Niki Lauda and the 10 Greatest Comebacks in Formula 1 History
Unless you’ve been living on Mars, you will be aware that the story of Niki Lauda’s epic 1976 title clash against James Hunt is soon to hit our cinema screens in Ron Howard’s Rush.
What you may not be aware of is that Lauda was coasting to another world title in the same year until a horrific crash at the Nuerburgring not only threatened his title chances but also his life.
A priest was even summoned to Lauda’s bedside to read him his last rites but against all the odds, Lauda not only pulled through but was back only weeks later to compete in the Italian Grand Prix in an attempt to protect his championship lead.
While Lauda’s comeback is surely one of the most remarkable not only in F1 but in sport in general, he’s not the only driver to have fought back from adversity to triumph.
Here are 10 others who have returned triumphantly to the track.
It is a minor miracle that Martin Donelly survived his horrific accident while testing a Lotus at Jerez in 1990, let alone making it back to compete in smaller club events.
Rubens Barrichello had a very lucky escape at the fateful 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend after suffering a violent crash during Friday practice. Barrichello’s Jordan catapulted into the wall at Variante Bassa, knocking him unconscious before race track doctor rushed to his aid and cleared his air passage.
After his brush with death, Barrichello went on to be a multiple-race winner with Ferrari and Brawn.
And who will forget Martin Brundle’s amazing strength of character in 1996 when he sprinted back to the pits to get to his spare car after a huge accident at the start of the Australian Grand Prix saw his Jordan take off before somersaulting into the gravel trap.
10. Kimi Raikkonen
Having won the 2007 Formula One season in dramatic style by a solitary point from Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen walked away from Formula One two years later to take up rallying despite having a contract with Ferrari for 2010.
He made his WRC debut in his native Finland and scored his first points with an eighth-place finish in Rally Jordan and was then fifth in the Rally of Turkey. He achieved his first rally win in the non-WRC 2010 Rallye Vosgien event, but, following two mediocre seasons, he returned to F1 with Lotus in 2011.
The Finn was immediately back on the pace, finishing second in Bahrain and third in Spain a race later. Three more podiums followed before his first F1 victory since Belgium 2009 at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
9. Nigel Mansell: 1991, 1994
A true comeback king, Nigel Mansell retired from Formula One on no less than three separate occasions before being persuaded to come back.
He first announced he would quit the sport at the end of the 1990 season after growing increasingly suspicious that Ferrari teammate Alain Prost was being given preferential treatment. But Frank Williams enticed him back to his team for the 1991 season with a lucrative contract, and the Englishman was runner-up that year before winning his first title in 1992.
He quit at the end of the season after further contractual wrangling and went over to compete in the U.S. IndyCar series, winning at his first attempt.
Following the tragic death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, Williams had Mansell back again to bolster the team and he competed in four races, winning the season-ending Australian Grand Prix after Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher collided.
Mansell would make one more ill-advised comeback for McLaren in 1995, but he quit after only two rounds.
8. Alain Prost: 1993
The man who replaced Mansell at Williams for the 1993 season was none other than former Ferrari teammate Alain Prost.
The then three-time world champion had been sacked by Ferrari at the end of the 1991 season and sat out the following year.
But with Williams being powered by Renault and sponsored by Elf, a Frenchman seemed the perfect fit, and he duly delivered them the world title, winning seven times.
7. David Coulthard
Coulthard still harboured dreams of winning the world championship for McLaren in 2000 when he narrowly escaped with his life after his private jet crashed en route to Nice.
The Scot was with his girlfriend of the time and personal trainer when one of the plane’s engines failed and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing. Coulthard picks up the story in an extract from his autobiography published in the Daily Mail.
The co-pilot told me and my American girlfriend of the time, Heidi Wichlinski, and my personal trainer, Andy Matthews, that we were going to make an emergency landing at Lyon-Satolas airport. We started our descent and began the final approach. When we got level with the height of the trees, I said to Andy and Heidi to calm them down - a bad joke as it turned out. 'Hey, we're only about 50ft up, so even if we crash we'll be fine.' Within a few seconds of the words coming out of my mouth, the plane was ploughing into the ground and grinding to a halt, a mangled wreck. We had started to land at 12.38pm. Only 26 seconds later we had crashed and the pilot and the co-pilot were both killed.
Four days after his brush with death, Coulthard competed in the Spanish Grand Prix, qualifying fourth before finishing second behind teammate Mika Hakkinen. It remains one of the results he is most proud of.
6. Mika Hakkinen: 1993
Coulthard’s teammate Mika Hakkinen also makes the list for surviving his brush with death and going on to become a two-time world champion.
The Finn was driving for McLaren in his third season in Formula One at the season-ending Australian Grand Prix when he lost control of his car in qualifying and smashed into the tyre barrier at Brewery corner.
Hakkinen required an emergency trackside tracheotomy to save his life, and he also suffered a skull fracture and internal bleeding.
He only missed one race and was back in a Formula 1 car three months later.
5. Michael Schumacher:1999
Halfway through the 1999 Formula One season it appeared as if Michael Schumacher would finally deliver Ferrari a first world title since 1979.
But when the German’s brakes failed and he slammed into the tyre wall at the British Grand Prix, he suffered a broken leg and his season was over.
Teammate Eddie Irvine then took over Ferrari’s title charge and Schumacher returned to help him out in the Malaysian Grand Prix before letting the Irishman win to lead the championship with a round remaining.
Alas Irvine couldn’t finish the job and Mika Hakkinen took the title in the final round, but Schumacher delivered the title Ferrari craved the following season.
4. Jonny Herbert: 1989
Jonny Herbert was widely regarded as the next great British driver in the mid 1980s when he won the 1985 British Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the 1987 British Formula Three title.
Herbert was a Formula 3000 championship contender in 1988 when he shattered both of his feet and ankles in a big crash at Brands Hatch. Herbert was lucky not to have one of his mangled feet amputated, and doctors told him he would never walk again.
But walk again he did, and Herbert was hired by Benetton for the 1989 Formula 1 season and delivered a stunning drive in the season-opener in Brazil to finish fourth.
He would go on to win three times in F1 and for years afterwards Herbert recalls on his website that bits of grass and rubber from his Brands Hatch shunt would work their way out of his feet!
3. Niki Lauda: 1982-84
Aside from his remarkable 1976 comeback that saw him cheat death before almost winning the title, Lauda makes the list for his title-winning comeback in 1984.
Lauda had walked away from F1 in 1979 to concentrate on his business ventures, but when the money began to dry up he needed a return to F1 in order to resuscitate his bank balance.
He did so in stunning style, signing up for McLaren for 1982 and winning in only his third race back at Long Beach.
Two years later and he was champion again for a fourth time, taking the title by just half a point from teammate Alain Prost.
2. Alex Zanardi
Although not strictly a Formula One comeback as such, this list would not be complete without a mention of the incredible Alex Zanardi.
Zanardi competed in Formula 1 from 1991 to 1994 with Jordan, Minardi and Lotus respectively before three highly successful seasons in America saw him win the CART series with Chip Ganassi in 1997 and 1998.
The popular Italian returned for another stint in F1 with Williams in 1999, but an unsuccessful return saw him return to CART with Mo Nunn in 2001.
Making ground on his rivals in round 15 at the Lausitzring, Zanardi spun into the path of Alex Tagliani and his car was severed at the nose. Zanardi lost both legs in the accident and almost three quarters of his blood volume.
Remarkably Zanardi not only survived but went on to win four races in the World Touring Car Championship in specially modified cars before retiring in 2009.
The Zanardi success story did not end there when at the 2012 London Paralympics, Zanardi won a gold medal in the men's road time trial H4.
1. Robert Kubica?
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Perhaps one of the biggest Formula 1 comeback stories is still yet to be written.
Since his life-threatening accident while driving a Skoda on the first stage of the Ronde di Andora Rally, Robert Kubica has been F1’s forgotten man. He suffered a partial amputation of his forearm, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as significant loss of blood.
Before his accident, Kubica was being touted as a future world champion, and but for that misfortune we may not have seen Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus team.
Despite the severity of his injuries, Kubica’s recovery has been rapid, and he returned to rallying at the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana late last year, winning the event by over a minute.
He is currently driving for Citroen in the European and World Rally-2 Championships and guess what? He’s leading with three wins out of five rallies entered.
At the time of writing, Kubica has just had another lucky escape after coming out unscathed from a massive crash that saw him roll his Citroen twice during testing for his home European Rally Championship in Poland.
Will we see him behind the wheel of an F1 car again?