On May 20, the world of motorsports lost one of the greatest race car drivers of all-time as true legend, Niki Lauda passed away in his sleep.
Former Ferrari driver’s death came nearly 43 years after he cheated the grim reaper at the Nürburgring racetrack. Despite almost losing his life on that day in Germany, Lauda came back and continued his incredible career that started back in the late 1960s.
A three-time world champion, Lauda’s winning exploits on the racetrack may not equal modern-day greats like Lewis Hamilton, but he still ranks as one of the greatest thanks to his return to the sport after nearly losing his life.
Born in Austria in 1949, Lauda grew up in a well-to-do family, but he had no interest in getting involved in the family business. The young man’s dream was to drive fast cars.
Although his parents were against their son becoming a race car driver, Lauda’s determination kept him focused on the career. In 1968, relations between Lauda and his parents became strained when they found out he secretly drove in a race. Lauda raced a Mini he acquired from local motorsports hero Fritz Baumgarten and came second during a local race. The local newspaper reported on the event, and Lauda’s parents found out about his desire to drive. Things were never the same between Lauda and his family from that point.
Over the next few years, Lauda progressed through the ranks of race car driving. In 1972, Lauda self-funded his way onto the Formula Two March team by taking out a £30,000 loan. His success was almost immediate, and he was soon elevated to compete in Formula One.
Another bank loan in 1973 allowed Lauda to buy his way into the declining BRM team. His time with BRM was short as Ferrari came calling just a year later and snapped up the young Austrian on the strength of former teammate Clay Regazzoni’s word.
One year after joining Ferrari, Lauda landed his first world championship. A second-place finish resulted in 1976 before a second world title the following year. His 1977 championship was remarkable as it came just over a year after his near catastrophic crash at the Nürburgring.
Anyone who has seen the video of Lauda’s crash at Nürburgring will have one thought: How did the Austrian walk away from it?
Going into Nürburgring on August 1st, Lauda had dominated Formula One. Despite his excellent form going into the race, Lauda fell behind thanks to a combination of wet weather and the tires he chose. He initially used rain tires while many of his colleagues selected slicks.
After changing tires halfway through the race, Lauda attempted to make up ground on his fellow drivers. Due to his tires being cold, Lauda lost control of his Ferrari. The car collided full force into the side bank of the race track before sending Lauda back across the tarmac. The impact was so strong, Lauda’s helmet was ripped off his head. The car then caught fire due to a fuel leak. Lauda was trapped inside and minutes from burning to death in the cockpit.
Lauda’s life was saved thanks to fellow driver Arturo Merzario, who bravely pulled Lauda from the wreckage.
Remarkably, Lauda spent just four days in critical condition before he was moved to a special burns unit. Although he was severely injured, Lauda’s determination and desire to be the best led him back to the racetrack. Six weeks after the crash, Lauda was back in his Ferrari race car. He finished second to Hunt in the championship standings. A year later, Lauda won his second world title. He would secure a third championship in 1984 while driving for McLaren.
After the release of the movie; Rush in 2013, an entire generation of motorsports fans learned about the rivalry between Formula One legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt. The film shared the incredible story of Lauda and Hunt, and the professional feud the two had.
There couldn’t have been two more opposed Formula One drivers in the world at the time. Lauda was driven, career-focused, and nothing mattered more to him than winning Formula One races. Hunt, on the other hand, was a playboy who appeared to enjoy the fame of being a race car driver more than winning races.
The real reason for the rivalry between the two drivers was not out of hate for the other, but mutual respect. Hunt was the flamboyant driver that seemed to be favored by Formula One. His 1976 title came after initially being disqualified at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Lauda received the points that would have seen him win a second straight world title. However, Formula One later took the points back and handed them to Hunt.
Niki Lauda wasn’t just a focused competitor that was tough on the racetrack. He was also a formidable opponent off it. Ferrari referred to Lauda as “the Jew” due to his negotiating prowess and willingness to walk away from talks if his contractual desires were not met. Lauda was also known for his bluntness as he never minced words.
Prior to falling ill in 2018, Lauda worked with Mercedes as a non-executive chairman. He had befriended current racing great Hamilton, and the two had a close relationship. Lauda was instrumental in convincing Hamilton to leave McLaren for Mercedes.
Shortly after Lauda passed away, Hamilton was excused from his usual Mercedes’ duties due to the emotional strain of losing a mentor. He was also a pallbearer at Lauda’s funeral.
Lauda was a race car driver through and through. Being a Formula One champion was everything to the Austrian. While his greatest rival, Hunt, was more focused on the fame the sport gave him, Lauda’s sole motivation was career success.
The Formula One great died in his sleep following a prolonged illness. The man that cheated death just over four decades ago ran his last race and passed away as one of the greatest to ever drive a race car.