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When Niki Lauda escaped the hell of flames at the Nürburgring

One of the worst accidents in Formula 1 history happened on August 1, 1976 at the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. Niki Lauda lost control of his Ferrari and had a serious accident. The Austrian, who died in 2019, only survived thanks to the help of his opponents.

The tension before the 1976 German Grand Prix was palpable. The last race on the legendary Nordschleife was ill-fated.

The 22.8 km high-risk course was considered outdated, and the safety precautions for the drivers no longer up to date. When it was also clear that it would rain on the day of the race, the then 28-year-old world champion Niki Lauda took matters into his own hands.

Lauda called a drivers’ meeting to discuss boycotting the race. In his eyes, the course was almost impossible to master even under perfect conditions. In the wet and rain, the track was simply uncontrollable. The pilots voted. With the narrowest possible majority, the drivers decided to hold the Grand Prix anyway. The inevitable took its course.

Wrong tires, bad stop

On the Sunday of the race, many doubts were initially dispelled in the paddock. Although the track was wet, it was already drying out in many places. There was no sign of rain either. Nevertheless, 25 of the 26 drivers decided to start on rain tires. Only Jochen Mass put on slicks.

Lauda and pole setter James Hunt got off to a bad start and immediately lost a few positions. On the other side, Mass literally plowed through the field on his dry tires. Even during the first lap, it was clear to everyone: rain tires were the wrong choice.

Lauda also turned into the pits after the first 22.8 km. At this point, the World Championship leader had already lost numerous places. And his stop didn’t go according to plan either, so that the Austrian fell further behind. Lauda started his race to catch up on fresh rubber.

loss of control in the mine

The first kilometers on dry tires went according to plan. The Austrian steered his Ferrari 312T2 past the airfield, Adenauer Forst and Exmühle, then turned at top speed into the section of the track that was called the mine. This is where the accident happened.

In a long left turn, the rear of the Ferrari suddenly broke out. The car lurched briefly, then veered sharply to the right and slammed into the barrier. The 312T2 broke through the safety fences, hit an earth bank and threw itself back onto the track. The gasoline ignited within seconds. Lauda had no chance.

Shortly after the burning Ferrari came to a standstill, Harald Ertl and Brett Lunger crashed into the wrecked cars. They too were just passengers and unable to evade in time. “The second impact from Lunger then pushed my Ferrari, which was already on fire, into this hell of fire where the tank was located,” Lauda later recalled.

Quick-witted, Lauda’s rivals realized the seriousness of the situation and rushed to help. Arturo Merzario finally managed to pull the Austrian out of his burning vehicle. Use that saved Lauda’s life.

Formula 1 comeback after 42 days

With severe burns, Lauda was first taken to Adenau and then to the Koblenz hospital.

This was followed by a transfer to the accident hospital in Ludwigshafen, where the doctors found that it was not Lauda’s burns that were the much bigger problem, but the injuries to the lungs. The treatment continued at the Mannheim Clinic.

Although Lauda fell into a coma in the meantime, the Austrian recovered quickly. Just 42 days after his accident, he was back in the cockpit at the Italian Grand Prix. A miracle that no one would have thought possible based on the pictures from the Nordschleife.

“I quickly knew that it was a material defect”

Lauda himself later suspected that a defect caused the accident. “I knew relatively quickly that it was a material defect. My chief mechanic Cuoghi told me that the pivot point of the rear right trailing arm was broken,” explained the Austrian. However, this version was never officially confirmed.

On the other hand, it is clear why Lauda suffered such severe burns. The Austrian was wearing a helmet that was padded with foam that was not approved according to the regulations. This foam contracted in the heat so that the helmet no longer had a hold and Lauda jumped off his head.

“I had a Bell helmet year and day. During the season AGV developed a new helmet and made me their test vehicle. The helmet was lighter, more comfortable, but actually too big for me. It was too loose on my head. Me I don’t think the Bell helmet would have flown off me,” said Lauda, ​​who said the burns wouldn’t have been bad at all if he hadn’t lost his helmet.

Christian Schenzel

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