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Last Sept. 16, Niki Lauda and his wife, Marlene, boarded an early-morning flight from Vienna to London. "What are we going to do there?" Marlene asked. "Good place to go shopping," Niki answered. When they arrived in London, Niki deposited Marlene in front of Harrods and said, "You go shopping. I'm going to Donington."
She nodded resignedly. "It began to dawn upon me," she says. Marlene knew that Donington in Derbyshire is where McLaren International does much of the testing for its Formula I race cars.
It had been more than two years since the 33-year-old Lauda had retired from racing, after a practice lap for the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix. "I'm through," he had said then to his stunned Brabham teammates. "I don't want to drive around in circles anymore." That year Lauda had accumulated only four world championship points, a disheartening comedown from 1975, when he first won the world driving championship, and from 1977, when he came back after a fiery crash in the previous year's German GP to win a second title.
He hadn't been expected to live after that crash at the dangerous and rain-slicked Nürburgring circuit in the Eifel Mountains, but he had willed himself to stay alive—with redoubled determination after hearing a priest say the last rites. "I clung on to the voices I heard," he says. "I would not let myself become unconscious." Incredibly, only six weeks later he drove to a fourth-place finish in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza and could well have won the 1976 world championship had he not pulled to a stop after one lap of the final race of the season, in Japan, giving the title to McLaren driver James Hunt. That race had been started in a downpour.
"Maybe in Niki's place I would have done the same thing," says Hunt. "I was in front and was the only guy who could see in that rain." Soon after Lauda left the pits at Fuji International Speedway the rain stopped, and his decision was consequently remembered as a sign of fear rather than common sense. "Some things are more important than the world championship—like my life, for instance," Lauda says. "Was I a coward? Nonsense. I used my head."
After his retirement, Lauda formed Lauda Air, a charter service flying within Austria, with a fleet of four planes—two 44-passenger Fokker F27 turboprops and two 10-passenger Mystère turbofans—which Lauda often piloted himself. He also had on order a 255-passenger DC-10 turbofan, which would have given Lauda Air destinations like London and Athens. The deposit had been made and the DC-10 had even been painted in the red and white of Lauda Air, but at delivery time Lauda couldn't come up with the financial backing. "Interest rates had gone up," he says, "but people wanted to pay less for air fares. We're not about to close down, but we can't expand at this time. We've been in the red for two years."
Life as the owner of a small business instead of as a major motor-sport star caused other problems. In Lauda's 10 years as a race driver, the province of Salzburg, where he was born and still resides, had never found any fault with his income-tax payments. But in December 1980 the Austrian Ministry of Finance sent an investigator whose report led to the decision that Lauda owed more than half a million dollars in back taxes. The army, too, came knocking on Lauda's door—men are eligible for conscription in the Austrian army until age 35. Last March, when Lauda showed up for his draft physical, he found reporters and a TV crew awaiting him as well as the army doctors. Someone at the recruiting station had invited the media to cover the event because it would be "good publicity for the army."
"The next day I was front-page news," says Lauda. "I read that I had a number of broken bones that had not healed properly and that I was generally a wreck." The news stories caused immediate repercussions at the Austrian aviation board. Lauda had to submit to another series of physical examinations to prove that he was sound enough to fly a commercial airplane. "I'm the only Austrian pilot who needs a five-page certification that he's healthy," he says.
As Lauda began to discover what it's like to be a mere mortal rather than a reigning national hero, Ron Dennis, a director of McLaren International, approached Lauda with an offer designed to lure him back into Formula I racing, the bait being a multimillion-dollar contract. Lauda had received attractive offers from other teams during his retirement and had passed them up; what intrigued him this time was the unique McLaren MP4 race car.
When Dennis joined McLaren in August 1980, he brought with him John Barnard, an Englishman who designed the Chaparral that Johnny Rutherford drove to victory in the 1980 Indy 500. Now Barnard was working on a race car with a carbon fiber chassis. In the past, carbon fiber—somewhat similar to the material in so-called graphite fishing rods and tennis rackets—had been considered too risky to use in a race car because of its tendency to shatter unpredictably. But during the time Barnard had spent in the U.S. working on the Chaparral, he'd heard that the Hercules Corporation in Salt Lake City was providing carbon fiber parts for the space shuttle. Researchers at Hercules had discovered that as long as the strands of carbon fiber were stressed at a particular angle, it was a safe, strong and stable material. Hercules is now in a commercial partnership with McLaren and builds the MP4's carbon fiber chassis, which is lighter than its aluminum counterpart but three times as stiff. Moreover, the material provides a driver capsule of immense strength. This fact was dramatically proved last year in the Italian Grand Prix at the Monza circuit when John Watson crashed his carbon fiber McLaren; its Cosworth Ford engine was completely torn off the rear of the MP4, but the chassis, and Watson, were unharmed.