The motorsport community mourns the passing of Niki Lauda, the three-time Formula 1 World Champion and non-executive chairman of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, who died on Monday at the age of 70.
The Austrian passed away after a period of ill health. In August 2018, he was hospitalised and underwent a successful lung transplant in his native Austria but a lengthy recovery and further illness kept him away from the Grand Prix scene.
To say that Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was a complex character would be a gross understatement. He was a man, who in an illustrious career that spanned motorsport and the aviation industries managed to defy convention with his ability to buck the system and play the game. Lauda’s skill in navigating the sport’s off-track politics was more than matched by his driving and racecraft which saw him win three World Championship titles.
Having spent several years of hard graft struggling to make any impression in Formula Vee, Formula 3 and sports cars, Lauda used his inheritance and a life insurance policy to graft a £35,000 bank loan to finance a season of Formula 2 in a semi-works March in 1971 which included a one-off Grand Prix outing that year on home soil. He qualified on the back row of the grid and retired his car with a handling complaint.
While his results were hardly headline-grabbing, he showcased the skill, self-confidence and determination that would set him up for the years to come.
He effectively mortgaged himself to buy a seat in the works March team alongside Ronnie Peterson for the 1972 Formula 1 season, but the outfit’s radical 721X challenger was absolutely hopeless. His saving grace were competitive F2 outings – including a fine win at Oulton Park – and his ability to run similar lap times to the more experienced and better-rated Peterson. Nonetheless, March fired him at the end of the season.
He negotiated a pay-drive deal with BRM for 1973 – which he knew he’d struggle to honour – and immediately overshadowed his teammates. Fifth place in Belgium marked his first championship points’ finish and a further highlight came when he ran third at Monaco, only to retire with a gearbox failure.
Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni saw his talent and recommended him to team boss Enzo Ferrari, and after much contract wrangling Lauda was able to exit BRM at the end of 1973 to join the Scuderia the following year. Famously, after his first outing in one of the Ferrari cars, Lauda plainly told Il Commendatore that it was a piece of junk!
Lauda spent much of the pre-season pounding out countless laps in testing to develop Ferrari’s 1974 challenger, Mauro Forghieri’s 312B3, and opened the season with second place in Argentina. His first Grand Prix victory followed at Jarama, along with another at Zandvoort and further podiums at Nivelles and Dijon. A succession of retirements late in the season put paid to a tilt at the World Championship title, but his star was well and truly on the rise.
The 1975 World Championship title was to be Lauda’s, and once Ferrari introduced its transverse gearbox he was unstoppable. Five race wins and nine pole positions saw him romp to his first Drivers’ Championship title.
His title defence kicked off strongly and in the first nine rounds he’d chalked up five wins and eight podium finishes. Then came the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring Nordschleife and the fiery crash that almost took his life. Suffering terrible burns to his head and lungs, he was given the last rites in hospital but somehow staged an incredible recovery to return to the cockpit after just six weeks at the Italian Grand Prix to finish in an emotional fourth place.
His absence in the interim allowed rival James Hunt to fight his way back into title contention by the season finale in Japan, and his withdrawal from the race – feeling it too dangerous to race in the torrential rain – and lost the title by one point to the Englishman become part of the sport’s folklore. Much is made of the apparent rivalry between Lauda and Hunt – which became the basis of the semi-fictional film Rush, directed by Ron Howard – but in truth the duo were friends off the track.
Ferrari felt that Lauda’s loss of the 1976 World Championship title had diminished their star driver and opted to pair him alongside a new rising star, Carlos Reutemann, for 1977. Lauda was irritated by this blatant show of disrespect, but regrouped as only he knew best and thrashed the Argentine. Maximising his points’ finishes at every opportunity, he a second Drivers’ Championship title was within his grasp.
In his famously unsentimental style, he negotiated a huge retainer to move to Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team for the 1978 season. After collecting a fourth placed finish at Watkins Glen to clinch his second World Championship title, he embarrassed Ferrari by opting not to appear at the last two Grands Prix in Canada and Japan – the Italian outfit promptly put a youngster called Gilles Villeneuve in his vacant seat.
Lauda’s decision to join Brabham yielded little success over the 1978 and 1979 seasons, hampered by the cars’ unreliable Alfa Romeo engines and the team’s struggles to adapt to the new ground-effect technology that rivals Lotus were mastering. He won the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix with the famous BT46B ‘fan car’ (pictured above), which was swiftly banned on spurious safety grounds. He also won the Italian Grand Prix, but only when Ferrari’s Villeneuve and Lotus’ Mario Andretti were penalised for jumping the start – the aftermath of the race was tragically shrouded by the death of Lauda’s former teammate Ronnie Peterson.
The 1979 season proved even worse and he scored just four points in a season blighted by unreliability and missteps, although a small silver lining came with a win at the non-championship Dino Ferrari Trophy race at Imola towards the end of the year. At the Canadian Grand Prix, he tried the new Ford-powered BT49 ahead of the team’s switch of engine partners for the 1980 season – he stunned the paddock by announcing his retirement at the end of Friday morning practice.
He stayed away from the sport for two years while he expanded his growing charter airline, Lauda Air, into a full service carrier. It wouldn’t be long before he was tempted back to Grand Prix racing with McLaren in 1982 – no doubt a combination of a huge retainer and his own ego spurred him to don the helmet once more.
McLaren was still in the early stages of developing its MP4 chassis – the sport’s first carbonfibre monocoque – and Lauda was just the man to accelerate this. By the third Grand Prix at Long Beach he was back in the winners’ circle once more, and backed this up with another victory at Brands Hatch (pictured below).
He was quick but not particularly consistent, but the arrival of the new TAG-badged, Porsche-built turbo engines at the end of 1983 spurred him to a new level of performance for the 1984 season when he would be paired alongside another rising star: Alain Prost.
Lauda used all of his experience to keep with the young Frenchman, and despite claiming five wins to Prost’s seven, a second-place finish at the season-ending Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril saw him claim a third Drivers’ Championship title by just half a point. It remains the closest championship finish in the sport’s history.
The 1985 season saw a resurgent Prost claim the spoils while unreliability hampered Lauda’s title defence. When his car hung together long enough at Zandvoort he proved once more that he was unbeatable on his day, beating Prost home in a thrilling scrap. He opted to retire – this time for good – at the end of the year.
He dabbled in TV commentary while continuing to run Lauda Air. Tragically in 1991, one of the airline’s Boeing 737-300ER aircraft crashed shortly after take-off from Bangkok and killed all 223 passengers and crew. Lauda described the accident as the worse time of his life, but bravely fought Boeing’s original claims that the accident was a result of pilot error.
In 1993, he was tempted back by Ferrari into a managerial consultancy role as the team attempted to recapture their glory days – he was also inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame that year. He and fellow Austrian Gerhard Berger re-established the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association during the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix weekend, following the tragic events at the preceding San Marino Grand Prix which culminated with the deaths of Roland Ratrzenberger and Ayrton Senna.
After Lauda Air underwent a hostile takeover by majority partner Austrian Airlines in 1999, Lauda popped up again in the Formula 1 paddock in 2001 as an advisor for the Jaguar Racing team. Eventually succeeding Bobby Rahal after the American was fired as Team Principal, Lauda was unable to steady the ship and it was predictable that the Ford Motor Corporation turfed him out at the end of the 2002 season.
Lauda returned to airlines, founding the low-cost carrier Niki in partnership with Air Berlin in 2003, which acquired a majority shareholding in 2011. In 2016, he took over the Amira Air charter airline and renamed it LaudaMotion, which then reacquired the Niki brand when Air Berlin went insolvent in 2017.
In 2012, Lauda was back in the paddock and on the pit wall, appointed a non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team when the ‘Silver Arrows’ made a long-overdue return to the sport. Tensions between he and team principal Ross Brawn were always there, and after three winless seasons parent company Daimler undertook a management reshuffle of the Brackley-based squad and forced Brawn out.
Lauda was retained and given a 10% shareholding of the team, with his countryman Toto Wolff (a 30% shareholder) taking on the role of executive director. Lauda was instrumental in the negotiations to sign star McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton to join the team as Michael Schumacher’s replacement in 2013. The Brackley squad has since dominated the Formula 1 World Championship, sweeping the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship titles from 2015 to 2018.
Always outspoken and entertaining, Lauda wrote five books: The Art and Science of Grand Prix Driving (1975); My Years With Ferrari (1978); The New Formula One: A Turbo Age (1984); Meine Story (also titled To Hell and Back in some markets) (1986); and Das dritte Leben (1996).
Lauda is survived by his ex-wife Marlene Knaus, whom he married in 1976 and divorced in 1991 – they have two children, Mathias (himself a racing driver) and Lukas. A third son, Christoph, was conceived through an extra-marital relationship. In 2008 Lauda remarried, tying the knot with Birgit Wetzinger in 2008, and has twin children Max and Mia.
|Full Name||Andreas Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda|
|Born||22 February 1949, Vienna (AUT)|
|Died||20 May 2019, Vienna (AUT)|
|First Grand Prix||1971 Austrian Grand Prix||Last Grand Prix||1985 Australian Grand Prix|
|Fastest Laps||24||Pole Positions||24|
|FORMULA 1 CAREER HIGHLIGHTS|
|1971||STP March Racing Team 711 Ford Cosworth DFV V8, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1972||March Ford Cosworth DFV V8 721 / 721X / 721G, 12 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1973||Marlboro-BRM V12 P160C / P160D / P160E, 14 races, 2 points, 18th overall|
|1974||Scuderia Ferrari F12 312B3, 15 races, 2 wins, 5 podiums, 38 points, 4th overall|
|1975||Scuderia Ferrari F12 312B3 / 312T, 14 races, 5 wins, 8 podiums, 64.5 points, World Champion|
|1976||Scuderia Ferrari F12 312T / 312T2, 14 races, 5 wins, 9 podiums, 68 points, 2nd overall|
|1977||Scuderia Ferrari F12 312T2, 14 races, 3 wins, 10 podiums, 72 points, World Champion|
|1978||Brabham Alfa Romeo F12 BT45 C / BT46 / BT46B, 16 races, 2 wins, 7 podiums, 44 points, 4th overall|
|1979||Brabham Alfa Romeo V12 BT48, 13 races, 4 points, 14th overall|
|1982||McLaren Ford Cosworth DFV V8 MP4B, 14 races, 2 wins, 3 podiums, 30 points, 5th overall|
|1983||McLaren Ford Cosworth DFV / TAG V6 Turbo MP4/1, 14 races, 2 podiums, 12 points, 10th overall|
|1984||McLaren TAG V6 Turbo MP4/2, 16 races, 5 wins, 9 podiums, 72 points, World Champion|
|1985||McLaren TAG V6 Turbo MP4/2B, 14 races, 1 win, 14 points, 10th overall|
|1993||International Motorsports Hall of Fame, Inductee|
|2001-2||Jaguar Racing, Team Principal|
|2012-9||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, Non-executive Chairman|
Images via McLaren, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, Scuderia Ferrari, XPB Images