Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the darkest days in motorsport history. May 1st, 1994: Ayrton Senna is leading the Italian Grand Prix at Imola. Only 7 laps in, the world of Formula One would change forever. Leaving the track at over 300 km/h Senna hit an unprotected concrete barrier bringing the car to a violent halt; moments later, at age 34, Magic Senna was gone.
That news devastated the entire motoring world, including defending F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton has reminisced about being 9 years old when his dad told him about the tragedy and immediately ‘going to the back of the car and bawling his eyes out’. Senna’s crash, though one of the most devastating was far from the most dramatic. Arguably, one of the most dramatic crashes in F1 history belongs to current non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team: Niki Lauda.
Tiger Woods’ comeback was impressive, there is no arguing that, he had a myriad of surgeries that even when I initially disagreed with it being the greatest comeback ever I was unaware of. Even after learning about the surgeries and delving more into what went into the comeback of Woods, I firmly stand by my opinion that the greatest come back in sports history belongs to Lauda. It is indisputable fact that Woods went through a plethora of issues, a trifecta of trouble; physical, emotional and personal. Starting back in 2009 Woods’ trouble started and it took almost a decade for it all to fall out and to come back, Niki Lauda in seconds endured what many would consider a much worse fate.
Despite citing his concerns about safety at the Nurburgring in 1976, Lauda’s concerns mostly fell on deaf ears. Two laps was all it took for his greatest fears to become a reality. Bouncing over a curb at a high speed left hand kink, Lauda barrelled into a retaining wall causing immense damage to the car causing it to immediately burst into flames. One would think that it couldn’t get any worse, right? Wrong. Within seconds another racer ploughed into Lauda’s Ferrari trapping him in what could only be described as a raging fireball. He remained trapped in the car, despite other drivers and course marshals trying to rescue him, for around a minute that must have seemed an eternity.
Flame retardant suits and helmets that are designed to protect drivers, have their own limitations, for Lauda that meant he would be left with intense scarring from burns, losing the majority of his right ear from the burns as well as bodily burns, crash trauma and probably worst of all, massive amounts of smoke and toxic gas inhalation. Similar to Tiger, Lauda had a myriad of surgeries, some reconstructive, some life saving. Now I want you to imagine that, all the pain, the burns and the surgeries. How long would you expect to be incapacitated and out of action? months? A year? Two Years? What if I told you six weeks? That’s all it was. Six weeks after this monumental accident Niki Lauda returned to the cockpit.
Refusing to yield, Lauda finished that season donning a slew of bandages protecting his head. It was recalled on a few occasions people watched him gingerly peel off his balaclava which has been adhered to his skin by the dried blood of still raw burns.
Despite missing two races after his crash, Lauda still managed to come second in the standings, only one point behind that years champion James Hunt. Undeterred He came back and won the championship in 1977 and then again in 1984.
Hopefully, there will never be an accident again in F1 so violent or dangerous to take the life of another driver, and I also hope that no driver of today will ever have to endure what Lauda endured. Lauda does however demonstrate just how tough these drivers can be.