On 1 August 1976 during the German Grand Prix Austrian F1 legend Niki Lauda got into a near-fatal crash due to a suspected rear suspension failure. After only few weeks Lauda was back behind the wheel, trying to retain his lead – in his absence Lauda’s rival, McLaren driver James Hunt, had won a couple of races and stood only few points behind him for the World Driver’s Championship, in the lead up to the season’s final.
The final race was held in Japan, at the Fuji Speedway. On the day of the final race there was a torrential downpour and the track was dangerously wet. After just two laps Lauda decided to retire, stating that he felt unsafe to continue under these conditions.
Later he explained to the media that complications from his injury, combined with the rain, had left him with no alternative but to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix. “My life is worth more than a title,” said Lauda. His opponent, and main rival, James Hunt, continued the race and won the World Drivers’ Championship that year.
What happened in the racer’s mind?
We can only guess what really happened in Lauda’s mind at the critical moment when he decided to pull out of the race. Lauda was known as a methodical, calculating and industrious racer with no emotions and with good decision making techniques, so we can trust that before he decided to withdraw he had played through all possible outcomes.
He was well aware that by withdrawing he could have lost his reputation as a (if not the) world’s top driver; despite his motivation to save his own life. We are talking about the 1970s, the golden age of the series, when the sportsmen risking their lives on a daily basis played a major part in the sport, unlike today, where skill and technology are supreme.
Cowardice or courage?
If we look at this case from that perspective, then the decision to pull out probably took more guts than continuing the race. We can speculate that most racers would have continued the race under these circumstances, afraid of making decisions and damaging their dare-devil public image. Instead, Lauda was not seen as a coward and a loser – his decision to pull out is now considered to be one of the bravest acts in F1 history.
It is no surprise that the topic of decision-making under risk and uncertainty has long fascinated psychologists – and possible equally unsurprising that amongst the best known studies into this was also undertaken in the 1970s (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). There are several studies on how people should and do make decisions under risk, uncertainty, time pressure, and peer pressure. In Lauda’s case the biggest challenge for him was to find courage to act on what he believed was right thing to do, despite the risk of adverse
In the public’s eyes he was still a hero after retiring. The relationship with his sponsor, Ferrari, however, was severely affected.
How to be more courageous?
Aristotle believed courage to be the most important quality in a man – “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible,” he wrote. Recent research has begun to move toward an understanding of what courage is and how we might be able to cultivate the ability to face our fears and make decisions with greater fortitude.
Psychologytoday.com writes about “The six attributes of courage”:
1. Feeling Fear Yet Choosing to Act
2. Following Your Heart
3. Persevering in the Face of Adversity
4. Standing Up For What Is Right
5. Expanding Your Horizons; Letting Go of the Familiar
6. Facing Suffering With Dignity or Faith
So, what is your personal definition of courage? Are the hurdles mental, physical, or both? Which is greater: the fear of failure, or the fear of failing to act at all?
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