As It Happens

Niki Lauda's F1 teammate recalls his near-death crash and 'most courageous' comeback

Former Formula One driver John Watson remembers his old teammate Niki Lauda and what he calls "the most courageous act" in sport — when Lauda returned to the track 40 days after nearly dying in a horrific crash.

John Watson says he was amazed by Lauda's decision to race again after a nearly fatal crash in 1976

Formula One legend Niki Lauda died on Monday. He was 70. (Erwin Scheriau/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen8:29

Transcript

Niki Lauda was one of the greatest race car drivers of all time.

TThe legendary Formula One driver died on Monday. He was 70.

Over the course of his career, the Austrian won three world championships — winning his second and third titles, incredibly, after a horrific crash in his Ferrari in 1976.

The fiery crash left Lauda with third-degree burns and the toxic fumes he inhaled nearly killed him.

John Watson was one of Lauda's teammates who witnessed the near fatal crash.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Watson about what Lauda meant to Formula One racing and why his decision to return to the track after the crash is 'the most courageous' act he has ever seen in sport.

Here is part of their conversation.

John, I'm sorry for your loss.

Niki's a huge loss. I mean, first of all, to his close family and friends.

I was very lucky to have a friendship with Niki for a long, long time and on two different occasions we were teammates.

I enjoyed being with him a lot. He was fun. A smart guy — that was one of the things that came through. He understood precisely what he wanted. He knew how to achieve it and he set about achieving it.

Austria's Niki Lauda behind the wheel of his Ferrari 312 T2 on the track of Florano after a near fatal crash during the German Grand Prix in 1976. (Raoul Fornezza/Associated Press)

I want to ask you about the race that stays in everyone's minds and that is what happened in the German Grand Prix in 1976 with that horrible crash. You were there. What did you witness that day?

I came around about maybe a minute after the accident had taken place.

The other drivers that were very close by were in the process of extracting him from what was still a burning car and very courageously they did so.

Once Niki was out of the car, we moved him away further up the race track to get him into a safer position.

I knelt down and he put his head in my lap so that we were able to keep him calm.

You understand he's been injured. But he's not in any danger. We didn't know that he'd inhaled all these horrible toxic fumes. We just assumed he had nasty burns.

The ambulance came and took him to hospital and there was only then a couple of days later that the news had come out that he was actually tragically ill with these toxic fumes that had gotten into his lungs.

A priest had come in. He thought he was coming in to have a general conversation. He didn't actually anticipate the priest was going to give him his last rites.

He decided, well, I don't want to go yet. I'm too young. He basically then used the power of his thought and mind to get his body back to recovery.

But he was back at the race track 40 days later. What did you make of that comeback? 

I think that was the most amazing thing I've seen, certainly in terms of sport, the most courageous thing I've ever seen.

To come back after you've been injured as he was and very unpleasant injuries because the burns were still very, very raw and his head was bandaged up. Without getting too graphic, there was certainly seepage from the bandages.

Yet he was prepared to get into a race car, compete in a Grand Prix and then he finished fourth in that Grand Prix, which is, I mean, it defies what I understand courage to be. But that was the character of the man.

Former Formula One driver John Watson was Lauda's teammate and friend. (Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

I want to ask you what motivated Niki Lauda. [He] told The Telegraph in 2015, "Formula One is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits. 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."

Competing against another driver. So that's the final element in the elements that Niki was outlining. He proved to be extremely successful in an era, as you have pointed out, that was very dangerous indeed.

Many drivers tragically lost their lives and many other drivers were severely injured. And in Niki's case he was one of the drivers that suffered severe burns, which he carried all the way through his life.

He never felt the need to go and have plastic surgery to quieten down the scarring that his face carried all the way through his life.

He said, "Look, I'm the same person I was before I got burnt. Why would you not like me now? What's my face got to do with anything?" 

After nearly dying in a horrific crash in 1976, Lauda went on to have a very successful racing career and become a prominent figure in the aviation industry. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

You mentioned how unsafe those courses were during the time that we're talking about. But he went on to really push for those circuits to be improved to make them safer. He said that some of them should not have been considered for a Grand Prix circuit. So was he able to influence the safety of Formula One as well?

He was a very clear spokesperson for the drivers en masse.

The race that Niki might have been alluding to was the final race in 1976, which was the championship finale in Japan, where there had been monsoon levels of rain falling throughout the day and the racetrack was saturated.

The race did start and the conditions were extremely taxing. I was a part of that event.

I think he just felt uncomfortable and I think he took a chance and said, "Look, I'm not going to take that chance. I'm going to pull out. If James Hunt wins the race, he wins the World Championship."

It took courage to do what Niki did in Japan — make no mistake.

To stand up to the might of your team principal, Mr. Ferrari, and say, "I'm stopping because I don't feel it's safe to continue" took as much courage as it did for him to get into the car in the first place.

Niki Lauda, right, and James Hunt, left, were rivals on the race track but good friends off it. (Nick Ut/Associated Press)

What was that rivalry he had with the driver James Hunt?

They were contemporaries from an earlier age.

They also, ironically, were close friends. They got along very well.

If you can imagine, on the one hand, this sort of tall, blond, archetypal good-looking Brit and this slightly, what you would call, maybe less handsome, Middle European Austrian — but they just clicked.

They became close friends and mates. But, of course, on the race track they were rivals.

But they still stayed friends?

Oh yes. Tragically, James Hunt died 24 or 25 years ago. But Niki and James were friends up until we lost James.

Written by Kate Swoger and John McGill. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.