Niki Lauda's return from fiery crash is bravest act in sporting history, says Belfast F1 hero John Watson
Five-time Formula One Grand Prix winner John Watson has hailed Niki Lauda's return to racing as the single most courageous act in sporting history.
Belfast man Watson enjoyed two spells as a team-mate of Austrian legend Lauda, who has passed away aged 70, his family announced on Tuesday.
By the time the duo were first paired at Brabham in 1978, Lauda had already cheated death to return to racing and win his second Championship title.
It was at the 1976 German Grand Prix that Lauda's Ferrari smashed into the Nurburgring barriers, bursting into flames and leaving the driver with third-degree burns to his face. Although Lauda was able to stand after being eventually pulled from the wreckage, he had also inhaled toxic gasses and would later collapse into a coma.
Then 27, he even received the last rites in hospital but, amazingly, he would be back in Formula One action only 42 days later. He finished fourth at that Italian GP, went on to claim second in the Drivers' Championship and even won the title the follow year. It was a racing return that will forever remain in sporting history.
"For me it was the most courageous act of any sportsman I've ever seen in my life," Watson told the BBC. "His life was held by a thread while he was in hospital with the lung damage that he suffered.
"I came around shortly after the accident and the other drivers that were there managed to get him out of the cockpit and walked him away.
"We lay him down and I put his head in my lap and he was able to communicate.
"Nobody realised the actual damage to Niki. The real danger he was in was not from the superficial injuries that we could see but from the deeper injury which was that to his lung.
"To get back into a racing car required an awful lot of discipline, courage, focus. It was remarkable."
For Gary Anderson, a Northern Irish F1 designer, the speed of his return encapsulated the special spark that gave Lauda his winning edge.
"He was always committed and his return from his accident shows that," said Anderson.
"It's just a belief in himself and understanding what he wants to do. When you've got that you can achieve most things and he went on to achieve.
"The same as Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton now, it's the belief in your natural talent. Your mind plays a big role in that stuff and he had a very positive mind."
Lauda would retire suddenly in 1979, leaving a shocked Branham paddock to concentrate on setting up his airline, Lauda Air.
It wouldn't last as he returned to racing in 1982 following an offer from McLaren, where he would once again link up with Watson and win his third Championship title in 1984.
"He was a very interesting team-mate because on the one hand he was totally focused and singular in his desire to succeed but as a friend and team-mate, I enjoyed his company more than any other team-mate in my career," said Watson.
"(When Lauda joined McClaren), it was like picking up where we left off in 1979. The difference was I had learned a bit from Niki the first time around and we were on a more level playing field."
In August last year, Lauda underwent a lung transplant that the Vienna General Hospital said was made necessary by a “serious lung illness.”
He was released for rehabilitation nearly four months later but was back in hospital in January with influenza.
The doctor that performed the transplant, Walter Klepetko, confirmed his death early on Tuesday morning.
Lauda is survived by his second wife Birgit, and his children, Max, Mia, Mathias, Lukas and Christoph.
Belfast Telegraph Digital