Lauda and the 'Ring - 30 years on 03 May 2006
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the most infamous Grand Prix to be run at Germany's legendary Nurburgring circuit - that which almost cost Niki Lauda his life, and which would lead to one of the most exciting conclusions to a drivers' championship that Formula One racing has ever seen.
Before the race at the Nurburgring, 1976 seemed set to be Lauda's year. Not only was he reigning world champion, having taken the crown with Ferrari in '75, but he had also got his season off to a flying start. Despite suffering from broken ribs in a tractor accident earlier in the year, Lauda carried a lead of more than 20 points into the German Grand Prix, with Tyrrells Jody Scheckter and McLarens James Hunt his closest rivals.
The stage looked set for a fascinating contest, held over the twists and turns of the famous old Nurburgring circuit. This was by far the longest track of the season - 22 kilometres in length - and at the time was already regarded as something of an anachronism, without anything like the level of crash protection or marshalling of more modern circuits. By the mid 1970s it was also developing a brutal reputation for massive accidents as the speeds of contemporary Formula One cars inexorably increased.
By the end of qualifying, James Hunt had gone quickest - lapping his McLaren in an amazing 7m 06.5s. Lauda held P2 with a time 0.9 seconds adrift of the Englishman, with Patrick Depailler's Tyrell having taken third with a time a further 1.4 seconds slower. The race had barely got underway before Lauda was involved in an enormous accident, his Ferrari suddenly swerving to the right on one of the fastest parts of the circuit before skidding back across the track and colliding heavily with Brett Lungar's Surtees. Lauda's Ferrari immediately burst into flames, and he was trapped inside the blazing wreckage as several of his fellow drivers battled to extricate him.
Despite standing immediately after the accident, it was quickly clear that Lauda had suffered serious burns. His lungs had been damaged by the flames and hot gasses, while his head had been seriously burned. He collapsed and lapsed into a coma, his situation looking sufficiently critical that a priest read him the last rites. It looked as if Formula One racing was going to lose another of its great characters.
Yet Lauda pulled through. Not only did he survive but, in one of the sports most famous acts of determination and courage, he strapped himself back into his Ferrari just six weeks later to continue the defence of his world championship, taking fourth place at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. As the season progressed to its conclusion, Hunt managed to steadily close the gap, taking back-to-back victories in the USA and Canada and, by the finale in Japan, being just three points behind Lauda.
To ensure his second title, all the Austrian had to do was to finish in front of his English rival. But in heavy rain, and still clearly effected by the trauma of his massive Nurburgring accident, Lauda decided the risk of racing in such treacherous conditions was too great and pulled out after just two laps. Hunt went on to finish third and collect four points (under the system then in force), securing the drivers' championship by just a single point.
Lauda's Nurburgring crash cost him his second title - although in the event it was only deferred until 1977. But it was also to have far more far-reaching consequences, marking the moment when Formula One racing began to treat safety with a seriousness appropriate to the incredible risks that drivers were running. The old Nurburgring was never used for Grand Prix racing again, with competition switched to the short, modern circuit that F1 still uses today. Standards in marshalling and medical care were also dramatically improved in the years that followed. The tragedy that nearly cost the sport one of its greatest heroes was responsible in part for improving the conditions for all who have raced in the sport since.
For more details on Niki Lauda's Formula One career, including an extensive gallery, check out his profile in our Hall of Fame section.