Former Ferrari team manager Daniele Audetto remembered his former driver Niki Lauda, who died earlier this week as a “great man” who showed courage by returning to race in Formula 1 after almost being killed at the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
“I was very impressed about his straight speaking. He was a gentleman, cultivated man with a good culture, but straight speaking. You could really see that he had a great future.”
Lauda was on the way to his first world championship at the time. He had a strong championship lead when he crashed the following year during the German Grand Prix, suffering burns and toxic gas inhalation which nearly claimed his life.
Audetto recalled the extraordinary circumstances of his return to racing, having missed just two races since the crash.
“Niki was a great driver but more importantly was a great man. He had a lot of courage to come back after 40 days.
“It was a really a miracle, almost unexpected for [Enzo] Ferrari – he had already put under contract Carlos Reutemann. But Mr Ferrari said to Niki ‘If you want to drive in Monza’, show me that you can do it. If you are fast, you can do many laps in Fiorano.'”
“[Lauda] came into Fiorano. He was still bleeding. He was still in a very bad condition. He put his helmet, and his overalls on, went into the car, did two laps very slowly. So we thought ‘hmm, maybe he’s not good’. But it was just to make sure that he was well in the car.
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“Then he gave some indication to Cuoghi and ingegnere [engineer] Forghieri and he started to make quick laps. Quicker and quicker. And he was almost near the record. Then he did a long run of 20, 25 laps. So Mr Ferrari said, OK, of course you can race in Monza.”
Lauda’s return meant Ferrari entered three cars for the Italian Grand Prix: One for regular driver Clay Regazzoni, one for Lauda’s replacement Reutemann, and another for Lauda. Regazzoni finished second behind Ronnie Peterson, while Lauda came in fourth, five places ahead of Reutemann.
The points kept Lauda in the lead of the championship, but by the final race in Japan James Hunt had closed within three points of him. Nonetheless, Audetto does not regret his decision to let Lauda withdraw from the race, run in dreadful conditions, which helped Hunt take the title.
“It was the right decision for him for two reasons. First, because Bernie Ecclestone [asked] the drivers to start under the deluge. It was really a typhoon. Bernie was going to lose the TV rights and also the organisation fee. So he said ‘just start and then you stop after two laps but at least I will comply with the contract’.
“Emerson Fittipaldi – who was the president of the GPDA, Hunt and Niki shook hands, so that was the agreement.
“Then when James Hunt went to the pit, he talked to [McLaren team principal] Teddy Mayer [who] was furious and he said ‘if you stop I kill you, I’ll ruin your career, you cannot do that for the team’. So James Hunt came and informed Niki that Teddy Mayer was really so strong. And Niki was still convinced that it was going to stop.
“So my only mistake, if you want to call it my mistake, was not to have asked Niki to stay one or two more laps in the race because wait until James Hunt stopped as well.
“But I didn’t have the courage to say that to Niki when I saw him almost dead two months before in the hospital. It was a decision to win a championship or to win a life of a man that if he is going to have an accident during this deluge I will feel guilty for all my life. So I prefer to lose the championship and not to risk again Niki’s life.”
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However Audetto pointed out Lauda lost the championship “not just for Fuji”. Earlier in the year Hunt had been disqualified from victory in Spain when his McLaren’s rear wing was found not to comply with recently-introduced restrictions on size. Lauda inherited the win, but Hunt was reinstated on appeal, a decision which Audetto still considers a “scandal”.
“They put him back [but] the car was completely too wide and too high. The rear wing in Jarama was a big advantage. So they gave back the points to McLaren, to James Hunt.”
Audetto said he and Lauda fell out over Ferrari’s decision to bring Reutemann into the team.
“We had a very good relationship until the Nurburgring,” he said. “[After] the Nurburgring Niki was very upset because Mr Ferrari asked me to contact first Emerson Fittipaldi, then Ronnie Peterson and finally Reutemann. So he was upset with me because I contacted [them] straight away after the accident.
“But I reported to Ferrari what the doctor say to me, that it was already a miracle to save his life, not even to think that he was going to race again. So Ferrari wanted to make sure that he’s going to win the world championship for constructors because that is a lot of money. His first reaction was ‘Daniel, why you stay in the hospital? The doctors are taking care of Niki. You have to go and talk to Emerson’.
“But Emerson was under contract with Copersucar, it was very difficult, With Peterson we almost reached an agreement with Max Mosley. But at the end of the day Niki was recovering fast and put a veto on Ronnie Peterson. So we had to make a deal with Bernie Ecclestone because Reutemann was a Brabham driver and Bernie was very happy to help Mr Ferrari, of course.”
The pair later reconciled, and Audetto recalled his former driver would still come and eat with him in the Super Aguri garage when the team raced in F1 between 2006 and 2008.
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“I had a very good chef that cooked very well the spaghetti Italian style, al dente. So Niki used to come very often to hang out at the hospitality to eat a cooked plate of spaghetti al dente because he said that his team were not so good.”
Audetto recalled Lauda as a “great man” whose transformed how drivers approached Formula 1.
“He was the first driver to be really professional, really committed. He was working very hard with the mechanics, with the engineers, he really wanted to know everything.
“Regazzoni was a talented driver but was not so committed. After qualifying [he] was going to play tennis or whatever, Niki stayed with the mechanics. He really showed that to be fit and to be focused was the only way to be Formula 1 champion.
“So that’s why [others] follows: [Ayrton] Senna, [Alain] Prost, Michael [Schumacher]. Very professional.”
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