Formula One was going through a rough patch in the early 1980s. Not only had the advent of ground effect cars managed to suck the life out of the sport, but it also missed its two mega stars who had only recently hung up their racing overalls: James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
In 1981, Hunt, only 34 and still in his prime, was tempted to make a comeback with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team. He was reported to have considered making a return to F1 – to the tune of £3.6million for one year’s work – but ultimately declined the offer having been spooked by Clay Regazzoni’s horrific accident at Long Beach.
Hunt’s bank balance was very much in the black at the time anyway, and the last thing he needed was more money, which wasn’t the case for Lauda, however.
The double world champion had walked out of the Brabham team midway through the Canadian Grand Prix in 1979, claiming that he no longer wished to “drive around in circles”. He then went on to launch his own airline business, called Lauda Air.
But by 1981, Lauda had supposedly spent most of his F1 earnings on his new venture and was in desperate need of some cash to help prop it up. Such rumours were of course denied by the Austrian, who claimed he wanted to return for one principle reason – to be the best all over again.
Either way, Lauda – nicknamed ‘The Rat’ without any hint of malice – was planning a comeback, and with Hunt’s old team, McLaren.
After years of underperformance following Hunt’s departure, McLaren had recently come under new ownership, with Ron Dennis now at the helm of the Woking-based squad. The takeover having been orchestrated by Phillip Morris executive, John Hogan.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was Dennis’ idea to bring Lauda out of retirement, not Hogan’s. Hogan was unsure about the wisdom of the decision, and so, with Hunt still on Phillip Morris’ payroll, he sought his advice on his once great rival.
The basis for Hogan’s hesitancy regarding Lauda stemmed from the fact that, at the time, no retired driver had ever made a successful return to the sport. Recounting his indecisiveness, he told Christopher Hilton, author of Memories of James Hunt: “I asked James, and he was adamant that Lauda could do it. The only question in his mind was his motivation.”
Hunt’s response to Hogan was that if Lauda was motivated enough, then there was every possibility that he could be world champion again. Hogan then quizzed Lauda about his desire in wanting to return to F1 and his reasons for doing so, before relaying it all back to Hunt.
Upon hearing his answers, Hunt was unequivocal, and urged Hogan to sign him immediately. Without Hunt’s advice there is every possibility that Lauda may well have never received the opportunity to drive for McLaren.
But that he did, and in late 1981 he test drove the McLaren MP4/1 at Donington Park, which came as a bit of a surprise for his wife Marlene, who he flew to the UK with. As the plane reached its destination, Lauda nonchalantly suggested to his partner: “You go shopping at Harrods, I am off to test an F1 car…”
Lauda had a minimal amount of time to prepare for his return over the winter. By mid-January the teams had assembled in South Africa for the first grand prix of the 1982 season; a race that almost never was, as the drivers barricaded themselves in a local hotel in a dispute over a clause contained within their mandatory super licenses.
Alas, disaster was averted at the 11th hour, and on Sunday 23rd January, 1982, the South African Grand Prix went ahead as if nothing had ever happened.
Lauda commemorated his comeback with fourth place, prompting Dennis to comment: “Niki was just fantastic, so fit. It all went better than we dared hope. We know he can be even better than this.”
And that he did, for he was a race winner on only his third appearance for McLaren at Long Beach, before winning the world championship in 1984. Just like Hunt said he would.