On January 13, 1974, in Buenos Aires, far from Maranello, a year of revolution began for the Prancing Horse, with Enzo Ferrari bringing Mauro Forghieri, 26-year-old Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, Clay Regazzoni, and a young Niki Lauda, whose F1 debut was in 1971, into the team. Maranello was tasked with redeeming the dismal performance of 1973, where the car had fallen short.
Arrival at Ferrari
The decision to bring Lauda to Ferrari was not without criticism. Up to that point, the Austrian had not shown performances that could justify his hiring. Clay Regazzoni played a crucial role in bringing him to Maranello. The Swiss driver returned to Ferrari in 1974 after a year at BRM, where he had Lauda as a teammate. The two respected each other, as revealed by Enzo Ferrari in an interview.
In Clay Regazzoni’s mind, the young Austrian was the perfect teammate, and he conveyed this to Enzo Ferrari. In BRM, he had easily beaten Lauda and could also benefit from Niki’s incredible ability to develop the car. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best choice for the Swiss driver.
Niki Lauda’s first test on the Ferrari 312B3 did not go well. The Austrian said to Corriere dello Sport: “The first test at Watkins Glen was quite disappointing.” Legend has it that when Piero Ferrari asked him about the car, Niki spoke more colorfully, saying, “It’s crap.”
In Argentina, Niki Lauda’s First Race in Ferrari
The car in ’74 immediately showed that it was much better than the previous year’s. In the Buenos Aires practice sessions, the two Ferrari cars set the first and fourth fastest times. In qualifying, Clay Regazzoni stopped at second place, while Niki Lauda finished eighth, a second behind Ronnie Peterson’s pole position.
The first lap of that race was chaotic. There was a collision between Peter Revson and Mike Hailwood, with the former blocking the track. Many drivers had to avoid the impact, but not all succeeded. Clay Regazzoni spun and had to make a comeback. Niki Lauda managed to pass unscathed. “I was lucky to get through the first corner after the big mess,” the Austrian recounted post-race.
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On the penultimate lap, the standings had Denny Hulme in the lead, followed by local driver Carlos Reutemann and Niki Lauda. However, the Argentine driver ran out of fuel and was forced to retire. The Argentine Grand Prix concluded with two Ferraris on the podium, with Niki Lauda in second and Regazzoni in third after a great comeback.
What immediately struck about Niki Lauda’s debut at Ferrari was his perfection. He made no mistakes or blunders in a completely new car. The Austrian calmly commented on his performance: “I didn’t want to overdo it.” Even Luca di Montezemolo, the sports director at the time, was very impressed with what Lauda did. “He has shown he’s up to the best. I am confident.”
History will tell us that he had every reason to be. 15 victories, 32 podiums, and 23 pole positions were Lauda’s stats at Ferrari. The first victory came in the Spanish Grand Prix later that year. In 1975 and 1977, the Austrian became the world champion with the Scuderia. He likely would have won in ’76 if not for the tragic accident at the Nürburgring.
The relationship between Niki and Ferrari broke down at the end of ’77. “I’ve decided not to race for you anymore,” Lauda told Enzo after already signing an agreement with Brabham. The Austrian didn’t even race the last two races of ’77. In his place came another driver who will forever remain in the hearts of the tifosi, Gilles Villeneuve.