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Lauda relives 1976 on the big screen

Former Formula One champion Niki Lauda of Austria talks on his phone during the third practice session of the Italian F1 Grand Prix at the M
Former Formula One champion Niki Lauda of Austria talks on his phone during the third practice session of the Italian F1 Grand Prix at the M

By Alan Baldwin

MONZA, Italy (Reuters) - Niki Lauda long ago laid to rest the ghosts of 1976 but the physical scars will always be with him and he would not change that.

The momentous and near-tragic events of that Formula One year, with the Austrian coming back from a fiery crash to battle Britain's James Hunt for the title, will be relived in cinemas this month with the release of a new movie 'Rush'.

The film, directed by Oscar-winning Ron Howard ('Apollo 13, 'Cocoon', 'A Beautiful Mind'), chronicles the relationship and rivalry of the fast-living, womanizing Hunt - the eventual champion for McLaren who died in 1993 - and Ferrari's more clinical Lauda.

Lauda has seen it three times, including a gala premiere in London last week, and is delighted the story is being re-told.

"It really came across very well... I was impressed. The first time (actor Daniel) Bruhl turned up I said 'He really talks like me'. I see myself there and he did a very good job," he told Reuters in an interview.

"I am the bad guy in the beginning. There is a lot of swearing. But this is two different guys fighting for a championship. This is the real movie."

The film has also made the triple world champion look at his own story in a different light, seeing himself through the eyes of others and experiencing some of their shock.

Ambling through the Monza paddock in jeans, a trademark red cap covering the wounds of the past, Lauda draws barely a glance from Formula One regulars going about their business in the sunshine.

It was very different in 1976, when he arrived at the Italian Grand Prix determined to race only six weeks after being severely burned at the Nuerburgring and receiving the last rites from a priest.

He had lost an ear and suffered scorched lungs as well as burns to his face and scalp in the accident, and the shock at Monza was palpable.

"The scene was shown when Hunt comes to see me (in Monza), and Bruhl turns around. I said 'Shit, did I really look that bad?'. But I did. He's absolutely done it in a perfect way," said the triple champion.

"For me it was pretty simple (at the time)... I had to accept it. And that was it for me. But for other people, they couldn't believe it," recalled the Austrian, now the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team.

"At the time I got upset with those people when they never looked in my eyes... but in the movie, I was the spectator, on the other side. And I tell you, they were right."

TERRIFYING WEEKEND

The Austrian could have had cosmetic surgery but, apart from some reconstructive work on his eyelids, refused all offers.

"The other day I was asked again 'why did you never do an operation?' To the woman I said 'where the (expletive) do I find an ear?' It's a very simple answer," he said matter-of-factly. "It is the way it is and what can I do?.

"It's the same when you are in a wheelchair. Nobody asks anybody to get up and walk. Sure, people change their tits and ass and whatever. In my case there could be something done but I wouldn't. Because this is a fact of life and that's it."

Lauda's return at Ferrari's home track, with his wounds still bandaged and raw, has been hailed as one of the greatest acts of individual courage in the history of the sport but that Monza race is now just ancient history to him.

"No. I've been here so many times, it's finished. I live today and think of tomorrow. Take the experience," he said.

In the modern era, Lauda might never have been allowed to race but the 64-year-old, then as now, is not a man to take no for an answer even if only later did he admit how scared he was.

"It was the most terrifying weekend," he told Reuters.

The Italians did not accept his Austrian medical papers, sending him instead to hospital for further checks.

"I got so upset I said 'listen, I am fighting my way here, I am fit, here is the proof from the doctors. I have eyesight and can hear, I can drive, I am fit.' And those Italian idiots start all over again. So this really broke my balls," he recalled.

"I couldn't work with the car, I couldn't get used to whatever, the pressure I had on me. Can he race? Is he allowed to race? All this bullshit. Therefore on Friday, when I came here, I was stressed."

Lauda drove out of the pits and found he could not get the car into second gear.

"I could not drive. But in Fiorano three days before I could. I said what the hell went wrong? I had to go back to the hotel, I left the circuit and the whole night I was thinking what did I do wrong?," he said.

"Then I made a simple decision. I came here on Saturday, it was qualifying, and I said I just drive. I don't want to know any other people's times. There was (Carlos) Reutemann and (Clay) Regazzoni in the team but I just kept on driving. I didn't care.

"I got going... and I was the quickest Ferrari."

LOGICAL DECISION

The race threw more obstacles at him. The starting system had changed in his absence from a flag to lights and nobody had thought to tell him. And then it rained, the worst conditions for a man whose eyelids had been burned.

Despite that, Lauda finished fourth and the championship was back on. Hunt eventually won by a single point when Lauda parked up and walked away from a rain-hit race at Japan's Fuji circuit.

It is not a decision he regrets, even to this day.

"To me it was clear. It was simple. The circuit was flooded. Flooded," he said. "The rain did not stop for two hours and this idiot Japanese race director came and said the race is on now... this for me was the most stupid decision ever. I did one lap so that Ferrari gets the money and off I went.

"For me it was logical. I think I would do the same thing again today."

In the film, Lauda is shown watching Hunt celebrate the title but in reality the Austrian had long gone, hearing the outcome as he headed for Tokyo.

The rivalry, at a time when death at the wheel was an ever-present danger, was real but there was also a camaraderie off the track. Lauda feels the film does justice to that friendship.

"We were enemies in the way that he was in a competitive car, the most competitive driver. There was no question that James was (expletive) quick. And this was my worry so we had to fight. But, sure, we respected each other," he said.

"I was more focused. I had to be to beat him. I had some fun too but not as bad as him. He always did everything before the race, I did it after the race," smiled Lauda.

"In the beginning of the season, when I was winning six races out of eight, I had a beer with him and I made jokes about him. But, after coming back here, there were no more jokes."

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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