GRR

Thank Frankel it's Friday – Niki Lauda redefined brave

23rd May 2019
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

I am aware of how heartless this is going to make me sound, but when I read that someone has survived, or succumbed to, some terrible illness ‘after putting up such a brave fight’ I never really know what to think. I’d love to think that purely physical conditions can somehow be beaten by sheer force of character, but I’m afraid I don’t believe it and until someone proves that the mind really can prevail over matter I can’t see me being persuaded otherwise.

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So allow me now to almost completely contradict myself. Lots has been written about Niki Lauda in this week of his passing but I’m going to focus on just a few days of his life, the ones immediately after his Nürburgring crash, because I think it really does show that, in a certain specific set to circumstances, the character of very special kind of man whose life is in the balance really can make the difference between life and death. And that in itself is as revelatory of the man Lauda was as anything I can think of.

I’m not going to dwell on the accident itself – we all know what happened, though I should perhaps reiterate that the injuries that could be seen were as nothing to those that could not. The toxic fumes from the molten glass fibre he has inhaled had both seared and poisoned his lungs.

Of course the first thing Niki did right was years before the accident, by deciding that one way he could gain an advantage over some if not all of the field was to live a clean and healthy life. This was back in the day when even contenders for the world title could also be heroic boozers and smokers. So he was not just young, but fit.

But he was so much more than that. Indeed I would say if there was one thing that Niki was able to do to turn the tables his way it was to stay rational even when the available medical evidence suggested he was dying. The clarity with which he was able to think simply boggles my mind, given the state he would have been in, barely able to breathe, unable to receive oxygen, eyelids welded shut by the fire. And his first clear thought was that he had to be able to keep having clear thoughts.

So he really did use his mind to fight, not his burns, but one of their symptoms which was to make him want to fall asleep – you might call it lose consciousness. The way he figured it, if he could stay awake he could listen to his doctors, do what they required and tell them what they needed to know. Who’d sleep if meant giving up being able to help them help him? Not Niki.

When they had to vacuum his lungs – an intensely painful and quite terrifying procedure – he instructed his doctors to do it again, and again, as many times as was required and as often as possible. He must have gone to hell to delay going to heaven.

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I expect many of you know that Lauda’s condition was so bad he received the last rites, but even this shows the mettle of the man. When his doctors thought things were bad enough that a priest might be in order, Niki agreed not because of deep seated religious beliefs but, rather more pragmatically, on the basis that in the event there was someone up there, it would be good to have him on your side. Slowly, he turned the corner.

Forty one days after the accident, Niki Lauda climbed back into a Ferrari 312T2 and went out to qualify for the Italian Grand Prix. His wounds were still seeping, the skin grafts on his face were still raw. The day before he’d tried to lap the track in practice, couldn’t cope and had gone back to his hotel. Maybe it was just too soon. But practice didn’t count, qualifying did and if he needed reminding, there in the pits was not just his team-mate Clay Regazzoni, but a third Ferrari for Carlos Reutemann who’d been drafted into the team during Niki’s layoff. Less than six weeks after receiving the last rites he out-qualified both.

Niki Lauda. What a loss.

  • Andrew Frankel

  • Niki Lauda

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