Last Sept. 16, Niki Lauda and his wife, Marlene, boarded an early-morning flight from Vienna to London. "What are we going to do there?" Marlene asked. "Good place to go shopping," Niki answered. When they arrived in London, Niki deposited Marlene in front of Harrods and said, "You go shopping. I'm going to Donington."
She nodded resignedly. "It began to dawn upon me," she says. Marlene knew that Donington in Derbyshire is where McLaren International does much of the testing for its Formula I race cars.
It had been more than two years since the 33-year-old Lauda had retired from racing, after a practice lap for the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix. "I'm through," he had said then to his stunned Brabham teammates. "I don't want to drive around in circles anymore." That year Lauda had accumulated only four world championship points, a disheartening comedown from 1975, when he first won the world driving championship, and from 1977, when he came back after a fiery crash in the previous year's German GP to win a second title.
He hadn't been expected to live after that crash at the dangerous and rain-slicked N√ºrburgring circuit in the Eifel Mountains, but he had willed himself to stay alive—with redoubled determination after hearing a priest say the last rites. "I clung on to the voices I heard," he says. "I would not let myself become unconscious." Incredibly, only six weeks later he drove to a fourth-place finish in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza and could well have won the 1976 world championship had he not pulled to a stop after one lap of the final race of the season, in Japan, giving the title to McLaren driver James Hunt. That race had been started in a downpour.
"Maybe in Niki's place I would have done the same thing," says Hunt. "I was in front and was the only guy who could see in that rain." Soon after Lauda left the pits at Fuji International Speedway the rain stopped, and his decision was consequently remembered as a sign of fear rather than common sense. "Some things are more important than the world championship—like my life, for instance," Lauda says. "Was I a coward? Nonsense. I used my head."
After his retirement, Lauda formed Lauda Air, a charter service flying within Austria, with a fleet of four planes—two 44-passenger Fokker F27 turboprops and two 10-passenger Myst√®re turbofans—which Lauda often piloted himself. He also had on order a 255-passenger DC-10 turbofan, which would have given Lauda Air destinations like London and Athens. The deposit had been made and the DC-10 had even been painted in the red and white of Lauda Air, but at delivery time Lauda couldn't come up with the financial backing. "Interest rates had gone up," he says, "but people wanted to pay less for air fares. We're not about to close down, but we can't expand at this time. We've been in the red for two years."
Life as the owner of a small business instead of as a major motor-sport star caused other problems. In Lauda's 10 years as a race driver, the province of Salzburg, where he was born and still resides, had never found any fault with his income-tax payments. But in December 1980 the Austrian Ministry of Finance sent an investigator whose report led to the decision that Lauda owed more than half a million dollars in back taxes. The army, too, came knocking on Lauda's door—men are eligible for conscription in the Austrian army until age 35. Last March, when Lauda showed up for his draft physical, he found reporters and a TV crew awaiting him as well as the army doctors. Someone at the recruiting station had invited the media to cover the event because it would be "good publicity for the army."
"The next day I was front-page news," says Lauda. "I read that I had a number of broken bones that had not healed properly and that I was generally a wreck." The news stories caused immediate repercussions at the Austrian aviation board. Lauda had to submit to another series of physical examinations to prove that he was sound enough to fly a commercial airplane. "I'm the only Austrian pilot who needs a five-page certification that he's healthy," he says.
As Lauda began to discover what it's like to be a mere mortal rather than a reigning national hero, Ron Dennis, a director of McLaren International, approached Lauda with an offer designed to lure him back into Formula I racing, the bait being a multimillion-dollar contract. Lauda had received attractive offers from other teams during his retirement and had passed them up; what intrigued him this time was the unique McLaren MP4 race car.
When Dennis joined McLaren in August 1980, he brought with him John Barnard, an Englishman who designed the Chaparral that Johnny Rutherford drove to victory in the 1980 Indy 500. Now Barnard was working on a race car with a carbon fiber chassis. In the past, carbon fiber—somewhat similar to the material in so-called graphite fishing rods and tennis rackets—had been considered too risky to use in a race car because of its tendency to shatter unpredictably. But during the time Barnard had spent in the U.S. working on the Chaparral, he'd heard that the Hercules Corporation in Salt Lake City was providing carbon fiber parts for the space shuttle. Researchers at Hercules had discovered that as long as the strands of carbon fiber were stressed at a particular angle, it was a safe, strong and stable material. Hercules is now in a commercial partnership with McLaren and builds the MP4's carbon fiber chassis, which is lighter than its aluminum counterpart but three times as stiff. Moreover, the material provides a driver capsule of immense strength. This fact was dramatically proved last year in the Italian Grand Prix at the Monza circuit when John Watson crashed his carbon fiber McLaren; its Cosworth Ford engine was completely torn off the rear of the MP4, but the chassis, and Watson, were unharmed.
While Lauda was impressed with the potential of the McLaren, he would also have to discover if he could adjust to the new demands of Grand Prix driving. Since his retirement Formula I racing had changed drastically as the result of the proliferation of ground-effects cars. All Formula I cars now were designed with tapering Venturi tubes on their undersides, which accelerated the air passing beneath the cars so as to form a partial vacuum and literally suck the vehicles to the surface of a racecourse. Cornering speeds had greatly increased in Lauda's absence, and so had the physical demands on the drivers. Suspensions had to be made much stiffer, to prevent the car from leaning too much, thus breaking the partial vacuum and sending the car into a vicious snap roll.
In his tryout at Donington, Lauda felt every ripple of the track and found himself keeping a death grip on the tiny steering wheel as his body was subjected to 3 Gs in the high-speed corners. Teddy Mayer, the longtime chairman-director of McLaren, watched with mixed feelings as Lauda bounced all over the track. "He looked awful," Mayer recalls. "He could only do two or three laps without stopping for breath. But he was reasonably quick and obviously enjoying it. Physical fitness is more important for race drivers than most of them believe. Niki realized this and went about getting fit in a very professional way. The second time he came to drive, in November, he was quite a bit better."
Lauda signed with McLaren International on Nov. 12. It is rumored that he stands to make as much as $3 million for driving in the scheduled 15 Grand Prix races this year. Whatever the precise amount is, it's granted that Lauda is the highest-paid driver in Formula I racing, which makes him one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. Marlboro, the prime sponsor of the McLaren team, increased its auto racing budget to accommodate Lauda's contract—which could be dissolved after four races if things didn't work out—and in return got most of the advertising space on Lauda's coveralls. Lauda also started smoking a couple of Marlboros a day instead of the thin, black cigarillos he had favored.
Marlboro's interest is easy to explain. Since Lauda and then the ebullient Hunt, who drove for McLaren in his championship year, both retired in 1979, Grand Prix racing has been lacking a charismatic personality. Hunt has also received lucrative offers to get back behind the wheel, but he won't consider it. "I wasn't enjoying having to live my life like a zoo animal," he says.
Why then would Lauda, the father of two small sons, who self-consciously wears a Parmalat (the Italian dairy that's his other sponsor) baseball-style cap to cover the worst of the vivid scars remaining from his 1976 crash, want to return to this goldfish life-style in a sport that had almost killed him?
Lauda dismisses money as the principal motivation. He comes from a well-to-do family and has kept his airline pretty much isolated from his personal finances. "It's obvious that you earn money doing this," Lauda said just before the start of the 1982 Formula I season, "but that can't be your only motivation or you'd be putting too much pressure on yourself. I had two years in the airline business, and I think I know everything about that. Now I am curious whether it's possible for me to get back into a car after two years and drive with the rest of them.
"This is a dangerous sport, but we are not pawns of fate; we can argue with fate. I see life as a road where we can travel forward and backward or drive a zigzag course. What's important is that we don't lose sight of the direction where we want to go."
Besides, Lauda didn't have anyplace to go but racing. Except for his love of flying, there never has been anything else in his life which sustained his interest or in which he could do so well. In 1962, when he was 14 and struggling through high school, he bought an old Volkswagen, took it apart, refurbished it and began to race it around the parking lot of his family's paper mill outside Vienna. Even though his father and grandfather were dead set against his taking up a racing career and never supported him financially, he made his way through the ranks from the hill climbs at age 18 to formulas III, II and I. "When I was 19, I left the family," he says. "I have always gone my own way; I was never dependent on them." Lauda's grandfather and father are no longer alive, but his mother is. "We do not talk about my racing," says Lauda.
Once committed to a comeback Lauda began getting racing-fit again. With Willi Dungl, an Austrian physical therapist who had helped in his remarkable recovery from the N√ºrburgring crash, Lauda began a three-month conditioning regime that continued right up to the first Grand Prix of '82, in South Africa in late January. Lauda and Dungl ran every day and went cross-country skiing and bike riding. They did Alpine skiing "to stimulate the aggressive juices." They lifted weights, did calisthenics. Lauda lost 17 pounds, down to 140 on a 5'9" frame. Dungl put Lauda on a special diet, which consists mainly of a very dry, brittle bread that Dungl bakes himself, hard-fried eggs, salads and fish.
In that first race of the 1982 season, on the Kyalami circuit outside Johannesburg, Lauda finished fourth. "He certainly kicked off well," says Hunt, who now works as a BBC television sports commentator. "He seemed to throw himself into it with boyish enthusiasm, thoroughly enjoying himself."
"I was suspicious that he might not come back with the right commitment," says Barnard. "But he's putting everything he's got into it. Before he joined us, I had this vision that he would act the big star and expect to have everything done for him and the way he wanted it. Instead he's turned out to be very low-keyed...provided that I can give him a logical argument, he will try almost any change I want to make."
Driving one of today's ground-effects cars can be likened to riding in a super-fast roller-coaster car and having to steer it at the same time—with 20 more drivers on the same track trying to do the same thing. The heart rate of Formula I drivers has been found to fluctuate between 180 and 207 over the span of a two-hour race. And all the while, the driver is being mercilessly pummeled, bounced around the cramped interior of his car. In fast corners he finds it nearly impossible to hold his head up. "Every time you get to the next race, you have to get used to it again," says 30-year-old Gilles Villeneuve, who drives for Ferrari.
For the Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro on March 21, Lauda arrived with a special cervical collar made of foam rubber that would help him hold his head upright. On the 22nd lap of that race, his McLaren and a Williams driven by Carlos Reutemann collided when Reutemann tried to pass Lauda on the inside of a turn. Lauda had to retire his damaged car. A few days later Reutemann announced that he was retiring his damaged body because he was unwilling to continue taking the beating Formula I cars dish out. Lauda doesn't care to dwell on the buffeting. "You make the decision whether you want to drive or not," he says. "If you decide to drive, then you prepare your body and you put up with the discomfort."
Lauda's teammate, Watson, is a gracious Irishman who is 35 years old and last year, as McLaren's No. 1 man, had won the British GP, the first victory for the team since 1977. Now that Lauda is around, Watson is content to let him have center stage. Lauda, on the other hand, seems incapable of showing that kind of graciousness. During qualifying at Rio, Watson was consistently one second slower per lap than his teammate. Lauda was hoping for a lap free of traffic, to set a qualifying time that would put him among the leaders. He almost had one. As he later told John Hogan, a marketing director for Marlboro, "I was on a fantastic lap, but then who do you think got in my way? Watson! I felt like running him off the track."
In Phase I of his racing career, Lauda had said that the only driver he ever really respected was Hunt because Hunt was an individualist, someone who didn't give a damn. "We both had pretty much the same attitude toward racing," says Hunt. "He's extremely selfish and I'm the same way. It's simply necessary to get on in racing. We both approached racing in a very simple and unromantic way."
Some Lauda watchers say that he's more relaxed this time around. Just before the first practice session for the Grand Prix at Long Beach in California a fortnight ago, he chatted with Mayer—a discussion of "feminine pulchritude," according to Mayer—laughing as if he didn't have anything better to do that day. After practice, though, Lauda jumped out of his car and buttonholed a man from Michelin. Motioning to one of his rear tires, Lauda yelled, "This tire is a complete joke. You know what a joke is?" Lauda had posted the second-fastest time that day, a 1:28.791 lap.
During the final qualifying session for Long Beach, Lauda stood calmly by the track, watching cars scream by, waiting for tire rubber to build up in the corners, which would make the track faster. Finally he jumped into his car and drove three even better laps—the first in 1:29.8, the second in 1:28.1, the third in 1:27.4. It seemed that nobody would be able to touch his final time, which translated to 87.698 mph on the 12-turn, 2.13-mile circuit. Everybody was smiling in the McLaren pit; journalists were milling around Lauda. Suddenly, 15 seconds before the qualifying hour was up, it was announced that Alfa Romeo driver Andrea de Cesaris had clipped .3 off Lauda's time, gaining the pole position. This was greeted with some chuckles because last year de Cesaris had been No. 2 driver on the McLaren team. He had crashed 16 times. "It doesn't mean anything," said Lauda, sitting on the pit wall eating an apple. "The important thing is that I start in the front row."
An Austrian journalist asked, "How do you feel about tomorrow?"
"Good," said Lauda.
"I ask him that every time," the journalist said later. "Usually he answers, 'I don't feel.' "
The next day, Lauda got off in third place, trailing de Cesaris and René Arnoux of France, who was sitting behind de Cesaris and whose turbocharged Renault has a great deal more horsepower than Lauda's Cosworth Ford V-8. But on Lap 5, Arnoux missed a shift and Lauda swept past him and began to stalk de Cesaris. On Lap 15, Lauda shot by on the inside. He held on to first—and his concentration—for the rest of the race. At one point, driving through what must seem an endless, featureless tunnel that is formed by the temporary four-foot-high concrete barriers that delineate the racecourse, Lauda built his lead to 50.1 seconds and had lapped all but four other drivers. Eventually he slowed to conserve his tires, and as he crossed the finish line to complete the 18th Grand Prix win of his career, his lead over second-place Keke Rosberg—de Cesaris and 10 other drivers had crashed—was 14.6 seconds.
"I slowed down because a win is a win," said Lauda. "The only thing that counts is getting to the finish line first." And that Niki Lauda had done in only the third race of his comeback.
If fitness is a factor, that victory won't be his last. His program is almost insurance that he will survive the grueling season, which will not end until the last week in September with the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in Las Vegas. But once in a while he takes a break. He may upset Dungl by lighting a cigarette in front of him or, worse yet, toasting him with a drink. One night last month in South America, Lauda got a couple of friends together and went in search of a nightclub, only to find that all the clubs were closed. Finally, after Lauda explained who he was, one club owner agreed to open up. Lauda spent the evening sitting at the bar of the near-empty club, sipping rum and Coke, listening to Rod Stewart records and looking absolutely pleased with himself. A door that wouldn't have opened even for the owner of an airline had been unlocked for a Grand Prix driver. It recalled the old times, the good times, and now Lauda was ready to prove they could be relived.