Belfast Telegraph

Lauda was the bravest ever, says racing driver Watson who helped to rescue him from burning F1 car

Three-time world champion Niki Lauda died on Monday
Three-time world champion Niki Lauda died on Monday
Belfast-born driver John Watson
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

The Northern Ireland racing driver who helped save Niki Lauda's life 43 years ago has told of his great admiration for the late Formula One world champion.

Belfast-born John Watson described his close friend as "the bravest sportsperson I've ever met" following the Austrian's death on Monday at the age of 70.

Watson was one of the first drivers on the scene as Lauda's Ferrari was engulfed in a fireball during the 1976 German Grand Prix in the Nurburgring.

Remarkably, despite suffering horrific burns and other life-threatening injuries, the then reigning champion returned to racing just six weeks later and ultimately won two more world titles.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, five-time Grand Prix winner Watson, now 73, described Lauda, who won the F1 drivers' championship in 1975, 1977 and 1984, as a true sporting hero.

"There are not many genuine legends of sport but Niki is one of those legends," he said.

"Not only because he won three world championships, but also because of what happened at the Nurburgring in 1976.

"With the injuries he suffered, he got as close to dying as you can do without dying... but then he made an astonishing recovery and went on to win two more."

Watson said he fondly remembered the last conversation he had with Lauda, who passed away on May 20, eight months after undergoing a lung transplant.

"When we spoke in December he sounded great; it was the same type of conversation we always used to have," Watson explained.

"We knew each other very well and we liked one another.

"We were team-mates and we raced each other... we've had to battle each other.

"But there was a friendship which was bigger than the competition.

"I was delighted that I got to speak to him six months ago - and I'm sorry I didn't have more opportunities."

In the race in Austria following the Nurburgring crash, Watson, driving a Penske (he had driven a Lotus-Ford in Germany), won his first Grand Prix.

Lauda went on to win his second and third world championships with Ferrari and then McLaren.

Watson said his abiding memory of Lauda will always be his "gut-wrenching" decision to compete at Monza in Italy so soon after the Germany crash. He described it as the most courageous thing he'd ever seen.

"The burns were still extremely raw, he had to bandage up his forehead and part of his scalp," he recalled.

"The raw courage that it took for him to get back into a Formula One car and go out and finish fourth... that's a level of courage that you see infrequently.

"Only the military do things that are equally courageous, but within a sport, what Niki did was just remarkable."

He added: "The fact that Niki mastered all of the mental inhibitions that he would have gone through and yet still managed to get back into that car, overcome those fears and concerns... and then go to the Grand Prix and finish fourth is just one of the most remarkable human achievements in sport that I've ever seen."

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary described Lauda "as a visionary leader, a legend of Formula One and an aviation pioneer".

"Niki was an exceptional entrepreneur whose courage and fighting spirit inspired millions," said O'Leary.

"While we are devastated at his untimely passing, his spirit and vision will live on in Laudamotion, which proudly carries his name and his entrepreneurial spirit."

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