World driving champion Niki Lauda stood barely sheltered from an ugly drizzle by the cold concrete of the Ferrari pits as he prepared to qualify for last Sunday's United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, N.Y. Gingerly the Austrian placed a foam earplug in his right ear, a piece of which is missing. The photographers surrounding him focused their cameras on the gruesome tissue that enveloped his eyes and temples like a 29¢ Halloween mask. Ten weeks earlier the face had been scarless; now it is disfigured after a crash in the German Grand Prix at N√ºrburgring, a circuit Lauda despises for its danger. That crash had nearly killed him.
A photographer leaned to within 24 inches of Lauda's face; Lauda slowly turned his back and covered his face by slipping on his flame-retarding balaclava. Before the crash it had a single wide opening for his eyes, but now there is a protective strip—sewn on by Lauda's wife Marlene—to protect the tender skin on the bridge of his nose. The Phantom-style hood exaggerated the new shape of the 27-year-old champion's eyes, grown oval in appearance because of his healing skin.
If Lauda's face was scarred, his spirit was not. That and his heavy right foot had survived intact. He qualified fifth and overcame the deteriorating handling of his Ferrari to finish third at the Glen and stay ahead in the point standings. Lauda's good friend and great rival, Englishman James Hunt, drove a McLaren-Cosworth to victory, his second in a row. He had won the Canadian Grand Prix one week earlier. At the Glen he gained five points on Lauda and now trails by a mere three, 68 to 65. The championship will be settled in the Japanese Grand Prix on Oct. 24, the final event in the 10-month, 16-race series.
For nearly a week after N√ºrburgring, Lauda had been near death. The oxygen count in his blood was below the level theoretically necessary to support life; his lungs had been seared when he sucked in flames. The doctors told Marlene that there was no hope her husband of six months would live. A priest gave him last rites. "Goodby, my friend," the priest had said. Niki, who was conscious during the ceremony, had no intention of saying goodby to anyone.
October 17, 1976
Lauda hung on with the same determination he displays in a race car. Temporarily blind, he concentrated on voices as a method of remaining conscious. Consciousness was painful, but it was a way to stay in control. Not until the sixth day was he out of danger of dying.
With a therapist at his side 24 hours a day, Lauda exercised for half of those hours, and so pushed himself back into condition. Six weeks to the day after the crash, he raced in the Italian Grand Prix and finished fourth. Hunt would not win the championship by default after all.
"A lot of people have said I am crazy to go back to racing so quickly," Lauda says. "But they don't understand. It is the job I have, it is the risk I must take."
Lauda would have been trailing Hunt by four points coming into the United States GP had not one of Hunt's five victories—the British GP—been stripped from the Englishman days before the Canadian event. Ferrari had protested that Hunt had been allowed to restart illegally after a race-stopping red flag, and the protest eventually was sustained. (Ironically, the red flag came after a multicar crash in which the No. 2 Ferrari driver, Clay Regazzoni, bounced off Lauda's car and into Hunt's path.)
Thus in a sense Hunt, too, may be a casualty—of a power struggle between the strong Formula I Constructor's Association (in which Hunt's manager at McLaren, Teddy Mayer, is influential) and the Commission Sportive Internationale, the official governing body for Formula I racing. It was the CSI that threw out Hunt's British victory. All told there have been three clashes between McLaren and the CSI this year. They have been the result of the two organizations wrestling over which should interpret—let alone enforce—the rules.
"Teddy Mayer is what you call a bad word," says one Italian close to the CSI.
"Bloody meddlers," said Mayer after the CSI took the British GP away from his driver.
So Watkins Glen was a crucial race for Hunt if he was to keep his championship hopes alive. As things turned out, Ferrari, having recently hired the Argentine Carlos Reutemann, passed up the opportunity to gang up on Hunt with three cars at Watkins Glen and kept Reutemann in Italy to test next year's car. That left Lauda and Regazzoni, who had so blatantly blocked Emerson Fittipaldi's McLaren last year at the Glen as Lauda sped to his first title. Since Regazzoni started 14th and Hunt first—grid positions were taken from Friday's damp practice session, Saturday's having been drowned out—the possibility of a Ferrari squeeze on Hunt was slight.
Good thing. If he had been balked by a Ferrari running interference. Hunt surely would have reacted more strongly than Fittipaldi, who shook his fist and swore a bit at Regazzoni, but let it go at that. "I've almost got to win this one, now don't I?" said Hunt before the race.
Starting on the front row beside Hunt was Jody Scheckter, driving the mechanical oddity of the season, a six-wheeled Tyrrell-Cosworth. At the green flag Scheckter outdragged Hunt into the first turn, and for 36 of the 59 laps Hunt hounded Scheckter as Lauda, after moving into third on the sixth lap, eyed his chief rival from five seconds back. But the champion lost sight of Hunt when his Ferrari began to oversteer.
On the 37th lap Hunt passed Scheckter in traffic, then four laps later Scheckter repassed as they exited the chicane, where Scheckter had been bouncing over the curbs as often as not, his helmeted head visibly snapping back from the impact. With 13 laps remaining, Hunt gained the lead for good and spread the margin to 8.03 seconds at the finish.
Lauda, meanwhile, was losing ground to Hunt's teammate, Jochen Mass. "The oversteer was getting worse and worse," said Lauda. "I was not slowing because I was tired." On the last lap Mass made a charge at Lauda, and they crossed the finish line only half a car length apart. Had Mass been able to catch Lauda it would have meant one less point for Hunt to make up.
Fifth place was also settled by a whisker—two-tenths of a second, to be exact—as Britain's John Watson, driving the U.S.-owned Penske-Cosworth, made an unsuccessful stab at Hans Stuck's March on the last turn.
Two American drivers in British cars had a chance at becoming the first from this country to win our Grand Prix. But the ignition on Mario Andretti's Lotus-Cosworth went on the fritz, which slowed him, and then his front suspension was damaged when he hit the chicane's curb, which stopped him. The other American, Brett Lunger, drove a smooth race from 24th to 11th place in a Surtees with a tired Cosworth engine.
After Lauda had come off last season's championship to win four of this year's first six races, the question was: Can anyone stop him? Now Hunt has won four of the last six, and six on the year. The question is the same; only the names have changed.