By Mark Webber
Everywhere Niki went, he had that infamous accident on display. People literally could see, underneath that red cap he always wore, the result of his whole head and scalp having been burnt to a cinder.
For some, it might have been confronting or uncomfortable. But, really, it was such a powerful image of the human spirit.
Nothing was off limits when talking to Niki. It’s a bit of a gentleman’s agreement, I suppose, that you don’t talk about the actual moment of impact in a crash. But I did want to ask him what he thought of the movie Rush, which came out a few years ago and was about his accident.
I wanted to know how much of it was correct and so on, and he said he loved the movie.
It was sort of our chance to talk about the accident, about how he was pulled out of the car, that he actually stood up – an amazing display of fight or flight – and then went into a coma and was actually given his last rites by his hospital bed.
The nurse made that decision but Niki was furious about it later. He was angry that a priest had been basically sending him on his way to God. He wasn’t done yet.
I was born the same year that accident happened at Nürburgring in Germany. As I was growing up, I’d hear my dad talk about it. Then, as I started racing, I got to see that corner and came to know that track at well.
I’ve seen the kind of cars that were being raced at the time. As I became more experienced, I was able to build the scenario in my mind and imagine what happened.
Then you get to know the person himself, and that’s when it started to really hit me how powerful and significant that moment was.
Niki was very stubborn, like most top-flight sportspeople. But he was often, frustratingly, correct. It’s like he’d been here before. His strike rate of giving the right advice, making the right decisions and backing himself in certain scenarios was extraordinary.
That’s sort of what happened on that fateful day in 1976. He told everyone before the race that it shouldn’t go ahead, that the track was too dangerous with the speed of the cars by then, and that the drivers should boycott it.
But there were 120,000 punters there to see him and he was narrowly out-voted by his colleagues, so he just got on with it. He had the coconuts to take it on the chin.
It might have cost him his life. You’ve got to remember, there weren’t many sports in the 1970s like Formula 1, where they were losing so many people. This is a serious sport – you can die while competing. A lot of guys did and a lot of them were Niki’s friends.
For him to have that position before the event and then to have his accident, it’s like he foresaw it happening.