In August of 1976 racing driver Niki Lauda was given the last rites after being dragged unconscious from the flaming wreckage of his blood-red Ferrari on West Germany's Nürburgring racecourse. Lauda survived, but his face was terribly disfigured by burns. Incredibly, six weeks after the crash he was back on the Grand Prix circuit defending his world championship.

Lauda eventually lost his crown after dueling with Britain's James "The Shunt" Hunt. But as the U.S. leg of the Grand Prix begins at Watkins Glen, N.Y. this week, 28-year-old Lauda has a virtual lock on the 1977 title. This year his estimated income is a cool $500,000—a figure which surely will rise in 1978 when Niki switches from the Ferrari team to the Brabham-Alfa Romeo organization.

The miracle is that Lauda is around to rev up a car for anyone. Critical of the priest who administered the last rites—"I wanted someone to help me live in this world, not pass into the next"—Lauda credits his recovery to his doctors and his wife, Marlene, 28. The couple met in 1975 at a Salzburg party given by actor Curt Jurgens, then Marlene's lover. Niki at the time was going with Austrian brewery heiress Mariella von Reininghaus. Within two months the two were together, and five months before his accident Lauda wed the Venezuelan-born beauty, a former model, photographer and interior designer. In the hospital, Niki recalls, "Marlene must have been terrified by my face, but she only made me feel that I was a great man and gave me the will to get well."

Since he has recovered, Lauda endeavors to put those he met at ease about his scars. In another year or two he will undergo further facial surgery, but for now his only concessions to his injury are wearing a cap in public and, when racing, donning a flame-resistant hood. "By the power of his personality," confides his close friend James Hunt, "he makes others unaware of his disfigurement."

Lauda's strong will was instrumental in launching his career. The son of a wealthy Viennese papermill owner, young Niki was dismantling a Volkswagen at 14 and racing by 19. When his family disapproved, he had to get a loan to buy a race car. At the outset Lauda established a reputation for cool professionalism. "He was not a tiger; you never felt he was driving to the edge," a friend remembers. "But he was a quick learner who never made the same mistake twice." Declares Lauda: "There's no romance in Formula I racing. The only thing is to be as accurate and good as possible: go to the track, get into the car and drive your tail off."

Off track, Lauda can afford to be impetuous and disorganized. Though his five-bedroom chalet outside Salzburg features a sauna, a pool and a Ping-Pong table, he prefers puttering in the garage and garden and cleaning up after his Great Dane, Bagiera. A non-smoker, the 5'9", 143-pound Niki sleeps 10 hours nightly and drinks a daily liter of milk—the gift of a neighboring farmer. He has also received gratis a Jaguar, a Fiat and a Honda motorbike (his driving, says Marlene, is "slow, safe and always with a seat belt"). As for children, Marlene suffered a miscarriage in 1976 but they are "still trying."

Her husband, says Marlene, "is quick, impatient about everything." But that does not include his racing comeback. "The main thing—slowly, slowly—was to regain confidence," Lauda says. And there is no looking back. As James Hunt says, "Niki's accident made him realize there isn't much time in life, and that he had to get on with enjoying it."