THREE TIMES A HERO

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By Graeme Hurst

With a history of 19 thrilling South African Grands Prix run across an enormously evolving technical era and a reputation as a high-speed track, the old Kyalami circuit witnessed some of racing’s most memorable (and occasionally unfortunate) moments in the history of Formula 1.

Local racing enthusiasts may each covet their own, but few will dispute that the sight of a visibly scarred Niki Lauda lifting the winner’s trophy on the podium of the 1977 SA Grand Prix is high on the list of standouts. It was Ferrari driver Lauda’s second successive South African Grand Prix win in the Kyalami era (something no other driver achieved) and came just six months after he was pulled from the fiery remains of his Ferrari 312T2 following a high-speed crash on the old Nürburgring circuit during the 1976 German Grand Prix.

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Lauda – the 1975 World Champion – had already impressed racing fans around the globe when, just six weeks after that near-fatal incident, he got back behind the wheel for the 1976 Italian Grand Prix with his head still heavily bandaged. Although he failed to win that race, and later controversially gifted the 1976 championship to rival James Hunt after retiring from the rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix, Lauda’s victory at Kyalami earlier in the ’77 season was proof that the quiet yet decisive Austrian was still at the top of his game.

He famously began his racing career by taking out a bank loan to secure a drive in Formula 2 back in ’71. A year later, he extended his loan to buy a seat in the works March team, where he raced alongside Ronnie Petersen and came seventh in the 1972 SA Grand Prix. A pay-as-you-race deal with BRM followed for ’73 which brought him back to Kyalami, but he retired after 26 laps with mechanical problems. A few months on, though, an impressive drive at Monaco and Zolder saw him catch the attention of Ferrari and he was contracted to the Maranello team for ’74.

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Lauda wasted no time demonstrating the flat-12 Ferrari’s ability and secured pole for the SA Grand Prix that year, which saw his retirement four laps from the end in a race that was marred by the death of American Peter Revson in practice. When F1 returned to our shores the next year, South African racing fans were in for a treat: local hero Jody Scheckter took the chequered flag for his home Grand Prix after a thrilling drive that saw Scheckter’s Tyrrell take the lead just two laps in. Lauda came home fifth, but it didn’t matter; he shone across the rest of that year’s F1 calendar, with a trio of back-to-back wins at the Monaco, Belgian and Swedish GPs before scooping the Drivers’ Championship, much to Enzo Ferrari’s delight.

And the new World Champ didn’t back off for ’76 – when he returned for the South African Grand Prix in March, he impressed from the off, taking the lead from pole-sitter Hunt just one lap in and holding on to it for the remainder of the 78- lap fixture. It was by no means a walkover, mind: Hunt’s tenacity in trying to reel in Lauda’s Ferrari had the 90 000-strong crowd on its feet as he whittled the Austrian’s 10-second lead down to just 1.3 seconds before they crossed the finish line. The thrilling atmosphere was good news for the race’s sponsor, The Citizen newspaper. The publication was run by business heavyweight Louis Luyt, who had saved the Grand Prix by funding it at the eleventh hour and who immediately agreed to bankroll the race for the following year.

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On 5 March ’77, track rival Hunt again took pole with Lauda two places behind him and Carlos Pace’s Brabham. Lauda out-dragged the Brabham off the grid but struggled to reel in Hunt, who set Fastest Time of the Day as he put up a fight (and a show for fans enthralled by what the press now dubbed the ‘Hunt-Lauda’ wars). But it was to no avail; Lauda managed to get past Hunt’s McLaren on the fourth lap and maintained the lead until the end, with Scheckter finishing behind him. And Lauda’s win came despite sustaining damage to his Ferrari’s cooling system after colliding with the roll-bar from the remains of Tom Pryce’s Shadow, which had run out of control down the straight after Pryce was fatally injured in a collision.

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That horrific incident 20 laps into the race resulted after two marshals sprinted across the track to extinguish the burning Shadow of Pryce’s teammate, Renzo Zorzi. The second marshal tragically collided with Pryce’s car and his fire extinguisher struck Pryce in the face. It was Kyalami’s darkest hour and Lauda, in a fitting mark of respect, refused to entertain the ritual of spraying champagne after receiving the winner’s trophy.

As the rest of the season got underway, Lauda’s enormous talent showed no sign of abating and he secured two further wins and six second places during the remaining 12 fixtures, enough to see him wear the F1 crown for a second time. But his success at the wheel of the iconic Ferrari 312T didn’t imbue the Austrian with much sentiment and he made the shock announcement that he was moving to Brabham for 1978.

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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.

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A 24-hour standoff commenced, with the drivers corralled into a room at the Sunnyside Park Hotel and Lauda representing the group in the negotiations. In the end, a compromise was reached in time for the grid to re-assemble for practice and, come race day, the Austrian impressed by finishing fourth in what was his first time out in McLaren’s MP4B. It was a promising start considering he’d qualified 13th on the grid and been out of action for two years.

The year after saw a switch to TAG Porsche power for the McLaren in what was the transition into the mighty turbo era, and the 1983 SA GP was moved to the end of the F1 calendar with an October 15th date. That cranked up the atmosphere as the race (much like SA’s first F1 race back in ’62) turned into a championship decider with Brabham driver Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost (driving for Renault) in the running for the laurels.

Prost had a two-point advantage over Brazilian Piquet (second on the grid) who put on one hell of a show to take a substantial lead but backed off, basking in the knowledge that the title was his after the Frenchman retired with a damaged turbo impeller. Lauda also had turbo drama at the end of the race with a retirement that put him in 11th place instead of on the heels of Piquet, who came home behind Riccardo Patrese in a 1-2 finish for the Brabham team.

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Fast-forward to 1984 and Lauda (and his McLaren) had far better luck when he hunted his way through the Kyalami grid from eighth position to take the chequered flag, with teammate Prost just behind him, which allowed McLaren to own the podium. The spectacular win in April of what would turn out to be Lauda’s third championship year was the talented Austrian’s 20th Grand Prix victory. It was also his 3rd at Kyalami, making him the most successful F1 driver at the country’s famous circuit.

With thanks to André Loubser for race detail in his

excellent book Kyalami (ISBN 978-0-620-48826-6).

Email: andreloubser@telkomsa.net to order a copy.

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