Niki Laudra will enter the Italian Grand Prix here Sunday as the former and future king of Formula One automobile racing. But he will also be somewhat of an orphan.
Monza will mark the one-year anniversary of Lauda's reappearance on the Formula One circuit after a nearly fatal crash in August, 1976, in the German Grand Prix at Nuerburgring. After failing to catch Britain's James Hunt for the world championship last year as defending champion. Lauda has rolled up 63 points in 13 races this year, a virtually insurmoustable lead.
But he did it in a Ferrari, a car he will not drive after 1977. Sunday's race will be his first outing since the Aug. 29 break with the Ferrari factory, located a short spin down the Autostrada from Monza and the heart of Italian racing passions.
The 28-year-old Austrian enters the 14th test of the world championship circuit with a 21-point lead over nearest rival Jody Scheckter, in a Wolf, and with a third-row position in Sunday's starting grid.
Hunt, in a McLazen, grabbed the pole position this afternoon with a 1:38.08 qualifying lap over the 3.6-mile Monza course, setting a track record while averaging 132.28 miles per hour.
Hunt will be joined in the first row by Lauda's Ferrari teammate Carlos Reutemann, who turned in a 1:38.15 qualifying time.
Scheckler, with a qualifying time of 1:38.29, and Lotus driver Mario Andretti, with a qualifying time of 1:38.37, are lined up in the second row, while Lauda will be joined in the third row by Shadow's surprising Riccardo Patrese, who qualified with a 1:38.68 clocking.
Lauda, who broke the track record Friday by almost a full second, finished his final trial run in 1:38.54, which was only fifth best today. Ten drivers topped Lauda's record-setting Friday pace of 1:38.97.
Lauda, with his youthful toothsome grin and stringy brown hair looped over his collar, would seem more at home as a teen-age dreamer at the drag races than as the world's premier driver for the past three years. He is, in fact, a reticent rebel with one cause - excellence.
"When he wants something, that's it," said Luca di Montezemolo, a former official at Ferrari and a close friend of Lauda. "He knows what he wants and he's very decisive about getting it. He is not dissuaded by anyone."
As an 18-year-old in his native Vienna, Lauda defied the wishes of his wealthy family and decided to take up racing.He stood up to a grandfather who tried to thwart his entry into Formula One by blocking a crucial loan.
And two weeks ago, he walked out on what many viewed as the perfect marriage between man and machine when he told the grand old man of automobile racing, 79-year-old Enzo Ferrari, that he wouldn't return for another season with the Italian engineer.
The battle between Lauda and Reutemann in Sunday afternoon's race may symbolize the troubles afflicting the Ferrari crew since the Brazilian Grand Priz, when Reutemann took first place.
While Reutemann has been viewed by both the Italian press and the Ferrari crew as the gregarious member of the team, Lauda's intensity and drive has often been interpreted as coldness, and the Austrian was concerned about his driving primacy at Ferrari, according to friends, after Brazil.
Montezemolo, who brought Lauda to Ferrari in 1974 and tried to patch up the differences between the two at the Aug. 29 meeting, said the split could have been averted.
"It was not a challenging atmosphere for him," he said. "For him, human contact is not as easy and not as automatic as it is for other drivers . . . you have to talk to him after practice, encourage him. He's a closed man. A man like Lauda has to receive motivation."
Although Enzo Ferrari has not commented publicly on Lauda's departure, reactions from the Ferrari crew immediately after the announcement suggest that while there may have been respect for Lauda, there's wasn't much love.
Chief engineer Ermanno Cuoghi told reporters: "You know what they say: one Pope dies, and you just get another one. You can be sure that we'll keep right on going."
A driver of Lauda's caliber, however, may not be so easy to get. In his four years with the Italian team, Lauda has won 15 Grand Prix tests - more than any other Ferrari driver - and won the world championship in 1975. He would almost certainly have repeated last year had it not been for the German crash.
And although he may not mathematically clinch this year's title Sunday here at Monza, any additional space he puts between himself and Scheckter in the driver's standing would virtually assure Lauda of his second world championship in three years.
Brabham-Alfa will apparently provide the challenge to Lauda next year that was missing at Ferrari. Lauda, according to Montezemolo, has said he will sign with the British team managed by Bernie Ecclestone for subefore the Oct. 9 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport, Ontario.
Brabham-Alfa driver John Wats who may be Lauda's teammate next year, said today he couldn't understand the fuss over the Austrian. "He's won two championships in the last three years," he said before the morning trials. "What do people want: a volatile personality, or somebody who wins?"