. He knew I was out of the race so there was no pressure on him from that point of view. He was just putting a few more points in the bag before he went into battle in earnest in the next races. He did a super, super job.”