Niki Lauda, one of the best-known figures in motor racing, ‘passed away peacefully’ on Monday. The Austrian took the F1 title for Ferrari in 1975 and 1977, and for McLaren in 1984.
Introduced to a new generation of motorsport aficionados with the release of Ron Howard’s 2013 film Rush, which detailed his rivalry with James Hunt throughout the 1976 world championship, for many, Lauda will be remembered for his remarkable recovery after a high-speed crash on the Nürburgring.
Despite his protests over the 23km circuit’s safety arrangements, the 1976 German Grand Prix went ahead following a vote against Lauda’s boycott. During the second lap, upon the kink before Bergwerk, Lauda’s Ferrari was involved in an accident. Swerving off the track, the vehicle hit an embankment and burst into flames before making contact with Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford.
While Lunger could escape the inferno, Lauda was trapped in the burning wreckage. Although the Austrian was pulled from the Ferrari's shell by fellow driver Arturo Merzario, Lauda had suffered third-degree burns to his head and inhaled toxic fumes that damaged his lungs, and poisoned his blood.
While Lauda was able to stand after the accident, having been fully conscious throughout the blaze, he later lapsed into a coma. He was given the last rites in hospital, only to be made an incredible recovery and returned to racing after just 40 days. He only missed two races while undergoing facial reconstructive surgery.
Lauda’s healthy relationship with Ferrari was badly affected by his decision to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix later that year. Although he bagged the Championship after a difficult 1977 season, Lauda announced his departure from Ferrari at season’s end; citing pressures from the team’s decision to hire new teammate Reutermann.
Joining Brabham-Alfa Romeo in 1978 for a $1 million salary, Lauda endured two unsuccessful seasons before retiring. He reportedly informed Brabham Team Owner, Bernie Ecclestone, that he had no further desire to ‘drive around in circles’.
By this time, the Austrian had founded charter airline Lauda Air, and he returned home to run the company full-time. It wasn’t long before he returned to racing, this time with McLaren, for the 1982 season. Lauda won a third championship in 1984 by half a point over teammate Alain Prost.
Lauda’s final F1 drive was the inaugural Australian Grand Prix of 1985, although he remained ever-present in the sport until his death. He returned for a consulting role at Ferrari in 1993 before assuming the role of team principal for the Jaguar Formula One team halfway through the 2001 season.
More recently, in September 2012, he joined as the appointed non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, and was instrumental in negotiations surrounding the signing of Lewis Hamilton.
Ill health followed Lauda in his later years. He received an emergency kidney transplant when the donated organ from his brother failed in 1997, and underwent a lung transplant in August 2018. He had spent 10 days in hospital earlier this year while suffering from influenza.
"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," his family's statement said.
We can't help but agree.
You can find out more about Lauda's time with Ferrari on FerrariChat.
Images courtesy of MotorsportImages
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