November, December 2016

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My two heroes have something in common: Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Niki Lauda have both cheated death regularly. You should never meet your heroes, so permit me to ignore my fleetingly brief meetings.

Rather than list why the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a hero, I suggest you Google him because his achievements would fill several books. He gave a talk recently in London where I received a signed copy of his latest book: Fear. He has written 24 books.

As for Niki Lauda, modern man will have seen him counselling the F1 Mercedes team on TV whenever there is a Grand Prix. I met him in 1976. We are similarly aged, so to me he is still that skinny 20-something who won three Formula One World Championships; not because he had the best car, but because he made the best of what he had. The British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1976 was the year of unparalleled rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. So much so that it generated the Movie ‘Rush’, which is a fair account of the events.

Following a brief chat with Lauda at the 1976 pre-British GP cricket match, I wished him well. After a controversial race, Lauda was eventually declared the winner. The next race was the German GP at the notoriously dangerous Nurburgring Nordschleife. At 23kms per treacherous lap, it is impossible to marshal safely. Everyone knew that F1 cars had long since outgrowth the Nordschleife and Lauda was not frightened to say so.

In appallingly wet conditions Lauda’s Ferrari slammed into the Armco, ending up in a blazing crumpled mess in the middle of the track just after a blind brow. Two more cars then slammed into the blazing wreckage. Lauda was trapped in the fireball, his helmet came off his head, and there were no fire marshals anywhere near the scene. He was eventually extricated by other drivers who stopped at the devastation. Barely alive, Lauda was taken to hospital where a priest read him his last rites. Unbelievably, 6 weeks later, Lauda raced at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza finishing fourth. When he removed his bloody balaclava, skin came away with it. Where lesser men would have quit, Lauda went on to win two more F1 World Championships.

A good trick: Knock on Death’s door, then run away. Death hates that.