Before Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna, there was Niki Lauda. Niki was considered the best driver of his time. He won 3 World Championships with Ferrari and McLaren. He is popular for the accident he was involved in during the 1976 German Grand Prix.
Niki Lauda’s survival during the accident that took place at the 1976 German Grand Prix is regarded as one of the greatest miracles in Formula 1. But what is the story behind this accident and what happened to his helmet?
Going into the 1976 season, Niki Lauda was the reigning World Champion. He had just won the previous year by a huge margin and was considered unbeatable in the Ferrari. In a desperate attempt to try and beat Niki Lauda, McLaren, and James Hunt partnered themselves with each other. James was considered to be a reckless driver who would take unnecessary risks. Niki Lauda and James Hunt had been rivals since their Formula 2 days.
During the first half of the season, Niki Lauda won the lion’s share while James Hunt was facing reliability issues with McLaren. As the season progressed, Hunt started taking a few victories, but it was not enough. Every race Niki Lauda completed, he scored a podium in them. So he did not let Hunt take the lead throughout the first half of the season.
During the 1976 British Grand Prix, James Hunt took the victory on track while Niki Lauda came in second. However, after the race, Niki Lauda and Ferrari requested the FIA to check with Hunt’s car. As it turned out, Hunt’s McLaren was not under the legal limits of the regulations. He was subsequently disqualified from the race. After this incident, the atmosphere between James Hunt and Niki Lauda was extremely tense as they headed into the German Grand Prix.
What happened at the German Grand Prix in 1976?
Heading into the Gerrman Grand Prix, Niki Lauda was not impressed with the safety measures taken by the track officials. The Grand Prix took place at the Nordschleife circuit. The circuit itself was a whopping 14 miles. An average Formula 1 track covers around 3-4 miles over a lap. Due to the oversized track, the race would take place under only 14 laps.
The safety measures arranged for the Grand Prix would have been sufficient for any other Grand Prix but the Nordschleife Circuit. Since the track was enormously longer than the rest of the track in the calendar, the race would have required 5 times the number of marshals, medical services, and firefighters to cover the entire circuit. But the track officials were unwilling or unable to provide so.
Due to these reasons, Niki Lauda tried to stage a boycott with all the drivers. But the majority of the drivers voted against the boycott. James Hunt assumed that Lauda wanted to Boycott because he was already leading the Championship and would give Hunt one less race to close the gap.
Hunt and Lauda occupied the first 2 positions on the grid with Hunt taking pole. As the race started, Niki Lauda had a poor start and lost a few places in the first lap. During the second lap, Lauda was desperately trying to make up for lost positions. During a fast left-hander, Niki Lauda lost the rear of the car and slammed hard into the barriers. The car bounced off the barriers and ended up in the middle of the track in flames.
This is the crash that left Niki Lauda seriously injured at the 1976 German Grand Prix.
The @F1 legend has died at the age of 70 – read more about his life here: https://t.co/dO4vXOQ4E9 pic.twitter.com/ViuTgPgdSz
— Sky News (@SkyNews) May 21, 2019
Lauda’s car was hit by 2 other cars who were not aware of the accident. The drivers of the two cars were Harold Ertle and Brett Lunger. Seeing the severity of the crash and the fact that Niki Lauda was still in the car while it was in flames, the 2 drivers immediately got out of the car to help Lauda. Guy Edwards and Arturo Mezario also stopped their Formula 1 cars at the accident to help.
The drivers realized that Niki Lauda was stuck inside the car. They had trouble taking his seatbelt off. But Arturo bravely put his body into the flaming cockpit and was able to undo the seatbelt and pull Lauda out of the car. Lauda’s condition was worse than expected after he was pulled out.
How did Niki Lauda get burns on his face?
After Lauda was pulled off the car, he had severe burns to his face. This should not have happened as the Formula 1 helmets should have prevented this. As it turns out, Niki Lauda was wearing a modified Helmet for the Grand Prix, and at some time during the accident, it had come off. If it had not come off, Niki Lauda’s condition would not have been as bad as it was.
The medical helicopter at the circuit took around 5-6 minutes to arrive at the scene. This delay could have been avoided if the track officials had taken the proper safety measures.
After the accident, Niki Lauda had severe burns on his face and hands and had inhaled a lot of toxic fumes. He arrived at the hospital with life-threatening conditions. A pastor was arranged at the hospital to perform the last rites. However, Lauda survived his injuries. Generally, when a patient acquires injuries like this, it takes about 3-4 months to recover. But Niki Lauda was itching to get back on track as James Hunt was winning races in his absence.
After just 6 weeks of intense recovery, Niki Lauda was back to racing for the Italian Grand Prix. Although Lauda was still leading the Championship after missing 2 races, James Hunt had significantly closed the gap to only 2 points.
Niki Lauda finished the Grand Prix in an impressive 4th place. He later stated that he was petrified during the 1976 Italian Grand Prix. During the last Grand Prix of the season in Japan, Niki Lauda was 3 points in the lead from James Hunt. However, conditions during the Grand Prix worsened, and Lauda decided it was too dangerous to continue and retired from the race. This allowed James Hunt to take the Championship by 1 point.
Controversies after the accident
There were a lot of questions asked after the 1976 Formula 1 season. The majority of the fans believed that Hunt would not have won the Championship if Lauda had not missed the 2 races. There were also questions raced regarding why the drivers voted against boycotting and how the helmet came off of Niki Lauda’s head.
There is no doubt that Niki Lauda would at least be a 4-time Champion if he had not crashed at the German Grand Prix. Although James Hunt never publicly apologized for not boycotting the race in Germany, he stated that he felt sorry that the Japanese Grand Prix was held under such ridiculous circumstances.
As for Niki Lauda’s helmet, there was only 1 size in the model Lauda was using. Niki’s head was relatively smaller than the size. So in order to make the helmet fit, a lot of padding was used. During the accident, the padding got compressed which allowed the helmet strap to slip out of his chin.
During the accident, Lauda wore Bell Helmets which have been providing helmets since the 1950s and continue to do so. The FIA has made some major changes to the helmet design to ensure more safety.
Niki Lauda went on to win 2 more championships after the accident. There is no doubt that Lauda would have been able to win more if not for that accident. Niki Lauda served as an advisor to multiple Formula 1 teams after his retirement. He served as a consultant with Ferrari, Jaguar, and most famously Mercedes from 2014.
Lauda passed away in 2019 just before the Monaco Grand Prix where Lewis Hamilton dedicated his win to him. Since his death, Mercedes has always had a red star in memory of Niki Lauda.