Icon Series: Niki Lauda
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
This article was originally published on May 22nd, 2019.
Earlier this week the motorsport community lost one of its biggest names, Niki Lauda passed away aged 70. Nine months after undergoing a lung transplant.
He was also a pilot and successful businessman, who set up two airlines and continued to occasionally captain their planes into his late 60s.
However, he will be remembered most of all for the remarkable bravery and resilience he showed in recovering from a fiery crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix at the fearsome Nurburgring.
Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born in Vienna on February 22, 1949, to Ernst-Peter and Elisabeth Lauda. Niki and his brother, Florian, grew up in one of Austria’s leading families. Their paternal grandfather, Hans Lauda, had built a papermaking empire.
Niki was a bright but lazy student, and his parents wanted him to go into the family business. However, cars became his passion. As a schoolboy, he drove an uncle’s BMW around the paper mill yard, and at 14 he had started taking Volkswagens apart.
At 18, he quit school, borrowed money to buy a Mini Cooper, and got into mountain racing. He began racing in earnest and won eight races at a low level of competition.
In a bid to create a racing career Lauda parlayed family wealth and a life insurance policy into a $30,000 bank loan. However, Lauda’s grandfather sat on the board of the bank and stepped in to stop the deal.
“He said, ‘No way. If this is my grandson, you will not sponsor him,’” Lauda said in 2013. “I really got upset with him and said, ‘Leave me alone, it is my own business.’ Then I started racing my own way.” He would never to his grandfather again.
Despite the roadblock he was able to use the bank loan to buy his drives with March in Formula 2. After success in the lower categories, Lauda bought his way into F1 in 1971. It was a bold and desperate ploy which in later years he admitted should never have worked.
He made his debut at 22 for the March F1 team at the Austrian Grand Prix in 1971, before taking a second loan to move to BRM two years later.
It was the move that made his career. He impressed team-mate Clay Regazzoni, and when the Swiss was signed by Ferrari for 1974, he recommended Lauda. Enzo Ferrari, the aging head of the Italian motor car company, offer him a drive with the Scuderia in 1974.
Lauda, in his usual unapologetic manner, started the deal off in the only way he knew how.
“I remember my first test in Fiorano,” Lauda recalls. “I drove the first couple of laps and (team founder) Enzo Ferrari was there and Piero his son to translate.
“Ferrari said, ‘So kid what do you think of this car?’
“I said the car was s**t. And Piero said, ‘You cannot say this. You cannot tell my father that the car is s**t because he will throw you out. Tell him it’s no good, it sounds a little better.’
“He told him and the old man really got upset because I criticized a Ferrari.”
Lauda’s career took off with Ferrari, as did his win count. His first of 25 career wins came in 1974 with Ferrari. As he went on to win two of the 15 races that year.
He would follow this up by winning five of the 14 races in 1975, to get his first F1 championship title.
The 1976 season was going just as well and appeared to be cruising to a second consecutive world title until the German Grand Prix in August. Lauda had expressed some safety concerns about the race and tried to get drivers to boycott it, but there weren’t enough votes in his favor.
They raced and he had exactly the sort of accident he had predicted. A suspected suspension failure pitched his Ferrari into the barriers at the Bergwerk corner, and as his stricken car was hit by others his helmet was torn off and he lay trapped in the cockpit as the car caught fire.
His life was saved by fellow racers Brett Lunger, Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards, and Harald Ertl, plus some brave marshals, as they rushed into the flames and pulled him from the wreckage.
He suffered severe burns to his hands, scalp, forehead, and ears. While he had also inhaled flames and toxic extinguisher powder, which had caused damage to his lungs.
Despite being read his last rites Lauda railed at such an apparent impertinence and decided that he was not going to die that day.
"For three or four days it was touch and go," Lauda later recalled.
He had a series of operations and skin grafts that left permanent scarring on his head. He lost part of his right ear, the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows, and both eyelids. He chose to limit reconstructive surgery to the eyelids, and thereafter wore a red baseball cap to cover the worst disfigurements. But he began talking, walking, and making plans for his return to racing.
Despite doubts he would survive or indeed ever race again, Lauda’s determination to do so was extraordinary and just six weeks later he was back in the cockpit of a Ferrari at the Italian GP.
Wearing bloody bandages over the burns on his face and a special helmet, and fighting tear-duct damage that impacted his vision, he finished a heroic fourth and kept his world title hopes alive.
By the end of the race, his unhealed wounds had soaked his fireproof balaclava in blood. When he tried to remove the balaclava, he found it was stuck to his bandages and had to resort to ripping it off in one go. The BBC called his quick return to racing "one of the bravest acts in the history of sport."
Against all odds, he began winning again. In the final race of the season Lauda was still leading rival James Hunt, by three points, for the championship title.
However, going into the race in Japan it was raining heavily, to the point that Lauda and others didn’t feel safe racing.
Pressure from television rights made the race go forward, and Lauda said he’d do one lap before quitting because it wasn’t worth it to race in those conditions. Ferrari remonstrated with him and tried to convince him to race, but he refused, and Hunt took the third place he needed to win the title by one point.
“I was spokesman for the drivers then, and I stood up and said: ‘Are you guys fucking crazy? The rain has not stopped. It’s got worse. You cannot do this.’ But the guy insisted. For me it was ridiculous. Because of a stupid TV deal we had to go out there and risk our lives. No one could see anything. It was a disaster.
“So then I decided for myself that television was not a good enough reason for me to race. So I told Ferrari beforehand I would do one lap, which I did, and then I stopped. I have no regrets. I would do the same again. But I have to say that without my accident, maybe, I would have had the reserves to do it.”
“I went to the airport. I told this Japanese taxi driver to listen to the radio and tell me who had won the title. And exactly when the end of the race came on the radio he drove through the tunnel of the airport and the radio stopped. And when we came out, it was over. Who won? I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. But then, as we came up the ramp to the airport, there was a Ferrari man who wanted to say goodbye. And I looked at his face and I knew straight away. ‘Fuck,’ I thought. And he said, yes, Hunt was world champion. So I went home.”
The battle between Lauda and Hunt has been turned into a Hollywood film, but it misrepresented them as enemies. In fact, Lauda and Hunt were close friends. So much so they had next-door rooms that weekend in Japan and, on race morning, with Hunt in bed with a girlfriend, Lauda goose-stepped into the room and barked out: "Today, I vin the Vorld Championship."
Driving Around in Circles
The next year in 1977, Lauda clinched his second-career championship 14 races into the 16-race schedule. His relationship with Ferrari management had gone downhill, due to a lack of support following the Nurburgring crash.
Lauda decided to skip the last two races of the season because he’d already won the title. At the time, Lauda told Ferrari he was leaving for eventual F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team.
Enzo Ferrari apparently calling him a traitor for leaving the Italian motor car company.
The Brabham was beautiful to look at, but its Alfa Romeo engine was uncompetitive, and Lauda began to lose interest in F1. At the Canadian Grand Prix, the penultimate race of the 1979 season, he got out of his car part-way through a practice session and told Ecclestone he was retiring, saying he was "bored of driving around in circles".
He was on a plane home by the time the paddock realized it was the Argentine driver Riccardo Zunino driving the car, wearing his gear.
After retiring he would turn to aviation, creating his own airline Lauda air. He would return to Austria to run his airline full-time.
Just over two years later he had been tempted out of retirement by McLaren boss Ron Dennis, as he needed more money for the airline.
He would sign with McLaren for a reported $5 million, by far the most lucrative contract in the sport at the time. In his negotiations Lauda told the McLaren bosses he was only charging one dollar for his services as a driver, all the rest was for his personality.
It didn't take long for him to get back into winning ways, winning on only his third race back, in Long Beach, California.
Lauda went on to win the 1984 F1 title
In 1984, McLaren was dominant with the new MP4/2, powered by a Porsche engine. Lauda was out-paced by new team-mate Alain Prost but won five races to Prost's seven, most as a result of the Frenchman's bad luck or retirement, and clinched his third title by half a point, the closest margin in history.
He stayed for one more year, 1985, when he was uncompetitive but still managed to win in the Netherlands, holding off a charge from Prost, before finally calling it a day for good, aged 36. At the end of it all, he’d been in the sport for 13 seasons, competed in more than 170 races, and won 25 times.
The end of Lauda's driving career, though, did not mean the end of his links with F1.
He worked as a Ferrari F1 advisor, a Jaguar F1 team principal, and a TV commentator before becoming a non-executive chairperson for Mercedes before the 2013 season, according to F1. Lauda was said to have been a big factor in convincing Lewis Hamilton to join Mercedes for 2013, where Hamilton has won four championships since.
The end of Lauda's driving career, though, did not mean the end of his links with F1.
In 1993, Montezemolo offered him a consulting role at Ferrari, though that did not last long into the management of the team's new boss that year, Jean Todt, who went on to mastermind the dominant Michael Schumacher era.
In 2001, Lauda took charge of the Ford-owned Jaguar team, only to be sacked at the end of 2002 along with 70 other key figures when the performance failed to improve.
From then, he largely combined running his new airline Niki, founded in 2003, after the sale of Lauda Air to Austrian Airlines in 1999, with an analyst's role on the German TV channel RTL's F1 coverage.
But it was in his role as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team from 2012 that he found further success, working closely with team boss Toto Wolff. Theirs was a difficult relationship initially, Wolff reportedly fined him every time he used the word 'I' instead of 'we,' but subsequently melded into one of the most sensational partnerships in history. No other team has won either the drivers’ or constructors’ world championship since the turbo-hybrid formula was inaugurated in 2014, and the Silver Arrows of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas lead the series this year, too.
Off the Grid
No story of Niki Lauda better summarises what sort of man he was than the crash in which Lauda Air Flight 004 from Bangkok to Austria perished on May 26 1991, when an engine on this Boeing 767 deployed reverse thrust of its own accord. All 213 passengers and the 10 crew members on board were killed.
“If I make a mistake and die in a race car, tough luck,” Lauda said.
“That’s my fault. But the people who fly with me have the right to expect safe travel.”
He took on Boeing, threatening if they did not make a full statement about the cause of the incident to fly a 767 over Seattle and demonstrate that it was not, after all, safe to select reverse thrust in flight. By the time he had got back to his hotel, Boeing had capitulated.
For many years, Lauda also championed safer racecar and track designs and urged tighter controls over driving conditions and rules governing race organizers.
“Racing on substandard tracks or in unsafe weather doesn’t test courage,” Lauda told The Boston Globe in 1977. “At present, some of the Grand Prix circuits we drivers are asked to race on do not fulfill the most primitive safety requirements. Also, the decision to call off or stop a race can’t be left entirely to the organizers, who too often put prestige before the safety of the drivers. We need independent experts whose authority should be supreme.”
Over the years, in response to deadly crashes and the increasing power of engines, sanctioning organizations have mandated many changes in safety regulations and technology, including electronic driver aids and grooved tires, to improve the road grip and cornering controls of cars, as well as rules limiting racing in extreme weather conditions to minimize dangers of aquaplaning. Tracks have been redesigned and stronger barriers built to increase the safety of spectators. Major accidents in Formula One racing have steadily declined.
But like the other greats who have left us, this great warrior will live forever in our hearts and our memories and will echo in the fond imitations we will inevitably enact over the coming years. And just like the scars he bore with such pride, humility, and dignity, the marks he left in the record books and in the annals of motorsport history will never fade.