Lauda drive recalls legacy of a legend

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There may have been more evocative sporting sights than the one of Niki Lauda climbing back into a Formula One car at the weekend, but offhand I can't think of one.

Lauda won the world title three times, but never did his stature, as both a sportsman and a man, grow as in the year when James Hunt charged to the prize in 1976. I remember it well enough because I happened to be at Monza when Lauda came back from his horrific crash at Nürburgring. A priest had given the last rites and a doctor said that but for his remarkable fitness he would have died in the race to hospital. But he missed just two races. His Ferrari tifosi were not as appreciative as they might have been when he drove steadily for fourth place behind Ronnie Peterson. Indeed, some reported, unbelievably though it sounded, they had heard the word pollo – chicken.

They heard it again when Hunt claimed the title in a rainstorm at the Fuji track in the final race of the season. Hunt – who would later confess that he got so scared he wished all over again that he done something like golf for a living – ploughed on for the third place which gave him the title. Lauda, impervious to the jeers, pulled into the pits. He said that it was too dangerous to drive and, anyway, he had nothing to prove. Whether he had or hadn't, he won the title again the following year for Ferrari, then left to win another for McLaren.

It was a time when Bernie Ecclestone talked airily of the culling of drivers – as though it was just part of the Formula One show. It was a time when one took a ferry ride from the little isle of Bandol to the mainland the morning after the grand prix, sharing the little boat with three drivers: Peterson, Carlos Pace and Patrick Depaillier. All three of them were dead within the year. It was the time when Niki Lauda proved that there was something more than winning to being a winning sportsman. It was simply being a man.