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Lauda's F1 racing career a blaze of glory

IF you are planning on watching Ron Howard's upcoming 1970s Formula One biopic Rush then you're probably best off not reading this column.

IF you are planning on watching Ron Howard's upcoming 1970s Formula One biopic Rush then you're probably best off not reading this column.

Actually, that's an incomplete disclaimer: it's a general rule to not read my column if you are offended by poor grammar, worse puns and, the, overuse, of, commas.

However, DO read this column if you'd like to learn a little more about the real-life hero/villain of the upcoming film. His name is Niki Lauda, he seems to regard having been set on fire as a minor annoyance, and upon first meeting Enzo Ferrari, he told the Patrician of Maranello that his racecar was a "piece of sh-" but we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

Born in 1949 to a wealthy family in the paper business - a sort of Viennese version of Dunder-Mifflin - Niki could have been the scion of a mighty business empire. Instead, he got the hankering to go racing. So,

in a move that would eventually estrange him from his megabuck family, he took out a series of loans and used them to buy his way into the driving seat.

Let's be clear about this - racing was so important to Lauda he abandoned a life of guaranteed income for financial uncertainty and the ever-present threat of high-speed death. Starting with Formula Vee and Formula Three, he soon made his way through the ranks to Formula One with the slow, uncompetitive March team.

No matter how good the jockey, if your horse is a glue-factory nag, you're not going to win any races. Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Lauda was reportedly so despondent as to be contemplating suicide. But he kept going.

Having wrangled a seat in a faster BRM team car by 1973, Niki's debts continued to mount - he was paying for each lap he completed. Thing is, he also started winning. BRM were impressed and

offered him light at the end of the tunnel: debt forgiveness in exchange for a contract to join the team.

Right here is where things get interesting to me. Had Lauda taken the offer, might he have been a solidly mid-pack driver who never made it past the level of history footnote?

We'll never know.

Instead, Niki paid off his debt to BRM with money from a new employer - Ferrari.

Italian eyes had been watching the young, skinny Austrian's improving fortunes and were impressed by his meticulous, clinical driving style. In 1974, Lauda went to work for the prancing stallion - it was at this point, immediately after his first test drive, that he gave Enzo Ferrari that famous scatological summation of their F1 car's capabilities.

Blunt he may have been, but Lauda was also brilliant. By 1975 he had ironed out the Ferrari 312's kinks and began piloting the car to victory.

Belgium, Sweden, Monaco; on podium after podium, the buck-toothed Lauda hoisted

the trophy. Then he took the trophies home and handed them over to his local garage in exchange for free car washes - not joking here, he really did.

1975 was the first F1 championship for Ferrari after a decade-long dry spell and Lauda was lauded throughout Italy. Come 1976 and he was storming across the circuits again, crushing the competition. And then, disaster at the German Grand Prix at the fabled Nürburgring.

If you want to know why car manufacturers are always boasting about honing handling and general driving dynamics at the 'Ring, here's why: it's huge, it's fast, and it's bloody dangerous. On his second lap, in a very fast corner, Niki lost control. Perhaps it was a suspension failure, perhaps human error, perhaps just the result of running right at the ragged limit; whatever the case, his car impacted the guardrail and bounced off directly into the path of an oncoming competitor's car. The Ferrari 312 burst into flames.

It took just a few moments for a courageous rescue to be made by Lauda's fellow drivers, but he was extremely badly burned, including inhalation burns from scalding toxic gases. He lost his right ear, most of his hair and his eyelids. He lapsed into a coma.

Lying in a hospital bed, a priest administered the last rites. His friends and competitors waited for the inevitable end.

But then Niki Lauda sat up and decided to go racing again. Six weeks later - six weeks! - he finished fourth at the Italian Grand Prix. He appeared at the press conference with blood seeping through his bandages, despite a specially made helmet that was designed to reduce the pain.

Hollywood will take the story from here, flesh out the battle between the scarred Lauda and the handsome lothario James Hunt, as played by Thor's Chris Hemsworth. Lauda will lose the second championship by merely a point after bowing out of the Japanese GP due to heavy rain and his inability to blink - because his eyelids had been burned completely off just a few months ago!

Just before the credits roll, we'll probably get a brief fragment of text outlining Lauda's subsequent victories, while the grinning James Hunt receives the laurels as the film's hero. But here's what the mercurial, dentally challenged, now-disfigured Austrian did next.

He won the championship in 1977. He then quit racing in 1979 and founded a successful airline. Then he came back in 1982, and by 1984 won a third driver's championship, beating Alain Prost - the Prost who would later battle Ayrton Senna.

He retired again, though is never too far away from the circuit. Lauda would advise Ferrari, Jaguar and AMG racing teams, currently provides Formula One commentary for German television, has written five books on racing and is a licensed commercial airline pilot. He can be seen almost always wearing a red baseball hat - his "cappy" - space on which he rents out to sponsors.

In short, he might not be the golden hero of Hollywood. He might be portrayed as a tragic figure on the silver screen - someone the audience is manipulated into feeling pity for.

Stuff that. The man's a damn legend.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @ brendan_mcaleer.

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