Historian Bas Naafs leaps into Formula One history once every week to find legendary, mythical and extraordinary stories from the paddock. In this chapter we take a look at Niki Lauda’s ‘second’ comeback in 1982. What moved Lauda to start for McLaren in 1982 and why did he come back in the first place? Let’s start by taking a look what happened before the '82 season.
"I've had enough driving round in circles driving your cars." With these famous last words directed to Bernie Ecclestone in 1979, Niki Lauda said farewell to Brabham Racing and Formula 1 in general. Between 1974 and 1977 Lauda won a total of fifteen Grand prix’ for the scuderia, winning the world title in '75 and '77. After 1977 Lauda waved Ferrari goodbye and hoped to continue his winning streak at Brabham Racing, which at the time was managed by Bernie Ecclestone. Together with Gordon Murray as chief designer it was more than understood that Brabham Racing was going to be the team to beat. However, Lauda suffered setback after setback when Colin Chapman's Lotus 79 proved superior due to the use of ground effect. Also, the Alfa Romeo engine proved to be a liability especially when they introduced a brand new V12 for the 1979 season. The car broke down more often than it could finish. Although Lauda won two Grand prix’ during the '78 season with the famous fan car, it was more than obvious that Lauda couldn’t compete. When Brabham installed a lighter Cosworth engine during the Canadian Grand prix of '79 the car proved to be difficult and unpredictable to drive. Lauda had enough, terminated his season and retired from Formula one.
From around '76 onwards, Lauda started to create ideas to manage his own airline company: Lauda Air. Hannes Rausch, former creative director of Lauda Air remembers: "He was serious. All he was thinking about was planes and airlines; it was an obsession." In his usual nonchalant way of conversations Lauda admitted this, saying: "I was just starting to develop Lauda Air, my mind was already away from Formula 1. I went to Canada, started with the practice session and after three laps I thought 'shit, I can't do it anymore'. I just left and went to California to discuss the purchase of a DC-10 airplane."
It wasn't easy for Lauda to launch his own airline company. He admitted to have underestimated the power of Austrian air, the only airline company in Austria at the time. Lauda claims he was held back by the Austrian government stating that they allowed only one airline and no competition. No official law ever existed on this subject, so Lauda accused the government of purposefully working against him. A second setback came in the shape of a tax assessment, fining Lauda for not paying tax over his income from various international networks. Lauda obliged, and payed the fine. The setbacks didn't stop there. When Lauda retired to his home in Vienna the state issued his conscription to the Austrian armed forces. Even Lauda couldn't get away from that. At the age of thirty three he had to get his fysical. Followed by a handful of journalists Lauda did his duty: "I was there to do whatever was necessary to do, like every other Austrian." Lauda was turned down for military service because of the physical damages he sustained during his crash at the Nürburgring in '76. Lauda reacts laconic to this in an interview: "It [the medical report] said 'if you wear a helmet it would not stay on because of your damaged ear'. It was quite funny actually!"
How funny the situation may have seemed for Lauda, he had to deliver a tough bureaucratic battle to get Lauda Air up and running successfully. Not only did Lauda lose a lot of money on his tax assessment and random licenses to get his company started, his patience was also deteriorating in such a way that he decided to put the expansion of his company on hold for a while.
Lauda realized, as sober as he always is, that he needed to have a little more patience with his retirement plans. However, he refused to stick his hands in his pockets and watch time pass by. Though Lauda wasn't showing any interest in Formula 1 for a year, he decided to stop by at the Grand prix of Monza (presumably 1981). It got his juices flowing again. Asking himself if he could still make a successful comeback, Lauda got in touch with Ron Dennis and traveled to Donington Park to perform a test in a McLaren. In hindsight it is easy for us to determine the fact that he was aiming for a comeback, but at Donington Park, in front of a few curious journalists, Lauda kept his cool and performed a beautiful piece of acting: "I am here in Donington because a Sunday driver usually drives on a sunday. Today is a Wednesday and I wished to ride on a Wednesday. That's about it. [..] I am a Wednesday driver and I like it here in Donington, the weather is beautiful and the sun in shining. [...] my only motivation is the Wednesday."
Negotiations between Lauda and Dennis started after the test at Donington. Lauda opted for a salary equal to what he made at Ferrari and Brabham. Dennis refused this stating that Lauda's true form is still in the unknown and the test proved not much since Lauda was under pace. Lauda challenged Dennis to offer him a three-month contract in which he was aiming to prove his speed. Not a wrong move, as history will tell us.
Lauda started the 1982 Formula 1 season in the McLaren MP4/1B, a further developed version of the revolutionary MP4/1, the first Formula 1 car with a chassis made completely out of carbon fiber. The use of the monocoque made the car considerably safer than the aluminum 'tubs' used in the past. After a careful '81 season, McLaren was ready to bring Lauda back to former heights with the MP4/1B.
With the signing of his three-month contract at McLaren, Niki Lauda was ready for his big comeback in the 1982 season. However, the season started with some unusual protests by the drivers. Reforms in the rules by which a driver can get his Formula 1 license brought the drivers in a state of outrage during the first Grand prix of the year, held in Johannesburg, South-Africa. The drivers, led by Ferrari's Didier Pironi and with Lauda as their spokesperson, locked themselves up in the Sunnyside Hotel conference room. The reforms that were opted for by the FIA consisted of a contract with which the drivers individually commit themselves to a team for a certain amount of years, determined by their actual contract with their team. This made contract negotiations during the running of an existing contract impossible.
Several big sponsors temporarily withdrew from the Formula 1 stage due to the drivers' strike at the South-African Grand prix, throwing the second grand prix of the year, held in Argentina, in a state of financial despair. The grand prix was cancelled. Lauda, who finished fourth in South-Africa, had to retire from the following race in Brazil due to suspension failure after a shunt. However, Lauda's comeback was sealed when he won the third grand prix of the season in Long Beach, California. Alan Henry, lifelong F1 journalist recalls: "The footprint in the history books of North American Grand prix racing was then confirmed with Niki pulling out all the stops to deliver a five-star performance through the streets of Long Beach, California." With his win in Long Beach and with the end of his three-month trial contract, Lauda went back to negotiate with McLaren. This time a lot more confident than after his Wednesday drive at Donington.
"I went back to Lausanne (Switzerland) to negotiate and I asked for the same amount of money and a million dollar on top. They said: 'Are you crazy, why?' I said: 'For driving! Because you only payed me for PR work and you didn’t believe in my driving, so you must pay for my driving!' So in the end I got my money because they screwed themselves with their own system and it was a fantastic contract for the time!", Lauda laughingly recalls.
Lauda became world champion for the third time in 1984.
Bahrain International Circuit - Winter testing