On 12 September 1976, the Italian Grand Prix took place at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza circuit near Milan. 26 cars took the start that day, the sound of Cosworth V8 and Ferrari flat-12 engines roaring through the vast park in which the historic track lies. Driving for the adored Ferrari team, reigning world champion Niki Lauda finished fourth. With his sole title rival James Hunt failing to make the chequered flag, it could be classed a decent result: the Austrian driver had extended his points lead and seen the finish of a grand prix for the first time in more than a month.
But while that may seem innocuous enough, what Lauda did that day was among the greatest achievements of his hugely successful grand prix career. When he pulled his helmet off at the conclusion of the race, Lauda's face bore the scars of a fiery crash at the Nurburgring just 38 days earlier: eyelids gone, face scarred, and his ear melted away. Six weeks earlier, the Austrian was lying in a hospital bed being read the last rites by a priest after his accident at the German Grand Prix left him on the brink of death.
That he was even present at Monza bordered on a miracle.
There was a cruel irony to Lauda's accident, as the Ferrari driver was one of the most risk-averse competitors in what was a brutally dangerous era for Formula One. In the three years prior to his accident, six men had lost their lives in F1 cars.
Despite the danger, it was almost unthinkable that Lauda could come so close to joining them. There was nothing daredevil about the 27-year-old; he approached F1 in a clinical manner that seemed wholly out of place in the era of fast-living drivers who took risks on the track and partied hard off it. Hunt was the poster boy for this, but by no means standing alone at the bar.
Niki's level-headed approach behind the wheel, combined with his gift for car control and honing setup, helped him earn a Ferrari seat in 1974, and in '75 he dominated the season to become world champion. In '76 he looked set to make it two in a row, leading Hunt by a healthy 23-point margin ahead of the German Grand Prix.
This would be held at the Nurburging, a terrifying 14-mile circuit that three-time world champion and safety pioneer Jackie Stewart nicknamed 'The Green Hell'. For context, the previous race had been held at the 2.6-mile Silverstone track. The Ring's size meant that providing sufficient safety measures was near impossible, and that weather conditions could vary at different points during a lap – heavy rain at one turn, clear skies at another. Put simply, the Nurburgring was an antiquated death trap that belonged to F1's past, and it had already been decided that it would not host a race the following year.
That wasn't soon enough for Lauda: he called for a boycott of the 1976 race, but his attempts failed when put to a driver vote.
And while he was no daredevil, Lauda's desire to retain his world championship won out, and he elected to race too. This would prove costly: on the second lap his Ferrari suffered a suspension failure. In the ensuing accident the car burst into flames, leaving Lauda badly burnt and filling his lungs with toxic smoke.
Though conscious at trackside Niki fell into a coma, and it was feared he would not survive the night in hospital. He later recalled the sensation of almost slipping away and, though he did pull through, his face had been badly burned. Neverthless, he quickly resolved to return to his Ferrari.
The Nurburgring crash took place on August 1; Lauda made his comeback just six weeks later on September 12. By anyone's standards, his return was remarkable; some considered it foolish, others were appalled.
Recalling the events of that weekend in Italy, the journalist Gerald Donldson wrote that Lauda "was obviously still very frail and weak, his badly disfigured face was difficult to look at, his head was heavily bandaged, and there were doubts about his physical, and mental, fitness."
Upon his return, Lauda still led the world championship, though Hunt had closed his advantage to just two points. Quoted by Donaldson, Hunt understood Lauda's decision to return so soon.
"You have a lot of time to think in hospital and once he had decided to come back he had to get on with it. He had a terrific amount of motivation too, because he was still leading in the championship and he really wanted to win it. It was a massive stimulus to get back and get stuck in. Here was a challenge, he accepted it and it would help speed up his recovery."
Initially, Lauda struggled. He had driven his Ferrari at the team's test circuit and felt at ease in the car, but when he pulled out of the pits at Monza the feeling was quite different.
"I could not drive," he revealed many years later. "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."
Lauda must have felt pressurised by the presence of Reutemann, who had been added to the team for Monza, presumably in the belief that the Austrian would not be fit to compete at Ferrari's vital home event.
In qualifying, he made it perfectly clear who the Scuderia's number one driver was. Lauda took fifth on the grid, putting both Reutemann (7th) and Regazzoni (9th) in the shade. He continued to defy expectation by taking fourth at the finish of Sunday's race, an astounding drive given the extent of his injuries. With Hunt spinning off as he tried to carve through the field following a grid penalty, it was a profitable return for the Austrian.
The veteran journalist Nigel Roebuck later wrote of what Lauda put himself through to simply get into a car that day.
"I was in the Ferrari pit after the race, and I looked on as Niki gingerly peeled off his balaclava, which was stuck – by dried blood – to the still raw burns on his face. That he drove an F1 car at Monza that weekend remains the bravest thing I have ever seen in motor racing."
Donaldson's account of the weekend also gives a stark insight into Lauda's state of mind before the event.
"I was fourth in the race which some people thought was quite good. But I hid the truth," said the Austrian. "In practice I was rigid with fear. Terrified. Diarrhoea. Heart pounding. Throwing up. Being scared is intolerable. I told myself you can't drive a car like that. So I waited quite consciously for the car to slide and began with the precision work of handling the drift. After that it was not so hard. The worst was behind me. I had crossed the threshold and was once more at my normal rate."
"His race speaks for itself", added Hunt. "To virtually step out of the grave and six weeks later to come fourth in a Grand Prix is a truly amazing achievement."
There was no fairytale ending for Lauda that season, with Hunt claiming the world title at the final race in Japan. In heavy rain, Lauda withdrew on safety grounds after just two laps. Hunt finished third on the road to claim the title by a single point. It is fair to suggest that, without the Nurburgring crash, Lauda would have won the title with relative ease.
But the significance of Lauda's Monza comeback was not defined by what he achieved in 1976. More than one heroic race, it was emblematic of his approach to the sport and of his single-minded determination. Many drivers who boldly voted to race at the Nurburgring would not have had the courage to return from such an accident, and certainly not as quickly. Lauda did. And when he felt uncomfortable racing in Japan, he pulled into the pits. Those decisions seem contradictory, but in fact they confirm Lauda's key character trait: he does what he feels is correct, and to hell with what other people think.
He would go on to become a legend of the sport. In 1977 he regained his world title, even finding time to fall out with Ferrari and quit the team with two races to spare. He retired in 1979 but, after two seasons away from F1, returned in 1982. In 1984 he won his third world title.
Since retiring from F1 for good in 1985 he has taken on several roles, including management positions with teams and running his own airline. He is currently non-executive chairman of reigning world champions Mercedes.
His status today is that of F1 royalty. His incredible comeback at Monza in 1976 was key to creating the Lauda legend.