Three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda produced the “most courageous act of any sportsman” in returning to racing so soon after a horrific crash, says former team-mate John Watson.
Austrian Lauda, who won the drivers’ championship in 1975, 1977 and 1984, died aged 70 on Monday.
He almost died following a crash in the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
Despite suffering severe burns and inhaling hot toxic fumes, he resumed racing 40 days later.
World champion Lewis Hamilton said he was “struggling to believe you are gone”. The Briton added on Twitter: “I will miss our conversations, our laughs, the big hugs after winning races together. God rest your soul. Thank you for being a bright light in my life. I’ll always be here for your family should they ever need me. Love you man.”
Watson was a team-mate of Lauda at Brabham and McLaren in the 1970s and 1980s and was one of the first people to attend to him after the crash.
“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,” Watson told the BBC.
“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.
“He’d suffered inhalation of toxic fumes from the burning fibreglass and we didn’t appreciate the severity of the injury that he’d suffered.
“It was only after two or three days that the story came out that it was the lung damage that was the injury putting his life in danger. Racing 40 days after that accident was the most courageous act of any sportsman I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Watson (73) added: “What was really more remarkable was the speed of his recovery and what he was able to achieve. His courage, his commitment, focus, determination and bloody-mindedness. All the naysayers were saying that ‘Lauda is finished’ but his health and condition at Monza was just remarkable.
“He was winning the world title in 1976 by a country mile up to that accident and it was this year where there was this battle between Niki and James Hunt, so there was a lot of motivation to get back into the car.”
Three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: “During that accident he died twice and was resuscitated.
“Recovering from that accident, he came to Monza (for the Italian Grand Prix), which I was doing commentary for. He shouldn’t have been there but wanted to get back to racing.” — BBC Sport.