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Forty years ago today Austrian Formula One racing driver Niki Lauda was in a critical condition in hospital following a horrific accident at the Nurburgring Grand Prix circuit in Germany.

TV viewers watched in horror as Lauda's Ferrari swerved off the track on only the second lap and burst into flames on colliding with an unprotected embankment. The impact sent it spinning back onto the track, striking a glancing blow on the car driven by Brett Lunger. The next driver, Guy Edwards, managed to avoid the burning wreckage but the one after, driven by Harald Ertl, collided with it despite hard braking.

None of the other drivers was injured and they rushed to Lauda's rescue, with Guy Edwards in particular braving the fierce flames to unfasten Lauda's safety harness. Ertl managed to find a fire extinguisher and used it to battle the flames. Eventually, after about a minute, they managed to free Lauda and pull him from the burning wreck.

Incredibly the Austrian had been conscious throughout and shouting for help. He had been wearing a modified race helmet, which slid off his head after the accident because the foam inside it had compressed. It meant he suffered serious burns to his head and face, particularly on the right. He had also inhaled hot toxic gases which damaged his lungs.

Although able to stand immediately after the crash, Lauda later lapsed into a coma. He was taken to the nearby Adenau hospital, but then flown to Germany's leading specialist burns unit for further treatment.

The burns meant Lauda lost most of his right ear, his eyelids, eyebrows and all the hair on the right side of his head, which suffered extensive scarring. As he began to recover he was offered reconstructive surgery, but chose to limit it to what was absolutely necessary – replacing his eyelids and getting them to work properly. The reason was that he was desperate to get back to racing as soon as possible, to defend the world championship he had won the previous year.

Incredibly just six weeks later, having missed only three races and with much of his head still swathed in bandages, he was back behind the wheel of his Ferrari for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. He finished fourth, despite being, by his own admission, "absolutely petrified".

Prior to the accident Lauda had dominated the 1976 season and amassed more than double the points of his nearest rivals. In his absence they had closed the gap and continued to do so as Lauda struggled to overcome his injuries. By the final race of the season – the Japanese Grand Prix – his arch rival and close friend James Hunt was just three points behind Lauda.

The Austrian qualified in third, just behind Hunt, but on race day there was torrential rain and Lauda retired after two laps. Damage to his tear ducts during the fire meant his eyes were watering constantly and he still could not blink properly to clear them. Combined with the rain, it meant he was racing almost blind and did not feel safe to continue. Hunt eventually finished fourth to win the 1976 championship by a single point.

Some commentators questioned whether Lauda would ever recover enough to find his previous form, but they reckoned without the Austrian's steely determination. The next year he returned and again dominated the season, his consistency enabling him to win the 1977 championship easily. However, his relationship with Ferrari had soured and he left the team to race briefly with Brabham, announcing his retirement shortly before the end of the 1979 season.                                                                                                                                                                                 

By then he had founded an airline, Lauda Air, and left F1 to manage it, but racing was in his blood and in 1982 he returned at the wheel of a McLaren. In 1984 he won his third world championship, beating McLaren teammate Alain Prost by half-a-point. He finally retired for good at the end of the 1985 season.

Despite enjoying success in the business world away from racing, Lauda has remained closely connected with F1. Forty years on from the accident which so nearly killed him, he is a commentator for German TV and the non-executive chairman of the currently dominant Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team. And proving that every setback can also be an opportunity, he is said to have earned millions from selling advertising on the caps he habitually wears to cover his scars!

 

 

 

 

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