Courageous three-time F1 champion Niki Lauda dies at 70

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Niki Lauda MacKrys

Niki Lauda, one of the truly great drivers of the postwar period who was introduced to a new generation in Ron Howard’s 2013 movie Rush, died Monday, May 20, after an extended illness. He was 70.

Single-minded, brilliant, and with a determination that most people can’t imagine, Lauda was a three-time Formula 1 world champion, non-executive chairman of the world champion Mercedes F1 team, pilot, and successful businessman who helped create two different airlines.

“His unique successes as a sportsman and entrepreneur are and will stay in our memory,” the Lauda family said in a statement. “His tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness, and his courage remain a role model and standard for all of us. Away from the public, he was a loving and caring husband, father, and grandfather. We will miss him.”

Born February 22, 1949, Lauda was the son of a wealthy Austrian businessman who was staunchly opposed to his racing, so he had to launch and fund his early career without his family’s support. As is well-chronicled, his first competition experience came in a Mini before he climbed the ladder from Formula Vee to Formula III. Without any funding, the next rung—Formula II—was seemingly out of reach, but with only a life-insurance policy as collateral, he took out a substantial loan and bought a ride with the March F2 team for 1971.

As an excellent test driver, Lauda had a good rapport with designer Robin Herd, and his results were enough to secure both Formula 1 and Formula 2 rides with March for 1972. Unfortunately, Lauda’s mount was the unreliable 721X. For 1973, Lauda moved to BRM, but the car was only slightly better than the March he drove the prior year. Deeply in debt, an offer to drive for Ferrari in 1974 changed everything. With two wins, his career was looking up.

In 1975, lauda scored five wins and added four additional podium finishes, enough to propel him to the championship. The following year, Lauda faced fierce competition from McLaren’s James Hunt—their rivalry was the basis for Rush. Lauda started strong with seven podium finishes, including four wins. He won again in Britain before a horrific, firey crash in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, which left him hospitalized with life-threatening third-degree burns to his head and face, his lungs scarred from toxic gases.

Not expected to survive, Lauda was given last rites. Only 40 days later, however, after missing only two races, he returned for the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.

“Lying in bed ruminating about the ’Ring would have finished me,” Lauda wrote in his autobiography, To Hell and Back. “I said then and later that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly. That was a lie. But it would have been foolish to play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza, I was rigid with fear.”

Despite suffering from great pain and disfiguring scars, Lauda courageously battled on, and he held a three-point lead heading into the final race of the season in Japan. The race was plagued by torrential rain and poor visibility, and Lauda finally chose to retire before the checkered flag. Hunt won the championship.

Remaining with Ferrari, Lauda earned his second championship in 1977, thanks to 10 podium finishes, including three wins. The next year with the Parmalat (Brabham) Racing Team must have been frustrating, as he had only five finishes, all of which were on the podium. It only got worse in 1979 with 11 retirements and just two finishes. The season was followed by retirement, with Lauda concentrating on building his new Lauda Air charter airline.

By 1982, Lauda was back behind the wheel, this time with Marlboro Team McLaren. Although he had a pair of wins, he also experienced six retirements. The following year was another rough one, with eight retirements and a failure to qualify at Monaco. With the new TAG/Porsche turbo V-6 finally realizing its potential in 1984, Lauda scored five wins and four second-place finishes to secure his third world championship. After the following season, which included a frustrating 11 retirements, Lauda retired for a second time. In 171 career races, he won 25 times and reached the podium 54 times—nearly one-third of his starts.

Niki Lauda 1976 Ferrari 312 T2
Lothar Spurzem

Missing from an active role in Formula for nearly a decade, Lauda accepted a consulting position with the Ferrari Formula 1 team from his old team boss, Luca di Montezelemo, in 1993. In 2001 he joined the Jaguar Formula One Team as team principal, a position from which he was released in late 2002.

Since 2012, Lauda had been non-executive chairman of the Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 team, which has won five consecutive championships since 2014.

Instrumental in the negotiations that brought British superstar driver Lewis Hamilton—a five-time world champion—to Mercedes, Lauda was absent from the Mercedes pit wall beginning in August 2018, when he underwent a lung transplant. In early January 2019, he returned to the hospital suffering from influenza.

Lauda is survived by his second wife Birgit and their 9-year-old twins Max and Mia; two sons, Mathias and Luke, from his first wife Marlene Krause; and son Christoph, from a third relationship.

Tributes poured in from members of the racing community. Toto Wolff, team principal of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas racing team, hailed Lauda as a “guiding light.” Wolff said in a statement,”Niki will always remain one of the greatest legends of our sport—he combined heroism, humanity, and honesty inside and outside the cockpit. His passing leaves a void in Formula One. We haven’t just lost a hero who staged the most remarkable comeback ever seen, but also a man who brought precious clarity and candour to modern Formula One. He will be greatly missed as our voice of common sense. Niki, you are quite simple irreplaceable, there will never be another like you.”

McLaren tweeted, “Niki will forever be in our hearts and enshrined in our history.”

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