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How Lauda won F1's closest ever title battle

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How Lauda won F1's closest ever title battle
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Apr 28, 2020, 12:42 PM

On this day in 1974, Niki Lauda took his maiden Formula 1 victory for Ferrari at the Spanish Grand Prix. It was the first triumph of many for the legendary Austrian.

But on the day of his first success, we've chosen to take a look back at one of his more remarkable victories that came a decade later.

For Lauda's third Formula 1 title was one of the most incredible in the championship's history, and won by statistically the smallest margin - just half a point.

In an interview conducted in 2017, Lauda talked Autosport through that season from his perspective.

Eight times the battle for the drivers' crown has been decided by a single digit - 1958, 1961, 1964, 1976, 1981, 1994, 2007 and 2008 - but only once has it been settled by less.

One might argue the 2008 battle between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa was closer - in the sense Massa crossed the Brazilian Grand Prix finish line as 'champion', only for Hamilton to steal it back again with a last-gasp move on Timo Glock moments later. But in the statistical sense there remains none tighter than the 1984 contest between Niki Lauda and Alain Prost.

Theirs was a classic 'young pretender versus old master' dynamic as McLaren teammates. Lauda had been around the block many times already of course - winning the championship for Ferrari in 1975, coming back famously from near-death in '76 to do it all again in '77, retiring altogether after two troubled years at Brabham, now two years firmly back in the game with McLaren and a proven race winner once more.

Prost, six years Lauda's junior at 29, returned to the team with which he began his F1 career in 1980, after a successful but acrimonious stint at Renault. Prost lost his drive at the end of '83, after narrowly losing the world championship to Nelson Piquet. McLaren incumbent John Watson failed to agree terms with Ron Dennis to extend his stay into a sixth year, so Prost took the seat with support from principal McLaren sponsor Marlboro.

"John could not find an agreement with Ron and I said 'sign, otherwise nobody knows what's going to happen'," recalls Lauda. "They argued forwards and backwards. Then in South Africa, when Piquet blew Prost off in the Renault and Piquet was world champion, Renault sacked Prost - in the last race. Watson wasn't signed and we had a free seat, so Marlboro said 'we want Prost'. Ron signed Prost. From a team point of view, it was the right thing to do."

Ron Dennis, McLaren-Ford Cosworth, with his drivers Niki Lauda and John Watson

Ron Dennis, McLaren-Ford Cosworth, with his drivers Niki Lauda and John Watson

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Lauda would have preferred McLaren to retain Watson "in my own interest", because he knew '84's MP4/2 would be a serious contender with Cosworth DFV power ditched for more potent TAG/Porsche turbo engines ("driveable, powerful, perfect"), developed specifically for McLaren and brought on stream for the final four races of '83. Lauda felt he had the measure of Watson as a driver; Prost was an unknown quantity, but competitive instinct told Lauda things would be fine.

"In the moment, I said 'no problem' because he's [just] a racing driver and we are going to blow him off," Lauda says today. "This was my attitude. I did not know him from before, so I said 'fine, new competition is always good'."

But Lauda got a nasty shock when Prost outqualified him by more than half a second for the first race in Brazil. To make matters worse, Prost drove on to a comfortable victory as Lauda retired with electrical trouble.

In fact, Lauda struggled in qualifying generally against Prost. Only once - mid-season in Dallas - did Lauda qualify ahead of his French rival in 16 attempts, and aside from the next race at Brands Hatch (0.268s), his home race in Austria (half a second) and round two in South Africa (seven tenths), Lauda failed to qualify within 1.2 seconds of Prost for any grand prix that year.

"What I hated at the time was 600 horsepower for racing and 1200 for qualifying, so qualifying tyres and double power, more or less," Lauda explains. "I didn't like this system. It was stupid from my point of view.

"Suddenly in qualifying you come with double horsepower, with qualifying tyres, and you take chances like you do not believe - braking late, speed was higher, this one lap ramp up and down again. I didn't like the system - the principle of it, not the driving part."

Alain Prost, McLaren MP4-2 TAG, leads Niki Lauda, McLaren MP4-2 TAG

Alain Prost, McLaren MP4-2 TAG, leads Niki Lauda, McLaren MP4-2 TAG

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Prost's greater experience with the intricacies of turbo engines from his time at Renault gave him a clear edge over the old master. Lauda quickly realised he couldn't match Prost for pure pace, so decided to focus purely on trying to outwit his teammate over grand prix distances.

"I will never forget he came to Brazil, first race, Prost blew me off in qualifying, which I didn't like," Lauda recalls. "I retired over an engine problem, or whatever it was, so then I went back to the hotel. When I entered the hotel lobby I saw on television Prost won the race, so I said 'fuck me - that's a bad start'.

"Then I thought about it and I thought, 'now I have to be careful, the other guy is competitive'. We went to the next race and I said 'I have to improve my qualifying speed because he's better'.

"I went to the next race [in South Africa, thinking] this little French guy will not blow me off, [but] whenever I moved up, he moved up - I could never get him in qualifying, which really pissed me off like you cannot believe. You need to be quickest to win the race.

"Then I said, 'fine, change immediately the philosophy, now I use Friday and Saturday only to set the car for the race - tyres, balance, all of it'."

Prost took three poles across the year; Lauda never qualified better than third. It seems extraordinary now to conceive of a driver winning the F1 world championship without ever starting on the front row.

"Prost was, at this time, the quicker driver - no question," Lauda concedes. "He's younger than me, and he came into the team, got the best car - which I had to develop for him, which pissed me off - and he was quicker than me!

Niki Lauda, McLaren TAG Porsche, Patrick Tambay, Renault, Nigel Mansell, Lotus Renault

Niki Lauda, McLaren TAG Porsche, Patrick Tambay, Renault, Nigel Mansell, Lotus Renault

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"I had to beat him being clever - working with the race set-up and not with qualifying. I never worked for pole position again. I only worked for the race. This was the decision I won the championship by."

This approach paid off to the extent Lauda took two wins over the first eight races of the campaign. But on each occasion (South Africa and France) Prost suffered problems that set him back. A fuel pump failure forced Prost to start from the pits at Kyalami (he finished second), and a loose wheel forced him into the pits twice in France and meant he finished outside the points.

When Lauda beat Prost to second in Canada, he did so with the aid of engine problems for Prost. Even with a specific, race-focused approach, Lauda wasn't really out-racing Prost as such, and to deepen the malaise, failing to finish in Brazil (electrics), Belgium (where both McLarens retired), Imola (engine) and Detroit (electrics again), as well as spinning off in the famous wet half-points race at Monaco, and taking himself out by clipping the wall in Dallas, meant Lauda trailed Prost by 11.5 points as the season entered its second half.

But a run of two wins (Brands Hatch and his home race in Austria) from the next three races, coupled with a close second to Prost in Germany, swung the momentum decisively in Lauda's favour. Prost suffered gearbox failure while leading the British GP and spun out of second place in Austria, where Lauda took the lead from Piquet's Brabham and held on to win despite losing fourth gear in the closing stages.

Lauda assumed the championship lead for good after that race. Prost closed to within half a point by winning from Lauda next time out at Zandvoort, but a crucial win for Lauda at Monza (with a slipped disc!) as Prost suffered engine failure early on left Lauda firmly in command with only two races left.

Niki Lauda, McLaren MP4\2 TAG Porsche takes the chequered

Niki Lauda, McLaren MP4\2 TAG Porsche takes the chequered

Photo by: Motorsport Images

A silly mistake while attempting to lap Mauro Baldi's Spirit during the European GP at the Nurburgring consigned Lauda to fourth as Prost won for the third time in five races, so they headed to the season finale in Portugal separated by just 3.5 points. But this is where Lauda's championship nous, allied to a bit of good old fashioned luck, paid off.

"When you have a fight with your own teammate like this you watch him, so you play any game you can do to understand what he's doing," Lauda says. "Because the worst thing for a driver is if the same guy in the same team is fighting for the championship. If it's somebody else, no problem. If both cars are the same, then there's not much you can do.

"[The] pole position [battle] I was nowhere [11th on the grid; Prost was second to Piquet], so for him it was quite an easy race [in theory]. He seemed nervous that day in the morning, so we played our normal games - winding him up, up, up!

"When I got into the race, I put my helmet on and I said to myself, 'if I do today one mistake, by overtaking people and touching them and breaking the wing or whatever, I'm going to kill myself'. This was my ambition - head down and don't do any fucking mistake.

"Nelson was my so-called friend, and he said to me before the race, 'I'm going to help you'.

"What are you going to do? 'If I get close to Prost, I'll have him off'. He was serious!

Start: Keke Rosberg, Williams leads

Start: Keke Rosberg, Williams leads

Photo by: Williams F1

"This was really good that somebody says this to you. I had one friend here, he's going to help me. He's a nice guy. I trust him. First lap, this idiot spun off! I saw him in the green grass sitting around and I said 'look at this wanker! The only one that's going to help me is gone!' I was so pissed off."

Prost won the race at a canter, which is all he could do in the circumstances. Lauda, who spun in qualifying and required two engine changes before the race, battled his way up to third, surviving a clash with Stefan Johansson's Toleman while fighting for fourth along the way. Lauda needed to finish second to win the title, but Nigel Mansell's Lotus was almost 30 seconds up the road and Lauda wasn't catching him.

"On the second lap a stone damaged my left turbocharger," Lauda explains. "I pressed boost but the car didn't go. It was a tough fight. I was 11th or 12th on the grid and it was easy that I could pass everybody and go. Then I came on the straight, turned on the boost, no power came, and therefore I was stuck so long in traffic because I could not overtake where you normally can overtake.

"If my engine would have worked I would have come straight through the field, but it didn't work and therefore in the end, thank God, Mansell had his problem and I was second."

Mansell spun off with 18 laps left to run thanks to a brake problem, promoting Lauda to second and handing him the two crucial extra points he needed to claim a third world championship by half a mark at Prost's expense.

"Before the race, one of the Marlboro people said to me 'They all printed the Marlboro posters 'Prost world champion'. They did this before the race. I said to myself 'now this wanker is not going to win the championship!'

"And the first thing I did after this thing was over, I went to this guy:

'Show me your poster.'

'What poster?'

'Show me your poster!'

'I have no poster!'

'Don't lie, don't you lie!'

"He didn't show me, but he knew what I was after.

"To be fair, when I saw Prost standing next to me [on the podium] half in tears and upset I said, 'don't worry, next year it might be your turn'. I liked him in the end. We were competitors, but we didn't hate each other. It was not like Rosberg and Hamilton.

"We respected each other, liked each other, so I hugged him."

Lauda's words proved prophetic. Next year Prost was champion and Lauda retired for good.

Podium: race winner Alain Prost, second place Niki Lauda, third place Ayrton Senna and Jean-Marie Balestre

Podium: race winner Alain Prost, second place Niki Lauda, third place Ayrton Senna and Jean-Marie Balestre

Photo by: Motorsport Images

1985: Lauda's final salvo

It's fair to say Lauda's Formula 1 career didn't end in style. As reigning world champion, he at least spent some time during his final race battling with future F1 legend Ayrton Senna, but eventually retired from the Australian Grand Prix after a brake problem pitched him into a pathetic half spin at the end of the back straight.

This brought the final curtain down on a poor season, where Prost won the world championship for the first time, while Lauda toiled to 10th in the standings, with only one race victory to his name.

"It was clear that in '85 I would have a difficult time with Prost," Lauda reflects. "I knew this. I was fighting him as much as I could, but he learned, he got more experience, second year [with the team], and I could not use my advantage I had in the first year."

Lauda at least enjoyed one dazzling moment in the sun - narrowly beating Prost to victory in August's Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort.

"This was a tough season - Prost was quicker all together, which I had to accept, which had already started the year before, but then we came to Zandvoort," Lauda beams. "I was nowhere on the grid [10th, Prost was third]. There was a journalist I wrote books with. He leaned into the car pit before the race and said 'you're going to win this race'.

"Are you nuts?! I was sitting nowhere! Prost won all the races. No way I was going to win. I said 'I hope my engine blows up so I don't have to work so hard'. This is what I told him, being upset that an idiot can tell me 'you're going to win today'.

Niki Lauda, McLaren MP4\2 TAG

Niki Lauda, McLaren MP4\2 TAG

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"And suddenly, after Piquet stalled his engine, I was second or third [he was fifth at the end of the opening lap] because everybody [was delayed by Piquet] and I went on the outside. Then I said, 'because of this wanker journalist now I'm going to give it', because I was there in a position where I could fight.

"Only because the guy was such an idiot I said to myself 'now I'm going to do it'. I did a perfect race. I think [Ron] Dennis decided to give me a hard tyre. I got on the pit tray in the wheel change, they gave me the wrong tyre on the left rear, and I had an oversteer - my car was unbalanced, which upset me again because I knew that something was wrong.

"But nevertheless I knew exactly what I had to do: I accelerate quick enough down the straight, he [Prost] will never pass me, and in the infield, go slow. The race was fantastic to watch. Prost was sitting right on my tail. I won the race."

That race aside, it was not exactly a glorious title defence, but Lauda could already see the writing on the wall after narrowly beating Prost to the title a year earlier, and had decided ahead of his home grand prix in Austria (the race before Zandvoort) that it was time to hang up his helmet for good.

"Basically it was the hard work I had to do with Prost, to be honest, and I knew that I was coming to the end," Lauda explains. "It was my second time. I retired once and then there was an end to it. For me it was the right time.

"I knew that I had to retire. I accept a hard life, not a problem with this, but with Prost giving me a hard time I thought this was the right moment. I didn't drop off. He was again quicker. If Watson had been with me, I would have done another year."

Niki Lauda, Jean-Marie Balestre and Alain Prost

Niki Lauda, Jean-Marie Balestre and Alain Prost

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

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Series Formula 1
Author Ben Anderson