Some all-time greats simply die too young. Three-time Formula 1 World Champion Driver Niki Lauda cheated death in the 1976 German Grand Prix, at the age of 27. Fate gave him another 43 years – and his second and third World Champion titles – and universal respect and affection throughout the motor sporting world, not to mention a very successful business career. Until yesterday, when this authentic Austrian Hero – note the capital ‘H’ – finally succumbed, after having undergone two kidney transplants since 1997 and even last year a lung transplant.
Niki Lauda, 1949‑2019
I was just one of probably millions who initially feared for him after his catastrophic and fiery accident during the German Grand Prix. We have feared for him several times since – and most certainly in recent months. The news of his death is terrible, but sadly not unexpected.
Yet Niki was just too young for it all to end like this. He wasn't always right – his views not always justified – but if you asked him for an opinion the response would be precise, to the point and honestly held, most of the time. Despite his bluntness he could be a manipulative politician when he felt so inclined – yet above all he was a genuine 24-carat fearless Hero. And rightly he will be remembered as that.
He also shone in the aftermath of the devastating Lauda Air disaster over Thailand in May 1991, when his airline's six-month-old Boeing 767 broke up after its port engine's thrust reverser deployed in mid-flight, pitching the aircraft into a spin before it disintegrated, killing all 223 people on board. As company principal he not only did more than might have been expected for the bereaved families, he also pursued Boeing relentlessly to do more than be evasive about the cause (which ironically sounds quite familiar right now).
And back in the winter of 1972-73, when he first joined BRM, virtually his opening remarks to the mechanics were devastatingly honest, accurate, combative and – typically – to the point: “You all sink I am just a vanker – but vun day I vill be Vorld Champion!”.
And after winning the 1984 French GP at Dijon in the McLaren-TAG Turbo, he memorably began the post-race press conference like this: “Today car good – engine good – Lauda good! Any Kvestchuns?"...
As I have said – a solid-gold Hero. Rest in peace, and all thoughts with his extended family, many friends and very many more admirers.
After Jackie Stewart’s retirement at the end of 1973 we eagerly awaited the emergence of his successor as the genuine standard-setter of the era. Ronnie Peterson first filled Jackie’s shoes, as he had been threatening to do for at least two years. But then along came this flinty, utterly determined, totally ambitious young Austrian with the sharp features and the protruding teeth which early on earned him the nickname ‘The Rat’.
It sounds so dismissive, so rude today. But as Niki Lauda established himself so that moniker stuck – and he seemed to revel in it. He wasn’t a bundle of fun and mirth. He was no ‘Roland Rat’. He was more a detail man, a gifted worker, a self-absorbed, self-motivated, utterly committed ‘Rattie’ figure. And the nickname came to be uttered with widespread respect, and not a little – if sometimes grudging – affection.
Niki was born the son of a wealthy paper-processing plant owner in Vienna. He began driving early, an indispensable background for any racing driver, and was only ten or eleven years old as he trundled about the paperwork’s' yard in various BMWs, Opels, VWs and the occasional half-ton truck. When nobody was looking he would also drive out of the gates and take a quiet jaunt on the public roads. But it was not until the late 1960s that he went with a cousin to spectate at the Nürburgring where he saw his first motor race. He was hooked, and became desperate to have a go.
Within a few weeks he was hillclimbing his own VW saloon, and in July 1968 he borrowed some cash from his two grandmothers, supposedly to buy some land. He bought instead a Porsche 911S to hillclimb. When father heard he was competing on the hills the family was outraged, yet Niki dug-in his heels and in 1969 went circuit racing in a Formula Vee Kaimann single-seater – racking up eight wins from 20 races.
For 1970 he wangled a Formula 3 McNamara at half-price. A desperately hard-fought second place at Brno in Czechoslovakia, where he virtually dead-heated on the finish line with the quick Swiss driver, Jurg Dubler, heralded true talent. At Zolder in Belgium he crashed avoiding an ambulance crossing the track and wrote-off the car.
He tried sports car racing with backing from both Bosch and his (now converted) father, buying a Porsche 908. He won in it at the Osterreichring, and was going places fast. With some parental support he took a bank loan to fund a Formula 2 season with March in 1971. At the Nürburgring that May he duelled with Graham Hill and Peter Westbury for fourth place. At Rouen in Heat One he almost slingshot past his team leader Ronnie Peterson to win at the line, finishing second by just 0.1 seconds…
His bank hired him an F1 drive in his home Austrian GP, in the works team’s spare March 911. “The car was lousy,” he recalled. It appeared his family had reluctantly backed him “to get the bug out of my system”. They had failed. He borrowed £35,000 to drive a second works F1 March through 1972. His parents blocked the loan. He went straight to the rival Raiffeisenkasse Bank and took a loan to be repaid over five years, secured upon a life insurance. In return for his wearing their decals on his crash helmet they made the loan interest free.
His first full F1 season proved poor. Brief light glowed as he won the minor British F2 Championship for March. He was strapped for cash. Marlboro offered him a BRM F1 drive for ’73, but without a retainer. At Monaco he stormed into a fighting third place only for his car to break. Team boss Louis Stanley offered him a new contract. He showed class, briefly led the British GP from a restart and ran fourth for a lap in the German GP before crashing heavily when his BRM broke. He led the Canadian GP in heavy rain, but the true legacy of his year with BRM was a growing friendship with team-mate Clay Regazzoni. When the Swiss rejoined Ferrari for 1974 he recommended that Mr Ferrari take Lauda as well.
Ferrari had shelved its works sports car team to concentrate purely upon Formula 1. Lauda quickly snapped into gear, proved quicker – and better at setting-up his cars – than Regazzoni and he won the Spanish GP in a Ferrari 1-2 result. ‘The Rat’ was a Championship contender. He won the Dutch GP and led the British race at Brands Hatch until delayed by a puncture. At the Nürburgring he showed his racing immaturity by rocketing off pole position only to crash on the opening lap – “…trying too hard too soon,” he said. Incidents wrecked his Championship chances. Ferrari preparation wrecked team-mate Regazzoni’s.
Team and drivers determined to do better in 1975. Niki’s technical prowess and utter dedication to perfecting both his 312T car and himself as a driver, succeeded. He injected new life into the whole Ferrari team which became moulded around him and the youthful Marchese Luca di Montezemolo as Direttore Sportivo. Niki won five Grand Prix races to clinch his first World Championship crown. He went into 1976 determined to retain that title.
The old loan repayment worries were now far behind him. He was a big-money superstar – as much as any Ferrari man ever could be – and his demands had Old Man Ferrari nicknaming him ‘Ebreo’, but Fiat-Ferrari still paid up. Niki’s undisguised contempt for most mediamen, and sponsors, endeared him to the best within both sectors. Ferrari won the first six rounds of the World Championship, five to Lauda, one to Regazzoni. But multiple controversies studded that extraordinary season. And then came the German GP crash and fire, and Niki being given the last rites in hospital. He told a friend “When I realised it was a priest there I nearly flung myself out of bed to start doing press-ups”.
Despite severe burn damage to his right ear and around his eyes he battled his way back from death's door. His pulmonary injuries were overcome. To universal astonishment and admiration he reappeared on the Monza grid for the Italian Grand Prix, just six weeks after the accident.
Could it be the same 'Mouse'. Practice proved it was. The swift, cold, pale blue eyes summoned team manager, engineer and mechanics as he made his pit stops. A brisk fore-finger signalled what he required.
In the race Niki finished fourth, exhausted but still retaining the World Championship lead from his friend and deadly rival, James Hunt, of McLaren. Thereafter the fortunes of Hunt and McLaren surged – Ferrari’s receded. The title depended upon the final race, in Japan. Torrential rain made racing near impossible. Niki's burned eyelids were troubling him badly every time he blinked and attempted to re-focus his eyes, and in such conditions he simply gave up. “It's too dangerous to continue”, he announced – his own cold decision. Was it cowardly, or was it courageous, are questions which will be asked as long as motor racing is discussed. For Niki Lauda it was the right decision, and he lived to fight another day.
He had done more than enough to become the true hero of 1976 — whatever the mediamen might make of it. Niki Lauda himself, Ferrari World Champion, Viennese gentleman, could not give a damn what anyone else thought.
And he went on to win a second World title with Ferrari through 1977, accumulating points like an accountant. He did nothing to disguise his dislike for new team-mate Carlos Reutemann, whom Ferrari had brought into the team as insurance immediately after the German GP fire. Niki still won the South African, German and Dutch GPs, clinched the title, then walked out of the team before the Canadian GP.
Through 1978-79 he drove for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team, earning $1-million per season from the Italian Parmalat dairy sponsors, but struggling with Alfa Romeo-powered cars. Brabham returned to Cosworth-Ford power late that second season but Niki, a keen private flyer, had founded his own airline, Lauda Air. During practice for the Canadian GP he retired from racing to concentrate upon his new commercial enterprise.
It went well, then not so well. ‘Ebreo’ went for the money, and made his motor racing comeback with Marlboro-McLaren in 1982 for a reputed $3-million, a staggering sum at the time. But was he still a winner? None should have doubted it. He won his third race back, at Long Beach, California. He pushed for McLaren to find a turbocharged engine to combat Ferrari, Renault and the rest. In 1983 the first McLaren-TAG Turbo car emerged early – with Lauda the manipulative politician forcing such progress.
McLaren engineering director John Barnard observed how Niki had been coasting, securely confident he had pace over his contemporary team-mate – “But then Alain Prost joined the team and Niki found he had Concorde up his backside!”. The wily old-stager still held off the Frenchman to the end of the 1984 season, and clinched his third Drivers’ World Championship title by the slimmest-ever margin, of half a point. “Beating Alain was my biggest motivation,” Niki would recall.
Then 1985 became his last F1 season – but one ruined by 11 retirements from 14 starts. His last Championship-round win was in the Dutch GP. Niki’s farewell followed in that year’s Australian GP at Adelaide, when after 57 laps his McLaren’s brakes failed and he crashed mildly.
Thereafter, Niki concentrated upon the variable fortunes of Lauda Air – punctuated by the terrible Thai disaster of 1991. Two years later he was back in Formula 1, as a consultant to Ferrari. In 1999 he sold his shares in the airline to partner Austrian Air before, in 2001-2, serving briefly as team principal of the misbegotten Jaguar F1 team. Late in 2003 he launched a new airline, named just Niki, which he – ill-fatedly – merged with Air Berlin in 2011. In 2012 he was then appointed non-executive Chairman of the current Mercedes AMG-Petronas F1 team, his vast experience and innate wisdom contributing greatly to the stupendous record they possess today.
Three years ago he took over charter airline Amira Air to create LaudaMotion, and when Air Berlin collapsed in 2017, LaudaMotion absorbed the Niki brand.
Niki Lauda was twice married, initially to Marlene Knaus (from 1976 to 1991), with whom he had two sons, Mathias and Lukas. His subsequent partner Birgit Wetzingerin had been a cabin crew member within his airline. In 2005 she donated a kidney which saved Niki’s life after a previous kidney, donated by his brother in 1997, had failed. Niki and Birgit married in 2008 and in September 2009, she gave birth to twins, Max and Mia. Another son, Christoph was born to another relationship.
Niki Lauda was a truly extraordinary man. He lived life his own way – and despite some terrible, repeated, setbacks he certainly lived it to the full.
Doug Nye began writing about racing cars at ‘Motor Racing’ magazine in 1963-64. Today he is a multiple award-winning motor sports journalist and author of over 50 years’ experience, with some 70 books to his name. He is Goodwood Motorsport’s founding Historian and consultant and fulfils similar roles for Bonhams Auctioneers and the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, FL, USA. He is a member of the National Motor Museum Advisory Council at Beaulieu, Hants, and is a regular columnist for ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, while contributing to many other specialist periodicals worldwide.
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