A face from the flames: saluting Niki Lauda

1st August 1976. A date to remember. Niki Lauda crashes – the world stops.

It stopped me in my tracks too and forced me to think back. I had handed in my MSc thesis the day before after much toil and was set on a month’s holiday before starting a first highly unexpected job. Instead, it was four tough weeks reliving my accident and its aftermath through the news of Niki Lauda.

I sat with my parents that evening and we went back over the night when I had been in a car fire too – not going at anything like the speed of Niki Lauda but like him, failing to get around a corner – in my case, outside Usk in Wales. They had dropped everything and sped to my bedside. 40% burns. Severe facial burns. Just turned 18. Life in the balance. Survival was everything but even if I did survive, what future would I have with a face so traumatised?

Would Lauda pull through? Surely his motor-racing days would be over? Would his meaningful life be over with a ruined face? I desperately hoped not because he could become a new international role model who would tell the world that facial burns and disfigurement do not spell the end of meaningful life.

Over the next month I watched with increasing admiration as Niki fought a very public battle to get himself healed and fit enough to compete again – and I loved the reports that he was doing so against his doctors’ orders! I too had gone against some medical advice by going up to University just 9 months after my accident – “surely it would be better to have some more surgery to get you looking better?” No way.

And I also shared in what must have been his immense frustration that he had to withdraw from the crucial Japanese Grand Prix because of the pouring rain. His badly burned eyes and lost tear ducts prevented him getting enough clear vision. I knew what he was going through – my eyesight had been damaged in exactly the same way.

But it did not matter that he did not win the Championship that year. He had proved beyond all doubt to a massive worldwide audience that, if you survive, facial burns are not a barrier to living life to the full. I rejoiced! I saw far too few role models. By then I had started my first real job, something which gave me a tiny inkling that I too could make something of my life…

I was often asked in those days – and have been many times since – about the horrendous pain that Niki (and I) must have gone through. How on earth did we bear it? What my five years of pain and surgery taught me was that resilience was not innate. It had to be learned. The pain that floored me in the first days and weeks after my accident became something that I soon discovered I had to mentally withstand because not to do so would consign me to deep sedation and powerlessness.

I became what I can only describe as bloody-minded. ‘Focused’ as the modern idiom has it! Which doesn’t mean that I did not flinch at the pain of the wounds, the operations and the dressing changes. But I told myself to bloody well hold fast. And the more I did so, the stronger I felt. Niki Lauda epitomised bloody-mindedness. I met him 10 years ago and he still did – and by all accounts, still does!

So I look forward to seeing ‘Rush’. Not the accident itself, of course, but to witness Niki’s refusal to buckle and his determination to buck the assumptions he must have had about his face – and everyone else had too. Niki: you are a true champion for face equality.

8 thoughts on “A face from the flames: saluting Niki Lauda

  1. Hi,

    I am very proud to read this article, since I am from Austria, but I have been living here in the UK for over 10 years.

    Did Nikki ever think of setting up a charity like yours over there? I wish there had been something like changing faces when I was still there. I had a skin condition, very common but severe enough to get nasty comments from people.
    All the best xxx

  2. Good on you James.
    Yours and Nikis stories are inspirational to all of us, whatever we look like.
    And it is good to be reminded that when we hear of people in adverse circumstances being described as ‘brave’, it doesn’t mean they are breezing through it. They are still feeling the pain but refusing to let it get the better of them, through massive effort.
    You are like elite athletes of Bravery! You make winning the race look easy, but we all know the arduous road it takes to get to the finishing line.
    Jan ravens
    Proud to be a Changing Faces patron

  3. An inspiring and thought-provoking insight into an infamous world news event from a very personal perspective. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. James, This story is so inspiring. From the flames phoenix rise, whether Niki Lauda, or James Partridge, and anyone else who has taken bold steps from such adversity into their futures. Having strong positive support and love from the very start of such happenings must be an important key, not only with regard to the injuries, but with overcoming the pain of both the physical trauma and the emotional and mental impact. So I’m for giving all those parents, partners, children and friends a round of applause and all the encouragement and support they may need to recover and move forward too.
    All good wishes

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