Niki Lauda 1949-2019
With Niki Lauda, you always felt like one final comeback from near-impossible odds was always on the cards.
The triple world champion, Austria’s greatest racing hero and one of the most important and influential grand prix drivers of all time, had already cheated death once before, and one always felt that someone as defiant and single-minded as Niki would never consider death an obstacle that couldn’t somehow be overcome.
The Austrian’s death, at the age of 70, leaves a gaping void – not just in the motor racing community, where he was rightly considered a legend; but in the world at large, where his death-defying resilience and fearlessness earned him a reputation internationally as one of the sporting world’s greatest heroes.
Lauda was renowned for his calculating ability in a racing car. He was never about opposite lock or wild oversteer; he lived the mantra that drivers should ‘win at the slowest speed possible’. He was mechanically sympathetic and drove with a cold, calculated method designed to deliver him as smoothly and easily to the chequered flag before anyone else.
It worked. And became a hugely influential style, developed by him in the 1970s but which would go on to largely dominate the manner of grand prix racing from the ’80s onwards as cars became increasingly more sophisticated, and drivers were required to become more adept at managing a race from the cockpit.
Master of reinvention
Lauda was also a master of reinvention. In part, this was borne of his own canny skilfulness, but equally his unique faith in his own abilities.
He defied his autocratic Austrian parents to scavenge the money to first go racing – in secret. Having vaulted into Formula 1 by virtue of a bank loan that he had no reasonable way of repaying, he rolled the dice to land a role at Ferrari, Formula 1’s greatest name, which was floundering for direction in the early 1970s.
He promised Enzo Ferrari he could make one of the Scuderia’s recalcitrant red cars go faster at Fiorano. And he did, earning the team its first drivers’ and constructors’ titles in more than 10 years in 1975.
Most famously, he returned to the cockpit just six weeks after a fiery 1976 accident at the Nürburgring that, by rights, ought to have killed him. When he suffered a mechanical failure at the exit of Bergwerk during the German Grand Prix, his car was flung into the barriers. Somehow, Lauda lost his crash helmet in the impact, but it was when the car burst into flames, Niki unconscious in the cockpit, that his greatest battle was fought.
Almost fatal crash – comeback after just six weeks
The 27-year-old was extricated, but not before suffering terrible smoke inhalation and burns to his face and body. At the hospital, Lauda was given the last rites, and was not expected to survive.
That he missed just two races, returning at Monza – his head still wreathed in blood-soaked bandages – was outstanding. That he scored points, and then took the world title fight against McLaren’s James Hunt to the very last race, was rightly considered a miracle.
His decision at that race in Fuji to walk away when he felt conditions too dangerous was also a remarkably frank and brave statement by a racing driver. It was a sign of the respect he commanded that he faced no criticism for his actions.
Tired of ‘driving round in circles’
Another drivers’ title followed in ’77, but Lauda grew frustrated with the Italian politicking and jumped ship to Brabham, memorably winning a race in its distinctive ‘fan car’. But once more, he became tired of his life’s limitations, sensationally walking away from the sport in the middle of a race weekend rather than ‘waste time driving round in circles’, as he so memorably put it.
A different life briefly followed. He set up Lauda Air, his own airline, a pursuit that embodied his deep love of flying, but couldn’t escape the feeling gnawing away inside him that racing was unfinished business.
It took a phone call from McLaren supremo Ron Dennis to lure Lauda back. With typical abruptness, the Austrian tested the car, knew he could be quick enough, and summarily made his F1 return, at the start of 1982. Another title followed, in ’84, achieved with a scant half-point’s breadth over young upstart Alain Prost, before Lauda finally bade the F1 cockpit farewell at the end of 1985.
Managerial roles at Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes
Lauda was too defiant to turn his back completely on Formula 1. Despite finding managerial roles at Ferrari and Jaguar Racing, he was never quite able to transfer his abilities from the cockpit to the boardroom, but it was in his role at non-executive chairman at Mercedes AMG F1, allied to the business-like skills of Toto Wolff and the engineering abilities of the crack Brackley team, that he found his final defining role in Formula 1.
It was Lauda who whispered tales of bravery and heroism into Lewis Hamilton’s ear, convincing the young Englishman to jump ship from McLaren. It was Lauda who cut through the bullshit whenever the team’s drivers started to fight, and it was Lauda, now the wizened and experienced head, who assured Mercedes-Benz that its considerable sporting investment was in safe hands.
The Lauda family in the DTM
Niki Lauda was a frequent guest at DTM races, especially when his son Mathias raced in the DTM for Mercedes. Managed by his brother Lukas, Mathias competed in 41 DTM races between 2006 and 2009. As chairman of Mercedes AMG F1, Niki continued to be a fan of the DTM, last visiting a race at Spielberg in 2016.
As he reached his 70s, battling illness into his final years, the racing world hoped fervently that the great Austrian would again defy the odds for one last, triumphant comeback.
Alas, it was not to be.
In Andreas Nikolaus Lauda, we will always remember a man who embodied the spirit of a racer: fearless and determined, with a bravery that was hard to understand. A hero who would regularly defy the odds, but who was never a risk taker. A simple man who made extraordinary things happen – on the racetrack and beyond.