Although many fans questioned his decision, Lauda’s Brabham came second and third in the season’s first two races (the Argentine and Brazilian GPs) and he put the flat-12 Alfa Romeo-engined racer on pole for the third fixture – the 1978 South African GP. Mario Andretti’s Lotus and Hunt’s McLaren were behind him, while Patrick Tambay’s McLaren and Scheckter’s Wolf held fourth and fifth position. But the grid changed almost immediately from the start: Tambay’s clutch seized and Lauda botched a gear change, gifting second position to Scheckter who had shot past Hunt and putting him hot on new leader Andretti’s heels. Sadly, neither Scheckter nor Lauda would see the chequered flag that year; the South African’s Wolf retired on lap 59, just six laps after the Alfa engine in Lauda’s Brabham blew up.
He was back at the Highveld track a year on for the 1979 Simba-sponsored SA Grand Prix (this time in a V12-engined Brabham) but only finished sixth after starting the race in fourth position. The limelight was very much on Scheckter that year, having finished second in his new Ferrari 312T4 while his teammate Gilles Villeneuve won the race to make it a 1-2 Maranello showing on the podium. It was memorably a taste of great things to come as Scheckter would go on to win the championship.
Lauda’s result at Kyalami would turn out to be his second best for the ’79 season as he was plagued with mechanical retirements for the remaining races and came fourth in the Italian GP – the only other race he finished. At the season finale, the Montreal GP, he shocked the racing community by announcing his retirement after practice in the new Cosworth V8-engined Brabham BT49.
He stayed out of the game entirely for two years – during which time he built up an airline business – before being tempted back by McLaren for the ’82 season. That famously kicked off with plenty of action at Kyalami on 23 January. Only the action initially wasn’t on the track but in the pits – or rather the entrance to the pits – after the drivers called a strike in protest at the new Super Licences (which they perceived as restrictive) that the FIA had stipulated they needed to sign. The protest began on the first day of practice and the logistics were choreographed by Lauda, who stopped each driver who arrived at the circuit and marshalled them all on to a waiting bus to avoid them being talked out of the collective action by their respective teams.