Today marks Niki Lauda’s 70th birthday. The legendary Ferrari driver has been through hell and came back, and many moments in both his life and his career contribute to define his legacy and his reputation in motorsport. However, there is one day that would be enought to prove just how much of an ion he is in Formula 1. That day is 12th September 1976: 41 days after his unprecented accident at the Nurburgring, Niki was back on track in Monza on his #1 Ferrari. And he arrived fourth.
Photography: Sutton Images
1976 was a big year for the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza. The Variante della Roggia had just been introduced, right before the first Lesmo curve. Two qualifying sessions where held, the first being characterised by heavy rain. For the second qualifying session, on Saturday, the track was dry. Niki Lauda was still slightly visually impaired, and just putting his helmet on brought about unbearable pain. The scars from his life-threatening burns were still very much open, and doctors had strongly advised against him getting back on track so soon. Lauda didn’t care, and put his Ferrari in P5 during qualifying. Clay Regazzoni, his teammate, was P9, almost a second behind him. Carlos Reutemann, who was called to replace Niki while he was between life and death, was P7.
The race was hectic. For the first few laps, everybody believed that it might have been too soon for Lauda to be back on the grid. He was quickly losing positions and ended back in the midfield, while many were commenting that his sole presence could be an hazard to himself and to the other drivers. However, Lauda came back soon enough. His racecraft and skill wasn’t certainly burnt in the Nurburgring flames, and he started passing everybody in his fight to finish the race on a high. In the topical moment when he overtook his replace Reutemann, who would end the race in P9, the world knew that Niki Lauda wasn’t done. And when he clinched that fourth place, the Autodromo roared as if it was a win. And for Niki, it probably was.