Formula 1's greatest drivers. Number 9: Niki Lauda

This year, BBC Sport is profiling 20 of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. The BBC F1 team were asked to provide their own personal top 20s, which were combined to produce a BBC list. Veteran commentator Murray Walker provides his own reflections in a video of their career highlights, and chief F1 writer Andrew Benson profiles the driver. This week, number 9 - Niki Lauda

Niki Lauda climbed out of his Ferrari and grimaced as he took off his helmet, revealing a fireproof balaclava stained red with his blood.

Gingerly trying to peal it off fresh wounds, reopened by the demands of an hour and a half's racing, he discovered the balaclava was stuck to the bandages covering his face. He had to resort to ripping it off in one go.

Lauda had just finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix, 42 days since being given the last rites as he lay in hospital with burns suffered in a fiery crash at the Nurburgring in the German Grand Prix.

Was his racing at Monza that weekend in 1976 the bravest act in the history of sport?

Aiming to defend a dwindling championship lead, and his position at Ferrari, Lauda played down his condition. He later admitted he was so scared he almost could not drive.

"I said then and later that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly," Lauda wrote in his disarmingly frank autobiography, To Hell And Back. "That was a lie but it would have been foolish to play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza, I was rigid with fear."

Lauda drove that weekend because he felt it was the "best thing for my physical and mental wellbeing. Lying in bed ruminating about the 'Ring," he said, "would have finished me."

Nevertheless, the willpower required to do it must have been staggering.

Lauda got back into the car that had nearly killed him, while his serious burns were far from healed, and pretty much as soon as the plastic surgery that created new eyelids to replace the ones he had lost in the fire had set.

Not only that, but he qualified the fastest of the three Ferraris, and finished just off the podium.

Lauda's accident at the Nurburgring is the defining moment in the career of one of the most remarkable drivers Formula 1 has ever seen.

Niki Lauda has always been a singular personality, a brusque and matter-of-fact Austrian with a wicked sense of humour and utterly independent mind.

He won 25 grands prix and three world titles in a career split by a two-year 'retirement' and he would be on anyone's list of the greatest drivers of all time. Yet he had to struggle to make his way in F1.

Lauda had to pay for his first drive with the March team in 1971, using a bank loan with his life assurance as collateral, and needed a second loan to move to the struggling BRM team two years later.

Yet within three years of his debut, Lauda was at Ferrari. Along with their young team manager Luca di Montezemolo, who is now the company's president, he rebuilt them after three awful years into the dominant force in F1.

Only inexperience cost Lauda a shot at the title in 1974, his debut season with the team, but he romped to victory in 1975, utterly dominating the field in the Ferrari 312T, one of history's great cars.

When he took five wins, two seconds and a third from the first nine races in 1976, he looked on course for another world championship. But then came the Nurburgring, and the crash that almost cost him his life.

Lauda had been warning for some time that the circuit was too dangerous for F1.

Its 14 miles twisting through the Eifel mountains meant the emergency services were stretched too far, he said, and any driver who had a serious crash was therefore at a disproportionately high risk in an era that was already extremely dangerous.

What happened on 1 August proved him right. For unknown reasons, Lauda lost control at a flat-out kink before a corner called Bergwerk, hit an embankment and his car burst into flames.

Trapped in the wreckage, but conscious, he was dragged clear by four fellow drivers but not before he had suffered severe burns to his head and inhaled toxic gases which damaged his lungs.

Lauda carries the scars, including a mostly missing right ear, to this day and has always had a matter-of-fact approach to his disfigurement. It doesn't bother him, he says, and if others feel differently, that's their problem.

His injuries, in fact, are often the butt of his merciless wit.

Once it was pointed out to him that, owing to the rule that says the original start of a race does not count if there is a re-start, he had not officially taken part in the 1976 German Grand Prix. "Oh yes," he said, in his clipped tones, "so what happened to my ear?"

The accident, and the two races he missed, gave McLaren driver James Hunt - Lauda's rival and close friend - the chance to gain ground in the championship and Lauda was only three points ahead going into the final race of the season in Fuji, Japan.

Race day brought torrential rain. Conditions were appalling. Initially, all the drivers refused to race, but as time dragged on all but three, one of whom was Lauda, changed their minds.

Lauda admits he was "panic-stricken" but has since said he regrets the decision. Ferrari remonstrated with him and tried to convince him to race, but he refused, and Hunt took the third place he needed to win the title by one point.

Enzo Ferrari's negative reaction to Lauda's decision - coupled with his earlier lack of support following the crash - was the final straw for their relationship.

Lauda stayed on for 1977, but left the team as soon as he had won his second title, missing the final two races and joining Brabham for 1978.

The car, with its flat-12 Alfa Romeo engine, was uncompetitive, and Lauda's interest in F1 began to wane. By the end of the following season, he had had enough and typically he wasted no time in acting on his decision.

Part-way through practice at the Canadian Grand Prix, Lauda pulled into the pits and told Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone he was through. He was "bored of driving around in circles", and he returned to Austria to run his airline, leaving his overalls and helmet behind with a friend.

Two years later, he needed them back. McLaren boss Ron Dennis, sensing Lauda had unfinished business, persuaded him to return and he won his third race back in F1 in 1982.

Two years later came a third title. Lauda was outpaced by new team-mate Alain Prost, but benefited from experience and better reliability to win by the smallest margin in history - half a point - as McLaren dominated the season, the two men sharing 12 victories between them in 16 races.

Lauda was less competitive in 1985 - although he still managed a win, holding off Prost at the Dutch Grand Prix - and he decided to retire for good at the end of the year. He continues to attend races as a TV analyst for Germany's RTL, his sharp mind and humour fully intact.

Lauda had a beautiful, elegant style - all economy of effort and fluidity, he rarely looked to he trying that hard, but he was deceptively fast. And he used his keen intellect in engineering and political terms to ensure he took full advantage of all the tools available to him.

On pure talent, should he be so high on this list, ahead of the likes of Gilles Villeneuve, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton? Probably not.

But few sportsmen have left a mark as powerful as Lauda, whose return from his death bed to win two world titles is one of the most extraordinary achievements in any sport, ever.

Number 10 - Fernando Alonso

Number 11 - Alberto Ascari

Number 12 - Gilles Villeneuve

Number 13 - Nigel Mansell

Number 14 - Mika Hakkinen

Number 15 - Lewis Hamilton

Number 16 - Nelson Piquet

Number 17 - Emerson Fittipaldi

Number 18 - Jack Brabham

Number 19 – Graham Hill

Number 20 – Jochen Rindt


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