“I accept every time I get in my car there’s 20% chance I could die. What kind of person does a job like this? Each year two of us die.”
That was the famous line spoken by actor Daniel Bruhl, who played Niki Lauda opposite Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt in the 2013 film ‘Rush’.
And while those statistics are not strictly accurate, Lauda, who sadly passed away on Tuesday morning (AEST) knows the reality of them better than anyone.
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In 1976, a year after winning his first Formula One world championship, Lauda was trapped in his car, engulfed in a ball of flames, after a crash at the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
His helmet came off in the crash, exposing his face to the flames and leaving him with severe burns to his head and hot toxic gases in his blood and lungs. Although he was conscious during all of this, he quickly lapsed into a coma once he was finally removed from the cockpit.
He suffered extensive scarring to his face, lost half of his ear, his eyebrows and his eyelids and was left struggling to breathe.
Yet, just two races later, he back in the F1 paddock, peeling blood-soaked bandages from his charred scalp, after finishing fourth at the Italian Grand Prix.
That swift and painful return – arguably the greatest comeback in sport – was driven by arguably one of the greatest rivalries in sport, between himself and Hunt, as they both vied for the world championship.
Hunt was the live-fast, die-young, popular playboy while Lauda was the methodical, albeit at times unlikeable, genius. And they drove each other to greatness in 1976.
The Brit eventually won the world title in Japan after Lauda decided to withdraw just three laps in following torrential rain at the Fuji Speedway, unwilling to play the odds of life and death one more time that season.
Hunt was willing to play those odds, Lauda’s remarkable bravery and determination forced him to, and finished third in the race to win his only championship.
Lauda’s accident that year would mark him for the rest of his life – for good and bad as he returned the following season to win his second world championship, with Hunt finishing fifth.
It was a rivalry that started all the way from the car park in London in Formula Three and ended with a deep mutual respect for one another.
Lauda eventually retired in 1985, but not before a second remarkable comeback to win his third world championship with McLaren – Hunt’s old team – in 1984.
While ‘Rush’ portrayed the two as hating one another, the rivals were actually very close towards the end of their careers and Lauda even used to spend nights at Hunt’s house in London.
“But not together. There were four of us,” Lauda said with a smile and a wink in 2013.
Mansell vs Piquet, Senna vs Prost and Hamilton vs Vettel are just some of the great battles we’ve seen in F1 since but Hunt vs Lauda is, perhaps, the most iconic.
A playboy and a methodical statistician with a fierce dislike for one another, facing down death at 300km/h and walking away friends at the end of it. It’s the stuff Hollywood movies are made of.