Written by Marco Noguier, Edited by Sharifah Zaqreeztrina
Everyone in the motorsport community knows Niki Lauda, a three-time Formula One World Champion, with more than 171 races, 25 victories, 54 podiums and 24 pole positions. A career painted in glory only to be marked by the terrible accident that occurred during the 1976 German Grand Prix, where Lauda’s Ferrari crashed out before bursting into flames.
Trapped in his car, Lauda was eventually saved by four drivers whose names are often forgotten: Arturo Merzario, Brett Lunger, Harald Ertl and Guy Edwards. But who are these four little-known drivers? How did they fight their way to Formula One till that unfortunate day and how did their career continue afterwards?
Arturo Merzario is a well-known figure of the motorsports paddock in the seventies, with his recognizable cowboy hat and his sponsorship with Marlboro. Born in 1943 in Civenna, Italy, his motorsport career began in the sixties where he raced for the Fiat-Abarth team in small mountain-climb races. In 1969, Merzario sealed his first victory with Abarth at Mugello. He was quickly spotted for his talent behind the wheel and therefore recruited by Ferrari for the 1970 edition of 24h of Daytona where he ended up in third place.
In 1972, after many wins in touring cars, Arturo Merzario got the opportunity to take part in his first ever Formula One race at the British Grand Prix with Ferrari. The young Italian proved his talent by finishing sixth thus scoring his first point in his debut race in the category. As a result, Merzario was kept on for the 1973 season. Unfortunately, the car was slow and Merzario struggled all season long with two fourth places as his best results.
He was then released by Ferrari in the following year and signed with a newly created team: Williams. This season turned out to be a difficult one with only two point finishes in Kyalami, where Merzario qualified third and ended the race in sixth, and Monza where the Italian driver finished fourth in front of his home crowd. Despite having signed a contract for the entire 1975 season, Merzario left the British team mid-season due to a lack of results and moved to sport-proto cars where he found success again by winning the 1000 km of Spa and the Targa Florio.
The Italian driver then returned to the Formula One world when he signed for the 1976 season with Ovoro, a small private team that uses old March 761 models before changing mid-season to Williams that was rebranded to Walter Wolf Racing.
On the 1st of August 1976, as he began the second lap of the German Grand Prix, Merzario saw Niki Lauda’s Ferrari bursting in flames in front of him. The Italian driver recalls, ‘’I was the fourth to arrive to the crash site, after Harald Ertl, Guy Edwards and Brett Lunger, that watched the fire hopeless.’’ After getting out of his Wolf Williams, he jumped into the fire trying to free Lauda, but the safety harness seemed stuck. With three tries the harness unbuckled and Merzario carried Lauda out of the car, helped by Brett Lunger, in an act that he calls a miracle. ‘’ At that time I was a small guy like him, he says, How did i manage to lift his entire body with my two arms? I don’t know. This proves that in times of danger miracles can always happen.’’
After this act of heroism, Merzario tried to create his own Formula One team from 1977 to 1980. A project that did not work as he only qualified with his car for a few races. He retired from F1 in 1980. He was still in touch with Niki Lauda before the legend’s death in 2019.
Brett Lunger was a Vietnam War veteran when he entered the motorsport realm. At the time, he was known for being a paid driver that bought his way into motor racing. He even earned the nickname the “rich kid” of the Can-Am series in 1966. In 1975, after 5 years spent racing in several categories in the likes of the L&M 5000 Continental Championship and Formula 5000, Brett Lunger made the move to Formula One signing with Team Hesketh. His first race came at the Austrian Grand Prix where he qualified on the 9th row and finished 13th far behind his teammate James Hunt. He then crashed during qualifying at the American Grand Prix. During the race he was running 8th before being forced to retire due to a mechanical issue. His highest finish of the season came in Monza where he ended up in 10th place.
For the 1976 season, Lunger signed with Team Surtees. He was noticed for criticizing the Long Beach circuit saying “This course is so narrow, it’s like trying to drive a Sherman tank through a parking lot” Lunger failed to qualify for that race. However, he managed to qualify for the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
As the second lap kicked in, at the Adenau Bridge, Lauda passed Brett Lunger’s Surtees that was chasing Guy Edwards’ Hesketh before speeding away towards a fast left kink. As the two cars approach the fast left kink before the Bergwerk right hand curve Lauda’s Ferrari crashes in front of them before bursting into flames. “Suddenly I saw some dirt and debris, Brett Lunger stated in an interview, Niki’s car was sideways on the middle of the track. I had nowhere to go. " Edwards managed to avoid the wreckage but the American driver slammed into the Ferrari as Harald Ertl’s car struck Lunger’s as well.
Lunger got out of his car and ran with Merzario towards the fire, then the American tried pulling Lauda’s shoulders while Merzario was unbuckling the seatbelt. Luckily, the Italian managed to unbuckle it and the two men extricated Lauda’s unconscious body from the fire. Six weeks later at the Italian Grand Prix, Lauda came to thank Lunger for saving him.
Lunger recalls : “My crew chief and I were in the pits discussing gear or ratios or something. This guy tapped me on the shoulder, I turned around. He said : thank you. Then he walked away. That was pure Niki Lauda. That was all he needed to say and I treasure that.” Brett Lunger retired two years later from Formula One after two seasons with McLaren and Ensign.
Guy Edwards only participated in 17 races in the category between 1974 and 1977 with best results of 7th at the Swedish Grand Prix and 8th at the Monaco Grand Prix, both on a Lola-Ford. In 1976, Edwards raced four races with Hesketh, one of which was the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
The start was on drying conditions and at the end of lap one, many championship leaders stopped to change to dry tires. Edwards was followed closely by Brett Lunger and continued before getting passed by Lauda a few minutes before crashing. “His car hit the barrier, bounced back across, hit my car and pushed me 20 meters down the road, Edward recalls, I jumped out and ran back to help him and it was quite difficult as the car was alight and Lauda was trapped” Edward received the Queen's Gallantry Medal for his heroic act. Despite not being close before the crash occurred, the two drivers stayed in touch, even meeting each other at the 2016 British Grand Prix.
Guy Edwards later found success in other categories especially in the 24h of Le Mans with two podiums, one in the IMSA class in 1980 and another in 1981 S+2.0L class.
The final rescuer on the list is Guy Edwards’ teammate at that time : Harald Ertl. Before driving in Formula One, Ertl raced in touring cars. He got his first taste of Formula One at the 1975 German Grand Prix with Hesketh and scored an 8th place finish. This resulted in Hesketh signing him for the 1976 season. For the first Grand Prix of the season in South Africa, he qualified last and ended in 15th. He then failed to qualify for the next few races before qualifying again for the German Grand Prix. He was the last driver to arrive at the crash site and helped by using a fire extinguisher that a race marshall left on the side of the track.
Later on, he continued competing with Hesketh for another season with a best finish of 9th at the Belgian Grand Prix. Ertl moved to Ensign in 1978 but this move worsened results, as the cars were too slow to prequalify or even finish the races. His last attempt to start a race was in 1980 with ATS at the German Grand Prix, but unfortunately he did not manage to qualify. He died two years later at the age of 33 in a plane crash.
These four drivers are the unsung heroes that saved Niki Lauda’s life. Even though history remembers the great recovery that Lauda made and the titles he won afterwards, we must recognize and appreciate the sacrifice these four drivers made that day to save the life of another man.