F1 legend Niki Lauda dies aged 70

by James Attwood, Autocar UK 21 May 2019

Tributes have been paid to three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda, who has died at the age of 70. The Austrian underwent a double lung transplant last year, and was hospitalised with pneumonia earlier this year. In a statement to Austrian media, his family said: “With deep sadness, we announce that our beloved Niki has peacefully passed away with his family on Monday.

"His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain.”

Ferrari, with which Lauda won two titles, tweeted that the Austrian would “remain forever in our hearts.”

Born in Vienna, Austria, Lauda initially started racing a Mini, to the disapproval of his wealthy family. He soon moved into the single-seater Formula Vee series, and also raced in sports cars. He took out a bank loan to secure a drive with March in Formula Two in 1971, and made his Formula 1 debut with the team in his home race that season. He drove full-time for the team the following year, and after a season at BRM his career took off with a move to Ferrari  for 1974.

Lauda claimed his first race win in Spain that year, adding a second in the Dutch Grand Prix. He missed out on the title, but dominated the following season in the Ferrari 312T, winning five races on his way to the world championship.

Lauda was leading the points midway through the following season when he crashed heavily in the German Grand Prix at the Nordschleife. He was saved by rival drivers who dragged him from his burning car, but suffered third-degree burns to his head and face, and inhaled toxic gases that damaged his lungs. A priest delivered the last rites to him in hospital.

But Lauda survived, and amazingly returned to the sport 40 days later, having only missed two races, finishing a remarkable fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. He just dropped short of McLaren’s James Hunt in the title race by a single point. 

Lauda secured his second title the following season, but having fallen out with Enzo Ferrari quit the team and joined Brabham for 1978. He retired at the end of the following season, to focus on running his growing Lauda Air airline, but eventually returned to the sport with McLaren in 1982.

He won his third race back, and in 1984 edged team-mate Alain Prost by half-a-point to claim his third championship, before retiring again at the end of the following season.

After retirement, Lauda continued to run Lauda Air, while returning to the sport as an advisor to Ferrari, and later to run Jaguar Racing in 2001. He also worked as a TV analyst, before taking on a management role with Mercedes in 2012, helping build the foundations for the team’s current dominance. He played a key role in signing Lewis Hamilton.

Photo: Courtesy Mercedes-Benz

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