Andreas Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda was one of the greatest Formula One Drivers of all-time. He was a former three-time Formula One Driver’s champion, winning the title in 1975, 1977 and 1984. Over the course of his Formula One Career, Lauda had 24 victories, 54 podium finishes, 24 pole positions won and 24 fastest laps ran. He is the only driver in F1 history to win a world title while driving for Ferrari and McLaren.
Aside from being a Formula One driver, Lauda was an aviation entrepreneur. He founded three airlines: Lauda Air, Niki, and Lauda. He was also a brand ambassador for Bombardier Business Aircraft. He also became a consultant for Scuderia Ferrari and team manager of the Jaguar Formula One racing team. He also worked as a non-executive chairman Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motosport.
Formula One Career
Lauda’s Formula One career began in 1974 with Enzo Ferrari’s team. Ferrari had not seen a champion since 1964 and Enzo was impressed with Lauda’s confidence and work ethic. He rewarded his new employer by finishing second in his debut race at the 1974 Argentine Grand Prix. Three races later, Lauda won his first Grand Prix Race in the 1974 Spanish Grand Prix. It was Ferrari’s first victory since 1972.
The buck-toothed Austrian driver would later pick up six consecutive pole positions but because of his inexperience and mechanical reliability, he would win only one more race that season and finish 4th in the Drivers Championship at the end of the 1974 Formula One season.
After a slow start to the 1975 Formula One season where he didn’t finish better than fifth place in the first four races, Lauda stormed to victories in Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France, and the USA to win the Drivers Championships. Not only did he become the first Ferrari world champion in a decade, but he also gave Ferrari their first Constructors title in eleven years.
While Italy rejoiced their new-found hero and glory, Lauda was unsentimental about his victories. Claiming that his Grand Prix trophies were cluttering up his home in Austria, he gave them away to the local garages for free car service and car wash.
1976 looked like it was going to be 1975 all over again for Lauda. He won five races and was a shoo-in to repeat as world champion. Then came that unfateful day at the 1976 German Grand Prix at Nürburgring
The 1976 Nürburgring Crash
One week before the 1976 German Grand Prix, Niki Lauda launched a move to boycott the race mainly because of Nürburgring’s circuit safety arrangements. Lauda mentioned among others, the lack of fire marshals, fire and safety equipment and vehicles. His fellow drivers voted against the boycott and the race proceeded.
But Lauda’s protest against Nürburgring would become eerie because on the second lap of the actual race, at the very fast left kink before Bergwerk, Lauda’s Ferrari inexplicably swerved off the track, hit an embankment and then burst into flames and made contact with the Surtees-Ford car driven by Brett Lunger.
Lunger was able to escape his car but Lauda was trapped in the wreckage. Lunger and fellow drivers Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl rushed to the scene. Merzario was able to pull out Lauda from his burning car but the latter had already suffered severe burns to his head and suffered lung/blood damage after inhaling hot toxic gases.
Although he was conscious and able to stand up immediately after the incident, Lauda lapsed into a coma while he was being treated in the hospital. His condition had gotten to its worst when a priest was sent to administer him the Sacrament of the sick.
Lauda would suffer extensive scarring from the burns to his head. He lost most of his right ear, his hair on the right part of his head, his eyelids, and eyebrows. He underwent reconstructive surgery, but only limited, to repair his eyelids and make them work. From then on, he would wear a cap to cover the scars on his head.
A Miraculous Return
Six weeks later, he would make a miraculous return to racing. With blood seeping from the bandages on his forehead, Lauda would finish 4th in the Italian Grand Prix. Doctors said he had gotten better by sheer will power.
While Lauda was away, James Hunt ate into his lead and put himself three points behind Lauda entering the final race of the season. Lauda qualified for the Japanese Grand Prix but would retire after two laps citing unsafe driving conditions. Hunt would go on to place third and win the Driver’s Championship by a point.
Lauda’s relationship with Ferrari began to sour after his decision to retire in the Japanese Grand Prix. He was called a coward in Italy and Enzo Ferrari thought of replacing him. All these reactions angered Lauda and he would go on to win the Drivers’ Championship in 1977.
Despite that, he left Ferrari for Brabham-Alfa Romeo for a $1M salary. He won twice and finished fourth in the Drivers standings in 1978. The following year, he only scored four points in an “uncompetitive car”. Then after the first practice season of the final race of the year, Lauda said he had no more desire to “drive around circles” and walked out from the sport.
Founding Lauda Air
After announcing his retirement, he returned to Austria and founded Lauda Air, a charter airline. With Lauda serving as one of its pilots, Lauda Air didn’t just click as a business but it grew too fast that it would require more capital. Because of that, Niki decided to go back to his old and lucrative profession.
In 1982 he signed a reported $5M deal to drive for McLaren. At that time, it was the richest contract ever signed in Formula One. During the negotiations, Lauda told McLaren that his driving fee was just $1 and the rest was a payment to his personality. He would reciprocate the rich deal with his third world championship in 1984. He won a final Grand Prix in 1985 before retiring for good as a driver. But he never left the paddock.
Lauda would work as an adviser for Ferrari, then served as a team principal for Jaguar and would later become a television commentator. Prior to the 2013 Formula One season, he became Non-Executive Chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, board member of Mercedes AMG Powertrains and special adviser to the Board of Daimler AG.
He was inducted to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993 and in 2005, the Austrian Post Office issued a stamp in his honor. ESPN ranked Lauda as the #22 Greatest Driver of All-Time. Lauda wrote five books with the help of Austrian journalist Herbert Volker. His 1976 Formula One battle with James Hunt was made a movie in 2013 and the film was entitled “Rush” with Daniel Brühl playing the role of Lauda. Lauda has a cameo appearance at the end of the movie. He also appeared on an episode of the series Air Crash Investigation which featured the events of Lauda Flight 004.
Niki Lauda’s Death
On May 20, 2019, Niki Lauda “passed away peacefully”, his family said. He nearly died last year with lung complications. But Lauda survived yet another brush with death and underwent a successful double lung transplant. He also had kidney transplants in 1997 and 2005. He also had kidney problems last year and had been undergoing dialysis in a private clinic. He was also hospitalized earlier this year with influenza.
With his death, Lauda leaves a legacy of greatness and the sheer determination to overcome a near-death accident and return to the top of his game. Not only did he succeed again in his racing career, but he built a business empire with his airline business and management roles. According to celebritynetworth, Niki Lauda had a net worth of $200M.