Living History: Niki Lauda’s accident – August 1, 1976 - Mercedes-Benz Forum

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Living History: Niki Lauda’s accident – August 1, 1976

Living History: Niki Lauda’s accident – August 1, 1976 | The Race Driver

Living History: Niki Lauda’s accident – August 1, 1976

August 1, 2011 – Peter Windsor re-lives the race that changed F1 forever.

Zolder, May 15. 4:30 pm

Niki Lauda is flopped in a corner of his personal caravan, tape recorders in front of him, journalists around him. He wishes to explain the reasons why he doesn’t want to race at the Nurburgring until the circuit is drastically changed. “Here, at Zolder, I have for instance a 70 per cent chance of getting killed if I have a crash, if something goes wrong on my car. I am a racing driver. I am aware that there will always be accidents, and that someone could easily get killed at Zolder. But at least there is some chance of survival if something does go wrong. At the Nurburgring there is no chance. It’s 100 per cent at the Nurburgring. Why should Zolder exist to one standard and the Nurburgring to another? We have safety programmes at all the circuits for more run-off areas and catch frences. Why should the Nurburgring be different? Because it’s such a famous circuit? Which is more important? One driver showing his class over another because it’s the Nurburgring or drivers getting killed? I think it’s the accidents.”

Nurburgring, Friday, July 30. Afternoon

Whatever his feelings about the Nurburgring’s safety, Lauda is oblivious to them now. Like other practice sessions before, this on is already developing into a James Hunt-Niki Lauda duel. Neither man things sub-7 min laps are possible – the Paul Ricard-compound Goodyears have seen to that and to a total absence of punctures – but both are teasing the threshold. Hunt winds up quickest, and afterwards admits to being plain scared on at least one-third of the circuit:

“There are some parts, real fifth-gear sections, where I’m not absolutely sure of what the track is going to do next, but of course you’re got to try hard at the ‘Ring: the laps are too long to think about doing anything but! I reckon there’s not much more to come, not from me, at any rate.”

Certainly Hunt’s 7min, 6.5sec lap is a magnificent performance, and one that has McLaren team-mate and acknowledged ‘Ring expert, Jochen Mass, close to tears. At this, of all circuits, he is again in the shadow of the Number One McLaren, and the honour of being quickest German is left an inspired Hans Stuck. Hunt, sipping pure orange juice via a tube through his helmet to a container – a typically effective McLaren cure for the problem of driver nausea – is confident.

Niki Lauda, taking solace from a giant box of Toblerone chocolates, is less so.

“The car oversteers like xxxx,” he says. “I try to change it with different camber and damping it was the same, worse perhaps, in the second session. I try hard, sure, but the car is difficult to drive.”

He talks, too, about his fear:

“I know where I can go flat out but I haven’t worked myself up to that yet.”

With Hung and McLaren so consistently competitive, it seems, Lauda is having to work increasingly hard at wringing the best from his Ferrari 312T2.

Schwalbenschwanz, Saturday, July 31. Morning

Stirling Moss is watching untimed practice at one of the most dramatic sections of the Nurburgring – a fifth gear jump followed by an uphill, bumpy, right-hander, a flat-in-fifth corner for perhaps only six of the drivers in the business. Moss has difficulty picturing this section on the Nurburgring he used to know so intimately:

“I’m sure this was much steeper, much narrower, and I’m certain it was much more enclosed.”

As indeed it was: in 1970, the German Grand Prix was held at Hockenheim while the Nurburgring underwent a costly and radical face-lift.

Just then, Hans Stuck bursts the silence with his orange Jagermeister March, jiggling like a caught salmon at the bottom of the hill and then teetering on up through the right-hander, Stuck’s large right foot hard on the throttle.

“Boy! That was really something!” exclaims Moss. “That really was quick. Wings and wide tyres really do show up here. You can see the difference the alternations have made to the circuit. It’s very quick…”

That, Moss feels, is concession enough to the great god Progress. If, once again, the cars have outgrown the circuit, then, he says, it is the cars that must be slowed. “Try limiting wings and rim widths; find someone with the guts to do that,” he continues.

The Formula One Constructors’ Association has long since rejected such proposals.

The pits, Saturday. Early afternoon

Ronnie Peterson, shoulders shrugged inside a rally jacket as he peers out of the pits at the glistening wet track, stops to talk with Lauda.

“No chance now of the track being dry before the end of practice,” he says.

“No way,” replies Lauda. “I’ve make a whole lot of changes to my car and now I’ll have to start the race without trying them. And you? How many laps did you do?”

“Six,” says Ronnie.


“And….I’m still here…. No, we’ve had quite a lot of problems. Vittorio (Brambilla) went off the road again this morning – he’s looking after our development programme!”

Then, changing the subject, Peterson spoke of recent testing at the Osterreichring, the next circuit on the Grand Prix calendar.

“It’s fabulous ciruit. I’d hate to see it changed,” says Ronnie.

“Yes, but that corner after the pits is bloody quick. Have they put the chicane in yet?” (NB: Mark Donohue had been killed at this corner in 1975.)

“No. All they’ve done is move the corner inwards. Now it’s flat-in-fifth easily, with a bit more room on the outside,” replied Ronnie.

“It would have been much better if they’d put in a nice third gear ess-bend. Like they’re going to at Watkins Glen.”

“But they’re not. I was at the Glen with the BMW saloon a couple of weeks ago and the chicane’s just the same, and it doesn’t look as though they’re going to change it.”

At which point Lauda give some idea of how the Safety Machine works:

“There’s not going to be a new corner at the Glen? I must go and see Bernie. Where’s Bernie….?”

If anything – or anyone – can get things done for the drivers it’s Bernie Ecclestone and the Formula 1 Association. Under Ecclestone’s supervision, all but two drivers (Jochen Mass and Jacky Ickx) signed a safety petition long before they arrived at the Nurburgring. Unless the ‘Ring is substantially altered for 1977, it said, with run-off areas on the faster sections, they, the drivers, will not race there again.

At the circuit, though, there are few drivers who admit to signing such a paper. In Germany, and with the race ahead of them, it is far easier to say, “Yes, I like the ‘Ring; it’s a challenge. I might race here again.”

Lauda, however, has no such qualms, even when a German TV programme heavily criticizes him that night, saying that he is against the ‘Ring because he always has accidents there. Lauda is depressed by the programme, but still he is adamant: personally, he considers the ‘Ring too dangerous to race on. He will race, because of a majority ruling within the GPDA. But he is against it. He want that made clear.

Sunday, August 1. 1.30 pm

Conditions couldn’t be worse. It’s dry in the pits but reports all round the circuit say it’s raining elsewhere. Uneasy minutes pass before a tyre choice is made for almost everyone. Rain begins to spit in the pits, but then the Eifel mountains heave and the rain retaliates by abating. By the time the course car finishes a lap, there is news of a rapidly-drying track. Ford Germany Competitions Manager, Mike Kranefuss, hears this, and recommends that his close friend, Jochen Mass, starts on slicks.

It was for this that the first race will be remembered. Floundering he may have been, but Mass kept pace with the leaders on that first, damp lap – and then pulled away. Clay Regazzoni had taken the lead at the start in the other Ferrari but by the end of the first lap Peterson’s ability had again flared and taken him to the front, with a hard-charging Hunt in pursuit. Mass was third, if you please – and Clay was behind Carlos Pace (Brabham-Alfa) in fifth place after missing a gear-change – and Hunt (just!) at Brunchen. Lauda lay ninth after a bad start and Stuck, with no clutch, was last.

Mass’ decision was vindicated already, however. Half the field came in for slicks at the end of lap one and by the end of his second lap Mass had 29 seconds over Gunnar Nilsson (Lotus), who was still on wet Goodyears and had yet to stop. The weather had turned the German GP over to a German.

Bergwerk, 2.30 pm

Of course, what it had also done was throw the minor placings wide open. Hunt looked sure of second place, as did Pace of third, but, further down the pack, men like Lauda, who’d been helf up in the pit lane queue, were grappling with wet-tyred back-markers.

Lauda’s accident occurred on the fast ascent from Adenau Bridge, on a gradual left-hander that’s flat-in-fifth in the dry. Scape – but not gouge – marks on the road, in conjunction with two strong tyre marks, suggest that the Ferrari suddenly bottomed, possibly due to a front or rear suspension failure, and that Lauda locked-up on the dry track. At such high speeds, though, there was little Lauda could do.

The Ferrari spun around to the inside, as if it had been over-corrected, mowed down catch fences on the outside, ran up a bank and then bounced to the other side of the track, trailing fuel as it did so. The left-hand deformable structures were ripped off in the first impact, and already the car was ablaze. Guy Edwards, whom Lauda had just passed, squeezed through, but not so fortunate were Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl, both of whom collided with the burning Ferrari.

The car finally came to rest back on the other side of the track, the right way up but wreathed in flame. Edwards, Lunger, Ertl and Arturo Merzario rushed over to the car, and, in the absence of fully-equipped track marshals, attempted to pull Lauda out. Ertl trained an extinguisher around the cockpit and both Chris Amon and Hans Stuck ran off to a service post to ring for an ambulance.

It was no easy thing. The heat was immense and Lauda’s crutch straps refused to slip out of the waist belt loops. Brett Lunger stood on top of the Ferrari and attempted to pull Lauda out by his shoulders, but here there was further set-back: Lauda’s AGV helmet slipped off, for Lauda had already broken a cheek bone (probably against the catch fencing) and had apparently got as far as undoing his helmet strap.

Now, without the additional protection of a helmet, he was suffering more and more from burns, from inhaling glass-fibre fumes and from being without his life-support air hose. Finally, after about a minute, Lauda was lifted from the car and lain on the track. Merzario took off Lauda’s balaclava and – one good sign – Lauda was able to say, “How bad is my face?”.

Some five minutes later, held up because of the clutter of parked cars at the Adenau service point, an ambulance arrived. Lauda was then taken to Adenau Hospital, transferred to a skin clinic at Ludwigshafen and subsequently flown to the Mannheim University Clinic. Serious burns and internal injuries, mainly to the lungs, were diagnosed, and soon afterwards Lauda was placed on the critical list. A few days later he laid conscious at Mannheim, unable to talk and facing two crisis periods – one within a few days, the other, if he survived, in a further two weeks.
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Part 2

The pits. 3.00 pm

There were those who talked about not re-starting and those who picked up their helmet bags and left. Chris Amon did the latter. He’d been worried about the ‘Ring’s lack of run-off areas form the start of practice, it is true, but now he was appalled by the way in which the accident had happened – and by the way it had been handled.

“As far as I can see,” he said “it was the drivers who got him out and put the fire out. The ‘Ring is just ‘unmarshalable’. There’s nowhere to go if something goes wrong and the new kerbs at best just throw you off line. At Indy they can get even the worst fire out in around half a minute and while that sort of speed is impossible at most road circuits it’s criminal that Niki’s car burned for seven to eight minutes. Imagine what would have happened had he been lapping on his own…”

Amon was condemned by some, of course, but here was a man who had driven the ‘Ring at its worst – in the fog and rain of the 1968 race – and for whom there is no question of living in the past, of not improving safety standards. He did exactly what Lauda’s gut feeling had suggested before the German Grand Prix had even started: he didn’t race.

Nor did Lunger, Ertl, Jacques Laffite or Stuck this time, but they had less emotive reasons. The Surtees and Hesketh had been too badly damaged in the accident, while Stuck’s clutch this time didn’t even get the March off the line. Laffite’s Ligier-Matra wouldn’t restart at the scene of the accident, and, although he was towed for a while, he damaged the gearbox with his clutch starts. The spare Ligier was readied in the pits but, just as Laffite returned in a course car, Bernard Ecclestone informed the team that they would be disqualified if they attempted to run it.

The pits, 3.35 pm

The real German GP? It was James Hunt from dry start to dry finish, with Jody Scheckter fighting the unpredictable handling of the Tyrrell six-wheeler in second place. Third was something of a scramble, but eventually – and rightfully – it went to Mass, the second McLaren driver taking the position after Pace’s Brabham slowed with deteriorating handling and Clay’s Ferrari had slowed with a damaged nose section.

Regazzoni had already accounted for Patrick Depailler, for the faster Tyrrell driver had been trailing Hunt and Clay on the opening lap when Clay spun (for the second time; he had three spins in all!) and nudged the Tyrrell into a barrier. Gunnar Nilsson (JPS Lotus) also figured strongly in the early laps, but faded slightly when a rear shock absorber collapsed, while the same problem caused Peterson’s March to land awkwardly after a jump and to ram the Armco hard. He was extremely fortunate to escape unharmed.

Brambilla had his third accident of the weekend when he lost it under braking at Adenau, while Mario Andretti (who eventually made a stop for a fresh battery) and Mass nearly eliminated themselves after a wheel-rubbing match on the first lap A deserved sixth was Rolf Stommelen, who drive the third works Brabham-Alfa quickly, efficiently and, by the end of the race, not much slower than Pace. He crossed the line just ahead of John Watson’s Penske, which had been plagued through practice by an obscure fuel feel problem.

The Paddock. Sunday evening

It’s about now that usually one begins to appreciate things like the ease of Hunt’s drive, the speed of the Brabham-Alfas or the two tyre changes necessary to swap a six-wheeled Tyrrell onto slicks. Instead, though, there is only one salient point: Niki Lauda was claimed by exactly the sort of corner of which he was critical. It was fast and there was nowhere to go. The result of the irony is twofold: there will never be another Grand Prix at the ‘Ring so long as such corners remain; and, from now on, the racing world will take drivers’ pre-race requests that much more seriously. For that has been Lauda’s objective. Like his racing, he thinks long and hard about safety. And, for him, there is nothing less professional than resorting to the inevitable ban-the-circuit-because-of-the-accident hysteria. Before the ‘Ring, he was attempting to make the question of safety a good deal more rational. Now he may never have the chance.

Author’s note:

They never again raced F1 at the Nurburgring’s North Circuit; despite being given the last rites at Mannheim, Niki Lauda recovered from his injuries and raced again, face permanently scarred, at the 1976 Italian GP. He went on to win the World Championship with Ferrari the following year; Guy Edwards won the George Medal for his bravery but today, unwell, lives in a care home in England; Brett Lunger, a former marine, today runs a thriving air-ambulance service in the USA; James Hunt clinched the 1976 World Championship in Fuji, Japan, when, in torrential rain, Niki Lauda refused to race.

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post #3 of 5 (permalink) Old 08-02-2011, 01:08 AM
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Now I know why they don't use the North 'ring for racing anymore.

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I don't always agree with Lauda's comments these days but there is no denying the man's talent and commitment. To suffer such near fatal injuries only to get back in the car and win the championship the following year is legendary and it puts him in a class of his own.

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Originally Posted by tuttebenne View Post
I don't always agree with Lauda's comments these days but there is no denying the man's talent and commitment. To suffer such near fatal injuries only to get back in the car and win the championship the following year is legendary and it puts him in a class of his own.
Had Lauda not stopped, and been able to finish the Japan GP 6th or so, he would still have been the 1973 World Champion instead of James Hunt.

From Wikipedia: Niki Lauda's near-fatal accident in Germany, which caused him to miss the following two races, allowed Hunt to close the gap to the Austrian. As they went to the final round in Japan Hunt was just three points behind. The Japanese Grand Prix was torrentially wet, and Lauda retired early on in the race, unable to blink because of facial burns from his accident in Germany. After leading most of the race Hunt suffered a puncture, then had a delayed pitstop and finally received mixed pit signals from his team. But he managed to finish in third place, scoring four points, enough for him to win the World Championship by one point.
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