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When Niki Lauda won the most exciting World Cup of all time

36 years ago, formula 1 in Portugal experienced the narrowest WM finish of its history. Alain Prost already looked like the next World Champion. But then fate struck. The winner was a certain Niki Lauda, who made the impossible possible.

On Saturday the Formula One World Championship 1984 for the World Champion Niki Lauda was actually lost. While his teammate and rival, Alain Prost, in qualifying for Portugal’s Grand Prix, raced two in the starting field, the Austrian only put his boulders in place eleven- a disaster for the two-time title holder from Vienna, who with only three, 5-point lead to Estoril.

The fact that Alain Prost would take the technically superior McLaren from the first starting line to place one in the finish line was a (almost) sure thing. After all, he and Lauda had won eleven of the 15-season races in the red-and-white cult racer. The MP4/2 was a class in itself. According to the bill, therefore, it was as complicated as clear: it had to become second. At any cost.

Lauda and the unbearable catch-up

With a bad start the Austrian continues to get into the mess in the first round. I immediately lost two or three seats. The biggest problem then was traffic. I did not pass the other cars as easily as I thought,”Lauda later described the consequences of a completely messed-up initial phase.

In the meantime Alain Prost went ahead as planned. Together with Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell, the Frenchman withdrew from the rest of the field. Already in round six, Prost took the lead, which he defended sovereign until the end. He had done his duty with it.

And Lauda? He continued in the back for an unpleasant chase. The Austrian made room for space well. His superior car alone was not enough for him. I always had to drive full throttle and take full risk,”Lauda later explained his”Harakiri tactics”.

After 50-rounds of 70-rounds Lauda had done most of the work with his heated driving, already carrying his McLaren up to square three. The biggest challenge, however, still awaited: 30 seconds before him, Nigel Mansell drove to second place in his Lotus. He had yet to be captured by the Austrian to give the World Cup another unexpected turn.

But even before Lauda started his last hunt, the fate or the brake of Mansell played into his cards. The British lost control of his Lotus twice in two rounds and turned off the track. Somehow he stayed in the race, but he couldn’t think of a ride to the finish line. And so Mansell entered the boxing alley in the 52nd lap with his broken brake and gave up and made Niki Lauda involuntarily the world champion.

Lauda and Prost on the podium in PortugalLauda and Prost on the podium in Portugal

The The Austrian carried his car around the course in the last rounds and even let himself be rounded off by the overmatched. As much as Lauda tortured the MP4/2 before, he moved it cautiously towards the World Championship.

“The toughest opponent I had to beat”

“I never doubted and always had hope,” the three-time World Champion after the race told him what his thoughts were in the 70-rounds. It was one of the “toughest races I have ever run,” Lauda, who also paid tribute to his biggest opponent, said: “He was the toughest opponent I had to beat so far. That is why this World Cup title is the most important for me.”

Alain Prost took the defeat sporty. One simply needs luck to win a World Cup, said the Frenchman, who in the second year in succession became “only” Vice World Champion: “And I think Niki was lucky this year. He lost the World Cup with half a point, “but after all the interviews I will go drink with Niki”.

After the disastrous end of the season 1984 the sheet for prose turned to good. He became the first French Formula One World Champion. 1986, 1989, and 1993 were followed by three more titles.

For the late Lauda, the 1984-year was the beginning of the end of his driving career. 1985, the Austrian challenged his last season as an active pilot. His luck had already left him there. After eleven lapses in fourteen races, Lauda only finished the World Cup in place of ten.

Christian Schenzel