Three-time Formula One world champion Niki Lauda, who won two of his titles after a horrific crash that left him with serious burns and went on to become a prominent figure in the aviation industry, has died. He was 70.
The Austria Press Agency quoted Lauda’s family as saying he “passed away peacefully” on Monday. Walter Klepetko, a doctor who performed a lung transplant on Lauda last year, said Tuesday: “Niki Lauda has died. I have to confirm that.”
“His unique successes as a sportsman and entrepreneur are and remain unforgettable,” the family statement said. “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 won the F1 drivers’ championship in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari and again in 1984 with McLaren.
In 1976, he was badly burned when he crashed during the German Grand Prix, but he made an astonishingly fast return to racing just six weeks later.
Lauda remained closely involved with the F1 circuit after retiring as a driver in 1985, and in recent years served as the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team.
Born on February 22, 1949 into a wealthy Vienna family, Nikolaus Andreas Lauda was expected to follow his father into the paper-manufacturing industry, but instead concentrated his business talents and determination on his dreams of becoming a racing driver.
Lauda financed his early career with the help of a string of loans, working his way through the ranks of Formula 3 and Formula 2. He made his Formula 1 debut for the March team at the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix and picked up his first points in 1973 with a fifth-place finish for BRM in Belgium.
Lauda joined Ferrari in ‘74, winning a Grand Prix for the first time that year in Spain. He won his first drivers’ title with five victories the following season.
Crash at German Grand Prix
Facing tough competition from McLaren’s James Hunt - their rivalry featured in the Ron Howard-directed movie Rush - Lauda appeared on course to defend his title in 1976 when he crashed at the Nuerburgring during the German Grand Prix. Several drivers stopped to help pull him from the burning car, but the accident would scar him for life. The baseball cap Lauda almost always wore in public became a personal trademark.
“The main damage, I think to myself, was lung damage from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds,” he recalled nearly a decade later. “It was something like 800 degrees.”
Lauda fell into a coma for a time. He said that “for three or four days it was touch and go.”
“Then my lungs recovered and I got my skin grafts done, then basically there was nothing left,” he added. “I was really lucky in a way that I didn’t do any (other) damage to myself. So the real question was then will I be able to drive again, because certainly it was not easy to come back after a race like that.”
Lauda made his comeback just six weeks after the crash, finishing fourth at Monza after overcoming his initial fears.
He recalled “shaking with fear” as he changed into second gear on the first day of practice and thinking, “I can’t drive.”
The next day, Lauda said he “started very slowly trying to get all the feelings back, especially the confidence that I’m capable of driving these cars again.” The result, he said, boosted his confidence and after four or five races “I had basically overcome the problem of having an accident and everything went back to normal.”