After his brush with death at the Nurburgring Nordscheife in 1976, Niki Lauda returned to reclaim the world championship with Ferrari.
But his relationship with the team had become strained, and after clinching the crown again he walked out of the team before the season was over.
This exclusive extract from a new book detailing every race of Lauda’s career tells the story of how Lauda won his second title, severed his ties with Ferrari, and began the next chapter of his career at Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team.
203 German Grand Prix
Hockenheim, 31 July 1977, Formula 1
Ferrari 312T2/031 • #11
Qualifying: 3rd • Result: 1st (fastest lap)
Very encouragingly, Lauda was quickest in pre-race testing at Hockenheim. During second practice he took the opportunity to try out an experimental two-tier rear wing with streamlining pods at either end of the lower part, a configuration that was supposed to reduce air turbulence behind the rear wheels. The Ferrari’s handling was still deficient, but in final qualifying — after insisting on an engine change — he claimed third spot on the grid and was fastest through the speed trap.
The German crowd gave him a great welcome on the anniversary of his accident and there was much cheering and banner-waving from the packed grandstands as he took his place on the grid. The start, however, was shambolic: it was signalled by a flag as the lighting gantry had been damaged by a service vehicle and in mid-grid the inattentive Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell) hesitated, causing a chain reaction that eliminated Clay Regazzoni’s Ensign and Alan Jones’s Shadow. Lauda, meanwhile, ran third behind John Watson until the Brabham’s Alfa Romeo engine expired after seven laps, leaving Lauda with only Jody Scheckter’s Wolf ahead of him. Stalking Scheckter remorselessly, on lap 13 he pushed the South African into a minor error exiting the Östkurve that allowed him to outbrake the Wolf in a superb move at the second chicane.
He opened up a small gap but had to work hard for several laps to maintain his lead in a close-running four-car group. Once he had established his position, he drove smoothly and confidently, appearing in complete command as he steadily pulled out a six-second advantage that he held to the chequered flag. His dominant drive, one year on from the accident that had almost killed him, earned a huge ovation from the crowd.
This success gave him more victories than any previous Ferrari driver, putting him ahead of Alberto Ascari’s tally of 13 during the period 1951–53. It also consolidated his position in the World Championship, 10 points ahead of his closest challenger, who was now Scheckter.
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204 Austrian Grand Prix
In a four-day test session at the Österreichring during the week after the German Grand Prix, Lauda proved fastest over the first three days, when Goodyear confined everyone to hard tyre compounds, and then departed before the last day. The circuit was now appreciably slower due to the introduction of a chicane before the very fast Hella-Licht curve after the pits and many of the drivers thought this an improvement.
A week later, Lauda applied the lessons from the test in front of a huge partisan crowd. Driving in an economical and apparently effortless manner, his practice times fell steadily and he always looked in command. Although briefly relegated to the spare car (030) when a throttle-linkage bearing seized, he remained quickest, and then set his best time in his race car after it had been repaired, securing a serene pole position. After that, he stood on the pit wall to watch the others trying to get near his time.
Prolonged heavy rain on race morning left the track damp for the start. Like most, Lauda selected slick tyres but he was far from happy with his car’s behaviour on dry settings in these conditions. Although he led away, third-placed Mario Andretti (Lotus) made a daring move into the Boschkurve and passed not only second-placed James Hunt (McLaren) but Lauda too. To the crowd’s dismay, Hunt also got through before the end of the first lap, and within another lap Jody Scheckter (Wolf) and Gunnar Nilsson (Lotus) overtook as well. With the Ferrari oversteering viciously, Lauda’s slump continued and by lap 9 he lay 10th. But now the track was dry and he came back into the picture, driving flat out. Within four more laps he was back up to fifth, then picked off Hans Stuck (March) and Scheckter to occupy third place by lap 38. Soon after, with 11 laps to go, he was promoted to second place when Hunt retired from the lead with a blown engine, leaving Alan Jones to take over at the front and score Shadow’s first Formula 1 victory, some 20 seconds clear of Lauda.
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205 Dutch Grand Prix
Lauda’s endless set-up adjustments during practice made little difference to his 312T2’s persistent lack of grip, with such bad wheelspin out of the hairpin before Hunzerug that at times the car appeared to be on ice. He also tried the spare (030) for a few laps but found it no better. So he concluded that he would just have to attack the circuit and hope for the best — and he qualified fourth.
Off the start he ran in fourth place, which became second on lap 5 when Mario Andretti (Lotus) tried to overtake James Hunt (McLaren) on the outside at Tarzan and the pair collided. While Hunt was eliminated, the American recovered and when he caught up with Lauda’s Ferrari on lap 11, the Austrian wisely allowed the ground-effect Lotus just enough room at Tarzan to pull off a similar move, this time without incident. When Andretti’s Cosworth engine failed two laps later, Lauda hunted down Jacques Laffite’s leading Ligier and, after a brief but entertaining scrap, slipstreamed past with relative ease at the end of the main straight on lap 20, just after quarter distance. The Frenchman was unable to respond and Lauda quickly opened up a five-second advantage, controlling the rest of the race comfortably. As he reeled off the remaining laps, he was badly held up when lapping Emerson Fittipaldi, allowing Laffite to close again. This time his Ferrari had the legs of the powerful Matra and he paced himself home to take a copybook win by two seconds.
This victory meant that a second World Championship title was now looking highly probable, his 63 points putting him far ahead of Scheckter (42), Reutemann (35) and Andretti (32). But Lauda’s dissatisfaction with Ferrari had been intensifying and the following day he went to Maranello for a meeting with Enzo Ferrari, his son Piero Lardi, Luca di Montezemolo and financial manager Ermanno della Casa. They parted on amicable terms, but Lauda had made it clear that nothing would persuade him to stay with the team, and he had made no technical or financial demands during the meeting. He had, in fact, secretly signed for another team that very weekend.
Some weeks earlier he had made up his mind to leave Ferrari at the end of the season. He had talked extensively with both Team Lotus and Wolf Racing, the latter having a particular attraction because Walter Wolf’s family background was Austrian and the two men had become firm friends. Lauda also had preliminary talks with Formula 1 newcomers Renault, who could certainly afford his salary expectations and had offered the enticing prospects of a team built around him, the challenge of developing its turbocharged car, and exclusive use of Michelin tyres.
But Lauda finally opted for Brabham.
206 Italian Grand Prix
Ten days before the Italian Grand Prix, and with perfect timing in light of his record number of wins for the Scuderia and his comfortable lead in the World Championship, Lauda provided further proof of his bravery (if any was still needed) by announcing his departure from Ferrari — lesser men would have chosen to keep the news quiet until after the Monza race. So it was that at the circuit’s traditional pre-race test session he was met by jeers and taunts from spectators, although such behaviour was no longer evident by the time official practice started.
Answering partisan displeasure in the best possible manner, he was fastest on Friday, although when trying out a set of special Goodyear tyres in the following day’s untimed practice he spun into the guardrail at Parabolica while attempting to pass Gunnar Nilsson’s Lotus on the outside. With the rear suspension of 030 grafted onto the back of his regular 031 for the final session, he qualified fifth before running out of fuel, disappointed to be adrift of team-mate Carlos Reutemann, who was on the front row.
Sixth at the end of the first lap of the race, Lauda passed Clay Regazzoni’s fast-starting Ensign on lap 2 for fifth place, which became fourth 10 laps later when pole-sitter James Hunt spun his McLaren and lost places. When Jody Scheckter’s Wolf blew its engine on lap 24, the Austrian moved up to third, behind Reutemann. Another 11 laps later the sister Ferrari lost some ground when part of its exhaust broke and Lauda slipped past his team-mate for second place. Shortly after, while the two Ferraris were closing in to lap Bruno Giacomelli’s McLaren, the Italian driver’s engine blew up and deposited an oil slick right in front of them; Lauda’s fast reflexes allowed him to steer around it but Reutemann, unsighted, spun off into retirement. Thereafter, the Austrian’s down-on-power engine prevented him from making any impression on Mario Andretti’s lead and he duly finished 17 seconds adrift of the Lotus.
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207 United States Grand Prix (East)
By now, Lauda’s move to Brabham had been officially confirmed. As with so many departing Ferrari drivers in the past, Lauda found himself out of favour and the sympathetic relationship between driver and team had vanished. He was no longer allowed to go to Fiorano so whatever development work he had hoped to complete before the two North American races was impossible and at Watkins Glen he simply ran out of time before he had finished trying all the combinations of tyres and aerodynamics he had planned. Out of the picture for most of practice, he ended the final session early with an engine failure caused by a cracked cylinder liner and had to settle for seventh on the grid.
In cold, wet weather, he got away sixth but was elbowed wide on the long turn in the Anvil section and several cars got by. He forced his way back into contention and a brief tussle with team-mate Carlos Reutemann was decided in Lauda’s favour when the Argentine driver spun on lap 11, letting Lauda through into a comfortable fourth place. Taking no chances thereafter, he drove a tactical race, preserving his wet tyres in drying conditions to collect the three points he needed to make sure of his second World Championship title.
Lauda then decided to opt out of the Canadian Grand Prix the following weekend. Ferrari announced on the morning of Friday practice that he was unable to race for medical reasons, but in reality he was not prepared to drive given the toxic political climate at the Italian team, a fact he admitted with typical candour when asked. There were three things that particularly irked him: he was dismayed by the sacking of his faithful mechanic Ermanno Cuoghi; he was annoyed about the decision to run a third car for Gilles Villeneuve in the French-Canadian’s home race because he thought this would stretch the team’s resources too far; and he had had enough of Mauro Forghieri’s histrionics at races, considering that they detracted from focusing on the job in hand.
Mindful that fans were being denied the presence of the new World Champion, Bernie Ecclestone — his new employer at Brabham as well as Formula 1’s emerging commercial supremo — tried to persuade the Austrian to change his mind but without success. Lauda carried out his contractual promotional duties before the race, collected his fee and headed off to buy a Learjet.
Lauda’s entry for the Japanese Grand Prix on 23 October was scratched and Villeneuve instead drove his car. The 312T2s handled abominably at Fuji, lacking both grip and traction, and Villeneuve later commented that his car was ‘unbelievably bad’. In the race the young hotshoe rammed the back of Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell at the end of the main straight, supposedly because of brake failure, and cart-wheeled off the track, killing a marshal and a photographer.
The 1977 season was not necessarily one of classic confrontation. It was the reliability of the Ferrari 312T2 rather than its performance that underpinned Lauda’s second World Championship title, allowing him to focus on amassing more points than his opponents in the certain knowledge that his car could not match them on speed. The top five in the standings were Lauda (72 points), Jody Scheckter (55), Mario Andretti (47), Carlos Reutemann (42) and James Hunt (40). Niki did well to complete the third-greatest distance in the lead at 558 miles, behind Mario Andretti’s 729 and James Hunt’s 711, despite three fewer starts.
It is easy to overlook just how poor the 312T2 was at times. At three Grands Prix Niki qualified outside the top 10, unheard of for a World Champion, and more often than not the car was simply uncompetitive. The fact that his main rivals suffered bad luck and poor mechanical reliability certainly aided his cause. It could be argued that Lauda salvaged the championship in his final year with Ferrari rather than won it, but it remains the case that his is the name in the record books; he had won the title under the rules as they stood, and that was good enough.
Ferrari also collected its third successive constructors’ cup, by the considerable margin of 95 points to Lotus’s 62.
From Vallelunga to Jacarepagua
November and December 1977
Lauda’s first run in a Brabham — a 1977-specification BT45B — came at a private four-day test at Vallelunga in mid-November and he put in a huge number of laps. He set the best time ever recorded at the circuit, over a second quicker than he had achieved in a Ferrari, and described the chassis as ‘fantastic’.
It was the promise of developing Gordon Murray’s technically advanced new BT46 that had really sparked Lauda’s interest and, along with a hefty pay cheque, sealed his move to Brabham. The BT46’s main novelty was ‘surface cooling’, by means of flat heat exchangers on the bodywork flanks rather than the usual water and oil radiators. However, during earlier testing by John Watson at Donington and Silverstone in the cool weather of early November, the car boiled its water after only a few laps, although the oil cooling system worked satisfactorily. A comprehensive rethink was needed, much to the Austrian’s chagrin.
The team was left with little choice in the short term but to persevere with the BT45B, uprated to ‘C’ specification. An early opportunity to put in extensive lappery with the revised car came on 6–8 December in Brazil at a private Goodyear tyre test, organised by the Brabham team under the auspices of an official evaluation on behalf of FOCA of the new Jacarepeguá circuit outside Rio de Janeiro. With building work temporarily suspended for the occasion, Lauda set his best time on the second day after completing 64 laps with a new nose and rear wing fitted, but the nose then fell off on the ascending section after the pits. On the third day the engine blew up after only two laps and he lost three hours while it was changed. In the afternoon, with soft tyres fitted, he set his best time of the test but was then forced to stop as the promised new Goodyear tyres had not arrived in Brazil. Murray was satisfied with the progress that had been made and Lauda was happy at having learned the new track, although he thought it was unacceptably bumpy. He then left immediately for Europe to continue the testing programme.
Having grown accustomed to Ferrari having its own test track at Fiorano, Lauda was pleased that Brabham’s deal to use the Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine meant that he continued to have access to an exclusive facility, the company’s test track at Balocco, between Turin and Milan. In addition to testing there, he put in many miles at Paul Ricard and Vallelunga.
During this period Murray developed a revised slimline nose for the BT45C. It still contained two water radiators, one on either side, but it was shallower in depth and the air intake now took the form of a thin slot across the full width. In this guise the car was seen at Paul Ricard on 13 December, where Lauda began the day wearing new team-mate John Watson’s helmet because he had left his own at his hotel. Although conditions were cold and it was difficult to get heat into the tyres, during the afternoon Lauda tried some special softer Goodyears and got to within 0.15 second of the official lap record.
He and the Brabham team went into the 1978 season in confident mood.
Save £20 when you buy ‘Niki Lauda: His Competition History’
“Niki Lauda: His Competition History” details every race the three-times world champion started, including his complete F1 record. Containing 376 pages and over 500 images, it is the definitive record of his racing career.
RaceFans readers can save £20 off the retail price when ordering “Niki Lauda: His Competition History”. Head to www.evropublishing.com and use the reference code Niki2019 when making your order.
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