Life

Thursday 24 October 2019

Wise Guy: the man who helped save Niki Lauda in 1976

A driver who dragged Niki Lauda from the 1976 crash that almost ended his career is now mourning his passing from his Connemara home

Back in the saddle: Niki Lauda behind the wheel of his Ferrari 312 T2 just over a month after a near fatal crash at Germany’s Nürburgring in August 1976. Photo by Raoul Fornezza
Back in the saddle: Niki Lauda behind the wheel of his Ferrari 312 T2 just over a month after a near fatal crash at Germany’s Nürburgring in August 1976. Photo by Raoul Fornezza
Niki Lauda and Guy Edwards catch up at Silverstone in July, 2016. Photo courtesy of Guy Edwards

British racing driver Guy Edwards says he didn't think twice when he risked his life to pull Niki Lauda from a burning Ferrari over 40 years ago. Edwards (76), who now lives in Streamstown, Connemara, said that Lauda never really talked about the accident afterwards to him, but the two men formed a strong bond.

The Austrian, three-times world champion racing driver was "the most focused man I ever met", Edwards said, speaking to Review after hearing the news of Lauda's death on Tuesday.

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The British driver, who was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for his response, sustained second degree burns to his own hands in the dramatic rescue.

Lauda, then already World Champion, had been critical of the Nürburgring, describing it as "bloody dangerous" before he lined up there for the German Grand Prix in August, 1976.

Niki Lauda and Guy Edwards catch up at Silverstone in July, 2016. Photo courtesy of Guy Edwards
Niki Lauda and Guy Edwards catch up at Silverstone in July, 2016. Photo courtesy of Guy Edwards

Lauda was on his second lap after changing from wet to dry tyres when his Ferrari ploughed into the side of the track.

"His car hit the barrier, bounced back across, hit my car and pushed me 20 metres down the road," Edwards recalls.

"I jumped out and ran back to help him, and it was quite difficult as the car was alight and Lauda was trapped," he says.

"Brett Lunger, my teammate Harald Ertl and Arturo Merzario all came back to help me, and we dragged him out of the burning car and got him to lie down," Edwards recalls.

The race was restarted an hour later, and British driver James Hunt won it in a McLaren, putting just 14 points between him and Lauda in the World Championship stakes for that year.

"Lauda was in a pretty bad way," Edwards remembers. Mannheim University Clinic's intensive care unit head Prof Klaus Peter reported that the driver had first to third degree burns on his head, along with several fractures and serious internal injuries.

He had sustained damage to his lungs and mucous membranes, caused by the smoke and steam from the crashed car. It was the fibreglass fumes which seared his lungs so severely that it took all his mental energy to pull through.

"He had great determination, because he was back racing very soon after," Edwards says. Six weeks after intensive surgery, Lauda turned up to compete in the Italian Grand Prix.

"He did thank me, but it was a very frightening experience for him - perhaps that's why he couldn't really talk about it," Edwards says.

"We had hardly known each other before then, but we kept in touch, and after he retired we met up regularly at the Grand Prix," Edwards says.

One of his most treasured possessions is a photograph of the two of them chatting together at the British Grand Prix in Silverstone in July, 2016.

That was three years after Edwards experienced his own terrible loss. Edwards's son, Sean, had followed his father into professional racing driving, having taken up karting competition at the age of 11.

Sean was regarded as at the top of his game, his father says, and one of his highlights was winning the 2013 Nürburgring 24 Hours in 2013. He played a cameo role as Guy in Rush, directed by Ron Howard, about the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt in 1976, and the film premiered in London in September of that year.

The 26-year-old was instructing Will Holzheimer at the Queensland raceway near Brisbane, Australia, on October 15, 2013 when their Porsche hit a wall and caught fire, and Sean Edwards lost his life. Holzheimer was treated in hospital in Brisbane for his injuries.

Guy Edwards is the son of an RAF pilot who was a squadron leader in the second world war. Straight out of Durham University, he signed up to train at Brands Hatch and had his first competition in 1965 in a Ford Anglia.

He was known for being a successful dealmaker, and gained the nickname "Mr Sponsorship" as a result. Royal Automobile Club rules had not permitted sponsorship when he started racing.

Both he and Colin Chapman were the first to challenge the rules, with Edwards persuading the Torline Shipping Company to support him in Chevron international sports car racing.

One of his most infamous deals was secured with a well-known cigarette brand for the 198 race at Le Mans.

Edwards spent much of his racing career in European two-litre series and Formula 5000 sports cars, and his personal highlights include winning the Dunes Trophy at Zandvoort in 1973, the Motor Show 200, also in 1973, and the Oulton Park Gold Cup twice over in 197 and 1978.

He participated in 17 Grand Prix races before opting to stop.

"I loved it, I raced passionately, but I woke up one morning and decided it was time to go," Edwards said. "I continued in touring cars, and competed in Le Mans non-championship races".

Professional racing has changed beyond all recognition, with the advent of satellite television and attendant sponsorship deals, he says,

"You would get £1,000 a race in the Grand Prix when I raced in 1974," he recalls. "Now they make about £60million a year."

Last year, some racing websites erroneously reported that Guy Edwards had died, when he was in fact alive and well and living in the west of Ireland.

He had resided for many years in Monaco, then moved back to Britain, but opted for Connemara in 2012 as he had spent many happy holidays there. And he still owns the Formula 1 Hesketh he was driving when he rescued Lauda from his burning car...

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