Yesterday, the entire motor racing community was shocked over the loss of one of the sport’s greatest talents. The hugely admired and respected three-time Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda passed away yesterday at the age of 70 after a long battle with illness.
“With deep sadness, we announce that our beloved Niki has peacefully passed away with his family on Monday,” the Lauda family said in a statement. “His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain a role model and a benchmark for all of us. He was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather away from the public, and he will be missed.”
Lauda, born in Vienna on 22 February 1949, became a racing driver despite his family’s disapproval. Against his family’s wishes, he parlayed family wealth and a life insurance policy into a bank loan that he uses to buy his way to Formula One with March in 1971, a move so bold that Lauda admits in his later years that it should never have worked. A disastrous season in 1972 would saw Niki made a move to BRM the following season. It was a move that will pay dividends, as Enzo Ferrari became interested with getting Lauda’s services after a string of strong performances in the now-fading BRM.
When Niki’s BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni left for Ferrari in 1974, Lauda would follow suit not long after. Back in 1973, Ferrari was in a great decline, and the team was only able to finish sixth in the Constructors Championship on that season. Lauda immediately left his mark on Ferrari on his very first test for the legendary Italian outfit, when he bluntly told Enzo that his cars were shit, a move that Lauda would describe to Graham Bensinger in an interview in 2017 as the “longest 30 seconds of his life.”
With Lauda’s driving skills and the help of Mauro Forghieri and Luca di Montezemolo, Lauda turned Ferrari’s fortunes around. In 1974, he scored his first Formula One win at Jarama as well as achieving six consecutive pole positions, although inexperience and mechanical failures would ultimately put him out of the championship contention. Lauda would dominate the following season, however, as the Austrian would score 5 race wins on his way to his first Formula One title.
1976 would prove to be the most defining year of his life. In a season that is immortalized in the movie Rush, Lauda started his championship defense strong, and with 5 race wins and 3 other podium finishes coming to the German Grand Prix at the Nordschleife, Lauda looks set to retain the title that season.
However, on lap 2 at Bergwerk, Lauda crashed heavily and his Ferrari 312T2 burst into flames. Lauda wore a modified helmet on that race, and the impact with the Armco would dislodge his helmet, exposing his face to the intense fire. A heroic effort from Guy Edwards, Harald Ertl, Brett Lunger, and Arturo Merzario would save Lauda’s life, although by the time Lauda was pulled out from the burning Ferrari, he had already suffered extensive first-degree burns on his head and wrist, several broken bones, losing most of his right ear, his eyebrows, and his eyelids. In additions, his lungs were scorched due to the exposure with the toxic fumes.
What followed was one of, if not the greatest comeback in all of sport history. Despite being given his last rites on the hospital, Lauda amazingly returned to the track in the Italian Grand Prix after just 40 days, having only missed two races. Even more amazingly, Lauda finished fourth at Monza despite the injuries to keep his championship hopes alive. Miraculously, Lauda somehow was able to keep his championship hopes alive coming to the season finale at Fuji, where he would withdraw after just a couple of laps due to the torrential rain in the start of the race, handing the championship to his great rival and friend James Hunt.
Lauda would return to full force in 1977, where he won his second title by virtue of consistency. However, a falling out with Ferrari would saw Lauda immediately quit Ferrari after clinching his second title at Watkins Glen, and he would move to Brabham the following season. Scoring two wins in 1978, including the famous win in Anderstorp with the “Fan Car” Brabham BT46B, Lauda immensely struggled in 1979 and he would retire after the practice sessions of the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix, citing that he had no more desire to “drive around in circles.”
After retirement, Lauda would form Lauda Air, but after several contacts with Ron Dennis, he returned to the grid in 1982 with McLaren. He immediately proved that he is still a fast driver despite his retirement, with the Austrian winning just his third Grand Prix after his return to Formula One at Long Beach.
A period of struggle due to McLaren’s transition from the Cosworth DFV to the TAG-Porsche engine in 1983 was to be followed by Lauda’s third title in 1984. Winning five races and four second place finishes was enough for Lauda to win the title by only 0.5 points from Alain Prost. 1985 was to be the last season in his career, with Lauda claiming one final victory at Zandvoort in the last Dutch GP before its return to the calendar 2020.
After his final retirement, he would return to the airline management business, where one of his greatest tales was to be written in 1991. After Lauda Air Flight 004 crashed in Thailand in Thailand’s deadliest aviation accident (as well as Boeing 767’s deadliest accident), Lauda personally investigates what caused the accident to happen.
After determining that the accident was caused by an uncommanded thrust reverser deployment, Lauda personally took on Boeing, threatening Boeing to make a statement that it was Boeing’s fault that caused the crash to happen. Boeing initially refused to admit that it was their fault, something that history would repeat many years later with the 737 MAX fiasco.
Lauda, in true Lauda fashion, would continue to challenge Boeing. He told them that if he wasn’t allowed to fly a 767 with two pilots and have the thrust reverser deployed in mid-air, Boeing had to make a statement saying that the conditions that caused the Flight 004 to crash would not be survivable. Boeing eventually admits fault and issues the statement, something that he would told to Maurice Hamilton in an interview with The Guardian in 2006 as “the first time in eight months that it had been made clear that the manufacturer [Boeing] was at fault and not the operator of the aeroplane.”
Despite his airliner commitments, Lauda would stay in the Formula One paddock, first as a consultant for Ferrari in the 1990s and as team principal of Jaguar in 2001-02 before getting the role of the non-executive chairman of Mercedes in 2012. Lauda was responsible for the signing of Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, and with Toto Wolff heading the project and Hamilton and Nico Rosberg (and later Valtteri Bottas) as their drivers, he would build a dynasty that utterly dominates the world of Formula One in the V6 turbo era.
A true legend, Lauda will be forever remembered thanks to his heroic actions, his unique character, the on-track achievements and rivalries with legendary drivers like James Hunt and Alain Prost, his constant presence in the paddock, and his willingness to put his life on the line to save the lives of many.
Rest in Peace, Niki Lauda.
With the exception of one photograph, all photos used in this article are courtesy of Formula One at formula1.com.