It takes a man of exceptional courage and willpower to come back from a near-fatal crash and go on to clinch two more victories in the most gruelling form of motorsport. Niki Lauda, who died at the age of 70 yesterday, did just that.
Lauda’s life has been all about three things; money, racing and courage. He used money to get into F1, and used racing to make more money. He nearly died in a horrific crash, but was back from a coma into the cockpit to race again with his third-degree burns still fresh and bleeding; described by Jackie Stewart as the most courageous comeback in the history of sport.
Born Nicholas Andreas Lauda into a wealthy Austrian business family, Niki would never have been in need of money, if only he had gone down the path his father had chosen for him. But young Niki was clear about what he wanted and turned his back on studies as well as his father’s wealth. He chose motor racing.
With cash borrowed from various banks, he started racing in a Mini in 1968, and three years later bought his way into the March F2 and F1 teams using still more borrowed money. After a disappointing F1 season in 1972, he took out more loans to strike a deal with BRM racing team, where he started proving his driving abilities.
Deep in debt, he was staring at the possibility of being bound by a two-year contract with BRM, when a friend’s recommendation got him a surprise offer from Enzo Ferrari in 1974. With all his liabilities written off, Lauda could concentrate on his driving and went on to become F1 world champion in 1975 driving his Ferrari 312T to GP wins in Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France and the USA.
Having won five races before summer, Lauda looked to be well on track to repeat the feat in 1976 when he started out on the German GP at the treacherous Nürburgring Nordschleife. But, on the second lap, his car crashed and exploded. Trapped in the wreckage, Lauda suffered severe burns to his head and hands and damaged his lungs after inhaling the poisonous fumes.
Not one to give up easily, the unrelenting Niki was back on the race track just six weeks later, finishing the Italian Grand Prix in fourth place. In the final race of the season at Japan’s Fuji circuit, Niki, who was three points ahead of McLaren’s James Hunt in the championship standings, decided it was unsafe to drive in the heavy rain and pulled out after the second lap. Hunt won the title, but Lauda fell out of favour with Enzo, who was already planning to replace him with Gilles Villeneuve. Peeved at this move, Lauda drove in anger to win the 1977 driver’s title with two races remaining and left Ferrari skipping the last two GPs to join Bernie Ecclestone’s team Brabham.
Finishing fourth in the 1978 season and failing to impress in the next season, he retired from Formula 1 to start his own airline business. But a couple of years later, when he needed more money to fund his business, he turned to F1 again, signing a multi-million-dollar deal with McLaren in 1982. In 1984, he beat teammate Alain Prost to win his third F1 driver’s title, and a year later, having proven himself yet again, he left the track for good.
Niki Lauda was as astute a businessman as he was a legendary driver — he made millions of euros just by allowing sponsors to advertise on the trademark red cap he wore to mask his battle scars.
In August last year, Lauda underwent an emergency lung transplant in a Vienna hospital after contracting an infection in his lungs, which were still damaged by the effects of toxic fumes from the 1976 accident.
As a towering gladiator leaves the arena, he will be sorely missed by fans of motorsport.