If you were around in 1976 and a fan of Formula One racing, you will remember what it is Ron Howard’s movieRush is trying to relate. The season was one of the most dramatic in the sport’s history, when Austrian driver Niki Lauda almost lost his life in a horrific crash.
Niki Lauda, was on pace to easily take the 1976 Championship as his closest contenders, Jody Schecker and James Hunt were far behind in the standings. Lauda was the defending champ.
He had a reputation for being too serious and uptight. British driver James Hunt was the complete opposite.
Adored by women, because of his good looks, Hunt had the image of a player and that didn’t appeal to Lauda, who was the consummate perfectionist, and well, not the most good looking guy around.
During 1976, Niki Lauda dominated the standings winning four of the first six races and finishing second in the other two. At this point everyone thought that Lauda would go on to repeat, a feat not accomplished since the 1959-1960 season by Jack Brabham.
Then there was Nürburgring, the German Grand Prix. It is worth noting that in those days, the safety of the cars and gear drivers wore was not what it is today, many advances have been made in that aspect to improve the chances of surviving an accident.
Actually, Niki Lauda was so concerned with safety, and in particular that of Nürburgring that a week before it took place he urged his colleagues to boycott the Grand Prix due to concerns over the circuit’s safety.
But destiny had other plans and the race went on as scheduled until the second lap when Lauda’s Ferrari spun out of control on a curve and hit the embankment sending the car into the path of another driver.
The Ferrari exploded into flames while spectators on the track and television watched in horror as Niki Lauda was still trapped inside. Many thought he had not survived the fiery accident.
Several drivers came to his rescue, but not before he sustained first and third degree burns to his head and inhaled toxic gases that damaged his lungs.
Lauda was conscious during the entire ordeal and was able to stand in the immediate aftermath, but later fell into a coma. At the hospital he was administered last rights by a priest.
The Austrian suffered extensive injuries from the burns to his head, losing most of his right ear as well as the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows, and eyelids.
He had minimal reconstructive surgery only to his eyelids so he could blink. Ever since the accident he wears a cap at his public appearances to hide his scarring.
By his own account, Lauda was petrified when he returned to race only six weeks after the accident that almost claimed his life and finished in an honorable fourth place. His face was still bandaged and bled through, some of his scars visible.
Formula One journalist Nigel Roebuck remembers seeing Lauda in the pits, peeling the blood-soaked bandages off his scalp.
Hunt was able to get close to Niki Lauda in the standings and with only the Japanese Grand Prix left to race the two were neck and neck.
Lauda qualified in third place in Japan, James Hunt one place ahead of him. Things were set for the race of the century.
However, the day of the race was a torrential one and after only two laps Niki Lauda retired saying that he did not feel safe and was uncomfortable from excessive watering of his eyes and his inability to blink properly.
James Hunt won the championship in 1976 one point ahead of Niki Lauda, who had on of the unlikeliest and bravest comebacks in motor racing history.