The week started on a sombre note with the death of three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda. The legendary F1 driver left for the heavenly abode leaving behind stories of inspiration for an entire generation, some of which may seem downright fiction. The most famous of which is the crash at the Nurburgring in 1976 that almost killed him. He was all of 27 years then, and was given his last rites on the hospital bed while being treated for severe burns. But, racer that he was not only emerged from that accident but was back in the racing seat in six weeks against the advice of his doctors. Stubborn, arrogant but extremely resilient!
Niki Lauda was born as Andreas Nikolaus on February 22, 1949, in Vienna, Austria into a wealthy family. Unlike his family who were industrialists, Niki had a passion for cars, which drove him into motorsport. The Lauda family patriarch Hans Lauda, known as "Old Lauda," was also quoted saying "A Lauda should be on the economic pages of the newspaper, not the sports pages." However, Niki's passion for automobiles and disinterest in formal education wasn't kindly within the family.
The young Lauda though was stubborn, a quality that found him friends and naysayers throughout his life, and pursued his passion on his own accord. His racing career began in 1968 and was actually funded by bank loans that were easy to secure given his heavyweight family name. The loans helped Niki to survive through Formula Vee and sports car racing in his initial years, before he secured his first drive in Formula 3. He was buried in debt up to his neck by the time he started F3, only to crash his car within the first five minutes of his debut practice session.
By 1971, Lauda paid to drive in F2 and the Bicester-based March team accepted 20,000 Pounds to let the Austrian behind the wheel. The following year, he managed to convince the March team to race in F1 and F2 races, all of which were being funded on loans. His debt mounted to 160,000 Pounds before he found a seat with BRM team, who took him on in 1973. Lauda was looking for that opportunity to showcase his talents and he certainly showed pace finishing fifth in the Belgium GP. He performance convinced BRM boss Louis Stanley about Lauda's potential, who put him on a salary instead of Lauda paying for the drive.
It was in the same year that Niki Lauda was contacted by Enzo Ferrari, who was looking drivers for the revitalised Ferrari team. The 1974 season turned out to b a game changer for Ferrari and Lauda. The 25-year-old took his first wins in Spain and the Netherlands, while setting him up for his first world championship title for the next year. In 1975, the Ferrari 312T managed to unlock Lauda's full potential earning him nine pol positions and five victories at Monaco, Anderstorp, Zolder, Le Castellet and Watkins Glen. Lauda beat defending world champion Emerson Fittipaldi to take his first title by a healthy margin of 20 points.
It was no looking back for Lauda who seemed well on his way to take his second world title in 1976. However, another young racer and quite popular with the press - James Hunt - was making all the right moves that year and turned out to be quite the competition for Niki. The Lauda-Hunt rivalry went on to become one of the most legendary in the history of F1. But that year had something else entirely in store for the Austrian.
It was during the German Grand Prix that year when the infamous crash at Nurburgring occurred. Niki's Ferrari's caught fire after hitting a bank at high speeds in a race that he warned was too dangerous given the torrential rain that day. He advice that there wasn't enough safety equipment to handle accidents were ignored, only for Lauda to be caught in the middle of it all. He was trapped in the burning vehicle for almost a minute before being pulled out by other drivers.
It was nothing short of a miracle when Lauda made a comeback in the Italian Grand Prix in Monza just six weeks after. It was from hereon that the Niki started wearing the baseball cap that became his trademark look, having suffered second and third degree burns over his head, face and hands, and damaged lungs due to inhaling toxic fumes. Lauda finished fourth in Monza and continued to keep the title fight alive until the last race in Japan. The heavy rainstorm during the Japanese GP made it nearly impossible for him to drive and he retired just after two laps. Hunt went on to win his only championship title that year by a minimal difference in points.
The incident did pull the nerves at Ferrari but Lauda won the F1 championship for the second time in 1977 for the team. Lauda and Ferrari eventually split ways the following year when he went on to join Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham racing and took two wins at Anderstorp and Monza. However, the second year at Brabhams was dull and Lauda decided to retire, ending his first stint in the premier-class championship.
Niki used his time and energy to fund his second passion that was aviation post his retirement. Flying, he would often say would keep him disciplined that helped his analytical mind to sharpen further. The trait often appreciated by those who worked with him. He founded Lauda Air in 1979 and eventually sold in 2002 to Austrian Airlines for a profit. Meanwhile, he made his return to F1 with McLaren in 1982, and would go on to take his third world championship in 1984 by half a point over his young teammate Alain Prost. He retired the following year from F1 only to take more diverse roles in the sport.
In the past three decades, Lauda wore multiple hats that of a television commentator, a consultant for Ferrari in 1993 and a team principal for the Jaguar team in 2001. In 2012, he joined Mercedes as a non-executive chairman and was instrumental in bringing Lewis Hamilton to the team, who has since taken four world titles with Mercedes.
In his career in F1, Niki also earned the nickname of 'The Rat' due to his bucked teeth. Lauda saw the humour in it more than some of his fans did and even recalled that Hunt had said that he looked better after the accident. Probably, one of the most prime examples of Lauda's doggedness was him not getting cosmetic surgery for his burn scars. Instead, he allowed companies to sponsor on the caps he wore instead.
Niki also overcame internal injuries in recent years including two kidney transplants in 1997 and 2009. He underwent a lung transplant in 2018, after having infections from inhaling the toxic fumes, 42 years after the incident. Lauda wrote two book in his lifetime - The Art and Technicalities of Grand Prix Driving (1977) and To Hell and Back (1986), and was even depicted on celluloid in the much acclaimed movie Rush in a very accurate representation by actor Daniel Bruhl.