Two years after Niki Lauda's miraculous story was depicted in Ron Howard's Rush, a new documentary takes a closer look. Formula One's most famous survivor talks to Susan Griffin about the aftermath of the accident and whether the sport is any safer today
Formula One might still seem like a dangerous sport, but the dangers faced by drivers today are nothing compared to those four decades ago. Back then, they knew when they revved away from the grid, there was a 20% chance they wouldn't make it back alive.
In 1976, Austrian racing driver Niki Lauda was involved in one of the sport's most famous crashes, during the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. The accident, in which Lauda suffered severe burns and led to his last rites being read because he was so close to death, was depicted in Ron Howard's 2013 movie Rush.
Starring Daniel Bruhl, the film traced the Austrian's closely fought battle with the late British driver James Hunt, for the title that year, along with Lauda's miraculous comeback in Monza just weeks after the crash. Now, a new documentary – Lauda: The Untold story – sets to delve even deeper into what happened on that fateful crash day, and the impact it had on his life, as well as on the sport, with input from the likes of Lewis Hamilton, David Coulthard and Sir Jackie Stewart.
Ahead of the documentary's release, the man himself, a three-time F1 World Champion who's now 66 and boss of the Mercedes team, talks about his experiences on and off the track, and what it's like watching your life unfold on the big screen.
"I was always fearless, took every chance I could and was never frightened. It was most important at the beginning of your racing career not to be frightened, and then you had to learn, to study and continue to improve. I think the basics I had from when I was born, it was in my blood and then the rest was hard work, which you need to put in if you're going to be successful in Formula One."
Do you think there had to be an element of 'madman' to take part?
"You had to be different, because every year one or two got killed, and you'd see it right there in front of you. We had to be strong individuals, strong characters and egocentric to overcome all these things and be successful."
What are your memories of your arch-rival James Hunt?
"James was a very quick, unfortunately. We were not friends but we respected each other in driving at 300km, wheel to wheel, so there was a lot of respect, but he was a big competitor. There was respect and fighting. We were fighting, and then I had the crash and he was still driving."
How keen were you to get back on the track after the accident?
"This was the biggest problem, because I asked myself, 'Did I want to go back after a crash like this?' But I thought, 'Yes – certainly', because I knew what I was doing and knew the danger, and then I prepared for Monza but it was tough. On the Friday, I could not drive, I could not overcome the fear, and the accident came back to me. On Saturday, I was more relaxed and then things started working out again. Then, half a year later, I drove exactly like before, but it took quite a while."What was it like to see the accident and the aftermath in Rush?
"When I returned to the championship in Monza with my burnt face, everyone was very impolite to me. I thought, 'Look into my eyes when you talk to me, don't look at my burnt ear', and I felt a bit embarrassed by the way people approached me. But when I saw the movie, and how I really looked, it was frightening, so I understand now the people in those days and how they treated me, and the film gave me a good lesson."
Is it true you invited actor Daniel Bruhl to stay with you but said, 'Bring hand luggage in case we don't get on'?
"Yes, because I didn't know him and movie people are different to my pragmatic, quick approach to things. But when he came, we had a lot of fun. I said, 'What is going to be your problem?', and he said, 'You're alive and on television and people are going to know how you talk, and to play that is going to be really tough'. For a German to speak Austrian is very difficult too, and then he had to speak my funny way of English, but I think he did a really good job and when I saw him in the movie for the first time, I was really impressed."
Safety has always been important to you despite the danger of racing, hasn't it?
"I was the spokesperson for the drivers to improve safety, but it was a big job. You could never catch up quick enough to stop the killing problem, and so it was difficult at the time and we had to fight. Nowadays, it's safe and good, because many years have gone by and the FIA [Federation Internationale de l'Automobile] took over the safety issues."
What do you think are the main differences between the F1 of the Seventies and the F1 of today?
"There is a lot of difference. The danger today, no one has to think about it, thank God. They drive the cars in the limit and win races with the same difficulty, but all round, it's much easier to achieve because you don't need to worry about your life. And it's more of a family sport, so it's different but I like it."
Lauda: The Untold Story will be shown in cinemas on Thursday, July 2 followed by a Q&A hosted by presenter Suzi Perry. The DVD will be released on Monday, July 6