Remembering Austrian racing driver and aviation entrepreneur, Niki Lauda, who recently died aged 70.
On 1st August 1976, the German Grand Prix was held at the Nurburgring, there, Austrian driver, Niki Lauda, aimed to crown a wonderful season he had dominated so far in his Ferrari 312 T2 at the expenses of James Hunt and the McLaren.
As rain shower fell over the track just before the race, Lauda had chose rain tires to start competing, but this decision cost him lots of time, losing places to those who had opted for slicks, this made him stop and change his set to make up for lost ground, but then, as his still cold tires managed little grip on the damp road, he had that terrible accident at the Bergwerk curve where Lauda lost control of the car, hit the bank at the side of the track with his helmet missing, having been ripped off in the impact, and ended up at the other end of the track inside a burning cockpit as the car caught fire when fuel leaked out in the first impact.
Fellow drivers Harald Ertl, Guy Edwards and Brett Lunger stopped and quickly acted doing what they could to help Lauda, but it was ultimately Arturo Merzario who pulled him out of the flames, saving his life. The Austrian, world champion one year earlier, was in serious condition. The poisonous fumes he had inhaled were lethal, forcing him into intensive therapy and painful and specific procedures to get him back to normal.
Many believed the accident would result in his death, but it was actually what forever immortalised him in the Formula One history.
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The Austrian’s determination had him back on track in record time, missing out on that year’s title by a single point.
The horrific burns to his head caused Lauda to lose most of his right ear and much of his hair, eyebrows and eyelids, but that did not hold him back. He endured various stares, both curious and mean, to which he responded “I have an accident as an excuse to look ugly. Some people don’t have this excuse,” as he told journalist Graham Bensinger in a 2017 interview. He also wore his red baseball hat that he called his “protection for stupid people looking at me stupidly.”
One year after his accident he was crowned world champion, also winning at the new venue for the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. In 1984 he became a three-time Formula One world champion after a titanic battle with French racing driver and a four-time Formula One Drivers’ Champion, Alain Prost. There, Lauda eventually prevailed by half a point – the smallest margin in Formula One history.
In 1985, one year after his third world championship, Lauda retired and went on to found his own airline and dedicate time to his family. He later sold his Lauda Air shares to majority partner Austrian Airlines in 1999. After retirement he also worked as consultant at Ferrari and manager of the the Jaguar Formula One racing team, among other roles.
On May 20th, 2019, Niki Lauda died at the age of 70. He is survived by his second wife, Birgit, and their twin children Max and Mia. He also has two adult sons, Lukas and Mathias, from his first marriage. Though the he cause of death was not announced, Lauda underwent a lung transplant in Vienna last year, his doctor told the Associated Press; he also twice underwent kidney transplants, in 1997 and 2005.
Lauda’s family said in a statement: “His tireless drive, his straightforwardness and his courage remain an example and standard for us all. Away from the public gaze he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather. We will miss him very much.”
Lauda will be remembered by many for his remarkable comeback. It was this defiance that propelled him to the top of the auto racing world. He defied death, and became a legend because of it.