He didn’t take pole position. He wasn’t even on the front row. He qualified fifth, behind faster cars and wilder drivers. And yet it was Niki Lauda who won.
This is the 1982 British Grand Prix, held at Brands Hatch. This was a weird year for Formula 1, with both turbocharged cars and naturally-aspirated cars competing in the same field, the turbos much more powerful but much less reliable.
Other oddities like mid-race refueling came back, and drivers struggled to either keep their cars on the road, keep their cars from exploding, or keep up with everyone else who was about to do the former.
Lauda died at 70 this week, leaving the world to reflect on his impact on motorsports—not just as someone who survived a horrific, fiery crash that by all right should’ve killed him, but as a competitor whose uncompromising skills took F1 to a new level.
In this race, Lauda was in a naturally-aspirated car, the Cosworth-powered McLaren MP4/1, and this is shocking to modern eyes, no front wing at all. Underbody aero and a rear wing were enough, apparently, as Autosport recalled from qualifying:
Fifth, second-quickest non-turbo, was Niki Lauda’s Marlboro McLaren MP4B, the Austrian at his best on this real driver’s circuit driving with fluency and economy of effort and movement. Once more, you watched Lauda, and you wondered why others used so much more road.
Lauda, however, was on excellent form, off track as well as on. “No problems at all. I am happy to be fifth. Tomorrow the big thing will be to start well, not get caught behind one of the turbos while Rosberg gets away. I think it will be okay...” This was Lauda at his most confident and dangerous, and a circuit where he has always shone. Betting men made a note of it.
Indeed, everyone ahead of him either crashed or failed, including the ultra-fast Nelson Piquet who was hoping to pull off what I believe was the first mid-race refuel in decades. Everyone was watching in anticipation for the historic moment, Piquet absolutely flying and in the lead, until he wasn’t, as Autosport noted in its race report:
After nine laps, Piquet had a lead of 10s, which was right on schedule. The team, you recall, had calculated that you needed a 35s advantage to stop at half-distance, and Piquet looked to have every chance of achieving that. But as he pointed the Brabham into Paddock for the 10th time, Nelson was coming down off the pace. Through Druids he was cruising, and along Bottom Straight he pulled off onto the slip road behind the paddock. The fuel injection pump belt had broken. All the refuelling excitement was over... for this particular weekend, anyway. Sadly, the mechanics began to pack away their churns and equipment, and change into cooler clothes.
Lauda sailed on to win by half a minute. This was one of his first wins after he returned from retirement. Not his first retirement after he was nearly burned to death; he went right back to racing as soon as he could after that. Lauda had stepped away from racing for a few years at the end of the ‘70s, and came back in ‘82, something of an old hand. He’d be world champion again by the end of 1984. Lauda made it look easy.
That’s what he did. Race smarter than the next guy, better, with more tenacity and wisdom.
He’ll be missed.