He bought his way into Formula 1 racing and very nearly paid for it with his life. Given up for dead after an appalling accident he recovered by what the medical profession called sheer force of will. His astonishingly quick return to the cockpit was called the most courageous comeback in sporting history. After winning two championships he got bored and left the sport, only to return again and win another. During his remarkable career he was called both a hero and a villain. The battle-scarred champion who defied both the odds and convention remains a sporting legend.
On February 22, 1949, Nicholas Andreas Lauda was born in Vienna into a prominent Austrian business and banking dynasty. Paper manufacturing was how Niki's father made his fortune, though none of it would be made available for a contrary son who would surely bring the respected Lauda name into disrepute by playing at being a racing driver. To further educate himself in this field Niki forsook university and enrolled himself in racing's school of hard knocks, paying for it with money borrowed from Austrian banks. Starting in a Mini in 1968, he crashed his way through Formula Vee and Formula Three and in 1972 he bought his way into the March Formula Two and Formula One teams with another bank loan secured by his life insurance policy. The uncompetitive Marches meant Niki was unable to prove his worth as a driver, let alone stave off pending bankruptcy. With no qualifications in any other line of work he had no choice but to keep on racing.
For 1973 he talked his way into a complicated rent-a-ride deal with BRM. During that season his ever-improving results paid dividends in the form of a new contract that would forgive his debts in exchange for Niki staying with BRM for a further two years. Instead, he bought his way out of BRM with money from his new employer Enzo Ferrari, for whom he went to work in 1974.
Ferrari, who hadn't had a champion since John Surtees in 1964, was impressed by the skinny, buck-toothed Austrian's self-confidence and no-nonsense work ethic, though rather taken aback by his brutal honesty. After his first test in the 1974 Ferrari 312 Niki informed Enzo that the car was "a piece of shit," but promised him he could make it raceworthy. Now in the spotlight as a possible Ferrari saviour, the media noted Lauda's cool, calculating clinical approach and nicknamed him 'The Computer.' However, The Computer's driving still had some glitches and he made several costly errors in 1974. Niki said that learning from mistakes was the fastest way to improve, corroborating this theory with a first Formula One victory in Spain, then another in Holland.
In his 1975 Ferrari 312/T Niki stormed to victories in Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France and the USA to become World Champion. All of Italy rejoiced at Ferrari's first driving title in over a decade, though the glory meant little to the unsentimental new hero. Claiming that his mounting collection of "useless" trophies was cluttering up his home in Austria, he gave them to the local garage in exchange for free car washes.
By mid-summer 1976 he had won five races and seemed a shoo-in to repeat as champion. Then came the German Grand Prix at the desperately dangerous Nurburgring. On the second lap Lauda's Ferrari inexplicably crashed and burst into flames. Four brave drivers and a marshal plunged into the towering inferno and hauled out the smouldering body. In hospital, with first to third degree burns on his head and wrists, several broken bones and lungs scorched from inhaling toxic fumes, Niki Lauda was given up for dead and administered the last rites by a priest.
Six weeks later, with blood seeping from the bandages on his head, he finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. Astonished doctors said he had recovered by sheer force of will. Jackie Stewart said it was the most courageous comeback in the history of sport. Niki said the loss of half an ear made it easier to use the telephone. In consideration of those who found his facial disfigurement unsightly he thereafter wore a red baseball cap, hiring it out to a sponsor for a hefty fee.
The 1976 championship ended in a showdown between Niki and McLaren's James Hunt at Japan's Fuji circuit in torrential rain. Niki decided it was too dangerous to race and pulled out, handing the title to his friend Hunt, who said Niki's withdrawal was an act of bravery. In Italy some called him a coward. Even Enzo Ferrari had doubts and made plans to replace him, a reaction that angered Niki and made his winning the 1977 driving title a form of revenge. Having clinched the championship with two races remaining, Niki decided to skip them and told Ferrari he was leaving. Enzo called him a traitor for moving to Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team.
In his 1978 season with Brabham Niki won twice and finished fourth in the championship. The next year, in an uncompetitive car, he had scored only four points prior to the penultimate race, in Canada. There, after the first practice session, he walked away from Formula One racing, saying he was "tired of driving around in circles" and would now start his own airline.
Lauda Air, with its proprietor serving as one of the pilots, grew to the point that further progress would require more capital, in pursuit of which Niki returned to his previous profession. In 1982 he signed with McLaren for a reported US$5 million, the most lucrative contract in Formula One history. In his negotiations Niki told the McLaren money men he was only charging one dollar for his services as a driver - all the rest was for his personality. In 1984 he won his third driving title, albeit by the slimmest of margins from his brilliant young McLaren team mate Alain Prost. Niki won a final Grand Prix in 1985 then retired from the sport for good as a driver, though he never really left the paddock.
He worked as an adviser for Ferrari, served as a Jaguar team principal and became a television commentator - a role for which he was uniquely qualified to provide insights into the highs and lows of the sport he was lucky to survive and brilliant enough to conquer.
Prior to the 2013 season Niki Lauda added yet more titles to his extensive collection when he became Non-Executive Chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, board member of Mercedes AMG Powertrains and special adviser to the Board of Daimler AG.
Still wearing his famous red cap he quickly established himself as a highly valued member of the Mercedes F1 effort. Among his contributions was persuading budding superstar Lewis Hamilton to drive for the superbly efficient team that went on to dominate the decade.
He had seemed indestructible, but the valiant Austrian’s health deteriorated. He underwent transplants: twice for kidneys and in 2018 for a lung damaged in his nearly fatal accident. On 20 May, 2019, 70-year-old Niki Lauda passed away peacefully in hospital. His funeral in Vienna was attended by many drivers and dignitaries who paid solemn tribute to one of the sport’s greatest heroes.
Text - Gerald Donaldson
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