Who is Formula 1’s best and most admirable ‘quitter’?

1984: Niki Lauda of Austria in action in his Marlboro McLaren during a Formula One race. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport
1984: Niki Lauda of Austria in action in his Marlboro McLaren during a Formula One race. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport /

There have long been debates about who the greatest drivers in Formula 1 history are. However, it is now time to identify the winner of a new category: the best quitter.

Formula 1 has now entered the summer vacation portion of the 2019 season. For fans, there will be no live races to focus upon for a number of weeks. However, all is not lost, as this time provides an opportunity to look back upon the legendary figures and events that have helped shape the sport.

In the past, time has been spent composing lists or identifying the best of the best. There have been discussions and debates regarding Formula 1’s best driver, best qualifier, etc. However, it is now time to identify a new best winner: the best quitter.

The winner of this category is recognized not only for the number of times he quit but also for the determination and style in which his decisions to quit were made. His decisions to quit were not just whims, but were based upon accurate assessments of personal motivation and reflected the individual’s assessment of what was best for him.

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Additional points in this category were given by the surprise/shock each quitting episode produced within the driver’s team and in the Formula 1 world.

Before the winner is named, we should identify those drivers who received honorable mentions. These drivers were not only multiple Grand Prix winners but also world champions during their driving careers.

The honorable mentions include Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Nico Rosberg. Each of these drivers displayed admirable qualities in quitting, but there is one driver who is head and shoulders above all others in how he handled leaving Formula 1.

The best quitter in Formula 1 history is Niki Lauda.

Lauda died prior to this year’s Monaco Grand Prix. Following his passing, there were many tributes and remembrances of his major accomplishments and contributions to the sport. Most focused upon his determination to live following his horrific accident, his winning career as a driver, and his significant contributions to the Mercedes team.

However, one aspect of Lauda’s career that was neglected was the fact that he was a quitter, albeit not in a negative context. We can now rectify that omission by looking at the circumstances that surrounded his quitting not once, not twice, but three times in a four-year period.

Perhaps the one incidence of quitting that most remember is Lauda dropping out of 1976 Japanese Grand Prix. To put this into context, this was at the end of the season in which he had dominated the earlier races, suffered his accident at the Nurburgring, staged his legendary comeback just weeks later and entered the final race leading the driver standings.

These accomplishments did not come without a physical and emotional cost to Lauda. In his book Meine Story, he identified the lack of trust within his Ferrari team regarding first his comeback and then his abilities. He acknowledged in this book that he entered the race weekend with limited emotional reserves: “I need to charge my batteries.”

The stress was then increased further. On race day, the rain came down so hard that not only was the start of the race delayed, but the majority of drivers were against even starting the race that day. The officials ultimately disregarded the drivers’ concerns, as they were faced with television commitments and the need to start the race before darkness fell.

The officials ordered the race to start. Lauda did take part in the warm-up and the start of the race, but after two slow laps, he pulled into the pits and told his mechanic that he was not going to continue.

According to Lauda’s account in his book My Years With Ferrari, his mechanic suggested that the team could issue a statement that his retirement was due to engine trouble. In his book, he stated that he told his mechanic “…I don’t want to drive. I don’t need excuses.”

Typical Niki.

The next episode of Lauda quitting took place the following year. The year started with many inside, as well as outside, the Ferrari team doubting his driving abilities as well as his resolve following his accident and his quitting the Japanese Grand Prix the previous year.

During the season, the pressures and demands continued to increase. Not only did he have to deal with a number of frequently faster cars, specifically those at Lotus and Wolf, but he battled his Ferrari teammate, Carlos Reutemann.

Lauda again defied those who doubted him, and with resolve and consistency, he won three races and claimed his second world championship with two races remaining in the season. But yet again, the effort had taken its toll.

The increasingly negative pressures within the Ferrari team resulted in Lauda exploring other driving options for the 1978 season. He signed a contract with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team prior to the end of the 1977 season. After clinching his championship with Ferrari, he states in Meine Story, “I didn’t feel like putting up with the ridiculously strained atmosphere, so I declined to start in Canada and Japan.”

Again, typical Niki.

The final example of Lauda quitting took place in 1979. The year had not been easy for him driving the Brabham Alfa Romeo-powered car. During the year, multiple mechanical failures and decreasing motivation resulted in few tangible results.

By the middle of the season, he stated that his “racing had started to pall” and his competitive spirit focused upon getting a massive contract from Ecclestone for the 1980 season. He ultimately achieved this and by the time the teams reached the penultimate race on the 1979 calendar, he had a new Brabham Cosworth-powered car awaiting him.

Everything appeared in place for future success. What no one knew at the time was that Lauda had one thought, as he expressed in Meine Story. “You don’t belong here at all.”

After a few attempts to regain the desire to drive the car, Lauda told Ecclestone, “I don’t like it any more, I don’t want to any more, I can’t do it any more. I’m getting out.”

Ecclestone provided Lauda with enough time to get away from the circuit before announcing that another driver would be using the car that had been assigned to him. He was gone from the track and headed out of the country before the press found out.

Once again, typical Niki.

So Lauda quit for the third time. He is without a doubt the best quitter that Formula 1 has ever seen. Each time he quit, he made a difficult decision based upon his beliefs and feelings with no regard for the consequences upon his career or his standing within the sport. Each time, he was true to himself.

Lauda’s decisions demonstrated that there are situations in which quitting requires more fortitude than continuing. Each time he quit, it took the Formula 1 world by surprise. The third time appeared to be for good, and the Formula 1 world believed that they would not be surprised by him again.

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But once again, Niki Lauda fooled everyone. In a couple of years, once his curiosity and motivation returned, he made the surprising announcement that he would be driving for McLaren. His comeback resulted in many amazing drives and a third world championship. Once more, the Formula 1 world had been surprised and amazed by Mr. Lauda.

Again, typical Niki.