After famously cheating death in an 800-degree fireball in 1976, Niki Lauda passed away peacefully in his sleep in a hospital in Zurich, surrounded by family members in 2019.
But who was the man who defied death and the odds to become one of the most legendary racing drivers of all time? Who was racing car driver Niki Lauda? Lauda’s death left the world without a man who gave so much to the sport of motor racing, who revolutionized it and brought joy to the fans. His bravery, his level-headedness, perseverance and ingenuity will be his legacy.
Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born on February 22nd, 1949, in Vienna, Austria to a wealthy paper manufacturing family. His family objected to his becoming a race car driver, but he had a favourite uncle who helped fund him at the start of his career, but his family continued to object, and they became estranged.
He started racing in Formula V in 1969. This is not an unusual route for future Formula 1 driver to take, and Niki was successful in this endeavour. He then borrowed $30 000 for a drive in Formula 2 for the March team. They were so impressed with his skill that they soon promoted Lauda to their Formula 1 team. Although he had a fairly good season, it was clear that the March cars were not winners. He, therefore, moved on to British Racing Motors. BRM was no longer at its peak, and it was not long before Enzo Ferrari noticed this young and talented driver and signed him up to drive for Ferrari for the 1974 season.
Lauda finished fourth in that season’s Drivers’ Championship. The 1975 season was even better as he won the championship and later called this his dream year. The win came not only from a superior car and talented driver combination but also from Lauda’s hard work with Ferrari engineers to improve the car. While this is fairly common in F1 these days, it was unheard of in the 1970s.
By the time the German Grand Prix came around in the 1976 season, Lauda was in top position, with twice as many points as his two closest challengers, Jody Scheckter and James Hunt. He was expected to raise the trophy for the second year.
Ball of Fire
But it would be that GP that altered Lauda’s life forever – and also the sport of Formula 1. Before race day at Nuremberg, Niki Lauda had been campaigning to have the safety of the infamous Nurnberg Ring enhanced. A week ahead of the race, he made a plea to the other drivers to boycott the race!
His instincts told him not to race that day, but he steeled himself and drove. During the second lap at the very fast left kink before Bergwerk, Lauda’s Ferrari 312T2 swerved off the track, hit an embankment, burst into flames and made contact with Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford car. Unlike Lunger, Lauda was trapped in the wreckage. Several drivers arrived at the scene a few moments later, but before he was pulled from his car (after 55 agonizing seconds in the inferno), Lauda suffered severe burns to his head and inhaled hot toxic gases that damaged his lungs and blood. As Lauda was wearing a modified helmet because it didn’t fit him properly, the foam had compressed and it slid off his head after the accident, leaving his face exposed to the fire. Although Lauda was conscious and able to stand immediately after the accident, he later fell into a coma. He was given the last rites in the hospital.
Although he suffered severe burn injuries on his head and hand, a mostly-missing right ear, concussion, broken clavicle and other fractures, lungs filled with toxic gasses and had reconstructive surgery done to allow his eyelids to function properly, Lauda missed only two races before making his comeback at the Italian GP in Monza 6 weeks later where he finished fourth. He lost the championship title to Hunt that year by a single point, but his withdrawal from horrendously wet-race conditions in the Japan finale showed that Mr. Lauda believed his life to be more important than just another championship win after all he had been through over the season.
It also showed that he was a survivor who wasn’t ready to give up. He went on to win two more championship titles – in 1977 with Ferrari again and 1984 with McLaren – before finally retiring in 1985. Even though he wanted to concentrate on his other business ventures – he owned and managed 3 airline companies (LaudaAir, Niki and LaudaMotion), he never completely left the racing world.
In the subsequent years, he occupied several managerial roles with Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes and formed a close bond with Lewis Hamilton, whom he helped bring on to Mercedes and often supported and counselled. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993 and lent his expertise to broadcasting when he commented on racing for TV broadcasts from 1996 onwards.
His passion for the sport of Formula 1 was always evident to those around Mr. Lauda, whether he was behind the wheel, researching technology, or calling strategy from the side of the track. Acclaimed not only for his incredible racing skills but also his methodical approach to the mechanics of driving, Lauda earned himself the esteemed nickname “The Computer Brain” by the press. He was constantly refining his technique, at a time when many of his contemporaries took a more ‘no-guts-no-glory’ approach on the racetrack.
Niki Lauda was fearless, exhibiting unwavering competitiveness on and off the track. In fact, Lauda’s sheer determination to win led him to what many consider to be the greatest comeback in motorsports history after the 1976 crash. Many members of the racing community (especially team members) looked up to Lauda and regarded him as a mentor and friend, including greats like Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.
People who knew Lauda personally describe him as humble, practical, matter-of-fact and straightforward. There was no arrogance about him. He was warm, friendly, direct and wickedly funny, his humor often directed at himself or at puncturing some of the pomposity that can sometimes infect Formula 1.
He was a man of integrity and he was respected as much for his character as for his achievements – and it was reflected in the racing community after he passed away.
CRS Automotive honors Niki Lauda – a man who changed the sport of motor racing and held a place in history.
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