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Remembering Niki Lauda, 1949-2019

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Niki Lauda at the British Grand Prix in 2017. Photo courtesy Daimler media.

Three-time F1 champion and global motorsport icon Niki Lauda died on Monday, May 20, at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. The non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team had been in failing health since the beginning of the year, when he was treated for pneumonia. In August 2018, Lauda underwent a lung transplant, and in recent days was undergoing kidney dialysis in the Zurich hospital.

On August 1, 1976, while driving for Scuderia Ferrari in the German Grand Prix, Niki Lauda’s Ferrari 312T2 exited the Nürburgring circuit just before the Bergwerk corner, perhaps due to a rear suspension component failure. After striking an embankment, Lauda’s car, already on fire, returned to the racing surface where it was struck by a Surtees-Ford driven by Brett Lunger. In a surprising feat of heroism, a corner marshal and four drivers who climbed from their cars (including Lunger, Harald Ertl, Arturo Merzario and Guy Edwards) pulled Lauda from the flaming wreckage. They were successful, but not before Lauda suffered life-threatening burns to his lungs and face.

Though the Austrian driver was reportedly conscious following the crash, his injuries were so extensive that he soon lapsed into a coma. At the hospital, a priest was called to administer last rites, and few believed that the damage to Lauda’s lungs (caused by the inhalation of hot, toxic gases) would be repairable. If Lauda managed to survive these injuries, he still had second- and third-degree burns and the ever-present risk of infection to contend with. By the most optimistic of projections, he faced many months of recovery, assuming he survived at all.

Forty-three days later, defying all odds, Lauda climbed back behind the wheel of a Ferrari 312T2 at the Italian Grand Prix. Accounts of the day stated that blood was still weeping from bandages on his head, and that reconstructive surgeries to rebuild his right ear and right eyelid were still pending. Despite this, Lauda qualified fifth on the grid (two positions above his “replacement” at Ferrari, Carlos Reutemann, and four positions above his teammate, Clay Regazzoni) and ended the race in fourth position.

Perhaps more than Lauda’s 25 Formula 1 victories and three series championships, his recovery from near-fatal injuries during the 1976 season paints the picture of Niki Lauda the man and Niki Lauda the driver. Supremely talented and even more headstrong, Lauda always seemed to be struggling with something throughout his career, perhaps shaping his will to compete and his drive to win.

Born into a wealthy Austrian family in February of 1949, Lauda’s decision to begin racing cars was frowned upon, particularly by his grandfather. Progressing through the ranks from racing sedans to racing Formula Vees to racing sports cars, Lauda uncovered an opportunity to join the March Formula 2 team in 1971. There was, however, a catch: To get a seat, Lauda would need to bring sponsorship money with him, and a deal was quickly cut with an Austrian bank. Lauda’s grandfather soon opposed the deal, prompting the bank to withdraw its funding for Lauda’s blossoming career. In a supreme act of defiance, Lauda approached a second bank, taking a loan against his life insurance policy to produce the funding required to join the team.

By 1972, Lauda was driving for March in both Formula 2 and Formula 1, but only the team’s Formula 2 squad proved competitive. To advance his career, Lauda realized that a change in teams would be necessary, so he once again sought a bank loan to buy his way onto the BRM Formula 1 team. Though Lauda’s fortunes improved at BRM in 1973, where he scored two championship points compared to none with March in 1972, his fortunes changed when BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni re-upped with Ferrari for the 1974 season. Regazzoni spoke highly of Lauda, prompting the team to invite Lauda to Maranello.

Enzo Ferrari himself extended an offer for Lauda to drive with Scuderia Ferrari, telling him, “you are an unknown and nobody knows why you are so fast.” Hardly negotiating from a position of strength, Lauda accepted an offer that amounted to the modern equivalent of roughly $66,000 per season, and his first race with Ferrari was the 1974 season-opening Argentine Grand Prix. Lauda would finish fourth in the standings that season behind Regazzoni, Jody Scheckter, and Emerson Fittipaldi, but his six consecutive pole positions would speak of things to come in 1975.

Though the year began with underwhelming results in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, Lauda captured his first pole of the year in Spain. A collision at the start of the race ended Lauda’s day before the first corner, but his fortunes would change dramatically in Monaco, where Lauda would kick off a three-race winning streak. In the seven races that followed, Lauda scored two more victories and an additional three podium finishes, easily capturing his first F1 championship.

In the races leading up to Lauda’s 1976 crash at the Nürburgring, the Ferrari driver appeared poised to capture his second championship. The aftermath of the accident would also see the initial souring of Lauda’s relationship with Ferrari; literally giving him up for dead, Ferrari recruited Reutemann to replace Lauda for the remainder of the season. When Lauda announced his return to the cockpit at Monza, the team initially seemed indifferent about giving him a car to drive. Things would go from bad to worse at the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix: Still in contention for the championship, Lauda parked his Ferarri when the FIA failed to red-flag the race, held in a torrential downpour. Lauda’s safety protest handed the 1976 championship to James Hunt, prompting many fans to call for Lauda’s dismissal; some even went so far as to call Lauda a coward, despite the fact that the Austrian driver was back in the cockpit, as fast as ever, just six weeks after suffering his horrific crash.

The following season, 1977, dawned with Lauda being told he’d be second in the pecking order to Reutemann. At pre-season testing, Lauda was instructed to test brake pads while Reutemann tested tires, at least until Lauda threatened to walk away from his contract and join the McLaren F1 team. When the team relented, Lauda showed his merit by turning a quicker time in three laps than Reutemann had turned in a week of testing. Still, the writing was on the wall, and after clinching his second championship at the Italian Grand Prix, Lauda walked away from the team to sit out the season’s two remaining races.

Lauda would race for the Brabham Alfa-Romeo team in 1978 and 1979, but would finish fourth in the points the first year and 14th the following year. Frustrated with the team’s results, Lauda retired from F1 before the end of the 1979 season, preferring to spend his time running charter airline Lauda Air. His departure from the sport would be short-lived, however, as 1982 saw him return to the cockpit for McLaren. He’d drive for the team an additional three seasons, capturing his third world championship (by a mere half a point over Alain Prost) in 1984.

In business, as well as in racing, Lauda was widely regarded as a man unafraid to tackle a new challenge, regardless of how daunting it may seem, and utterly uncompromising on his principles. He sold his shares of Lauda Air in 1999 and four years later, started a second airline, Niki. This merged with German carrier Air Berlin in 2011, but was later taken over by another of Lauda’s ventures, LaudaMotion. Even in his later life, “tireless” was perhaps the best word to describe him.

A statement released by Lauda’s family read in part,

With deep sadness, we announce that our beloved Niki has peacefully passed away with his family on Monday. 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.