Niki Lauda: How charismatic F1 champion rose from the flames

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Niki Lauda

Niki Lauda will be remembered for arguably the most remarkable and courageous comeback in sport.

At the 1976 German Grand Prix, Lauda was trapped in a fireball inferno. He had swerved off track at the Nurburgring, hit the wall, his car caught on fire.

But just 40 days after he almost burnt to death at the wheel of his Ferrari, sustaining injuries so catastrophic he was read the last rites in hospital, Lauda returned to his Formula One cockpit.

“I got so upset because of this incident with the priest, that I put more effort into not dying,” said Lauda, decades later.

Yet after contracting pneumonia while on holiday in Ibiza earlier this year, only months after a lung transplant, Lauda would not be able to deliver another miraculous fightback.

The three-time world champion and non-executive chairman of the Mercedes Formula One team died on Monday, aged 70.

Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born on February 22 1949 to his father, Ernst-Peter, and mother, Elisabeth, and into a wealthy industrial family.

Lauda was expected to follow in his father’s business footsteps, but, against his family’s wishes, he pursued a career in motor racing.

Lauda’s thirst for speed was unquenchable, but his grandfather Hans, a member of the supervisory board at an Austrian bank, vetoed a £125,000 loan to allow him to race for the Max Mosley-owned March Formula One team.

“I telephoned my grandfather and asked him if he could please f*** off interfering in my business,” said Lauda.

“But he said he wouldn’t and that no Lauda would ever be a racing car driver. I never spoke another word to him for the remainder of his life.”

Lauda then took an almighty gamble, securing a loan against his own life insurance to buy a ticket into F1. It proved inspired.

In 1971, he made his grand prix debut at his home race in Austria. Another bank loan followed, and two years later he scored his first points, finishing fifth for BRM in Belgium. Then came the breakthrough: a move to the mighty Ferrari.

Alain Prost and Niki Lauda

Lauda scored the first victories of his career in 1974, and a season later won five times to secure his first world championship.

But 1976 would prove the defining year of his life. Indeed, such was the theatre of the most talked-about season in F1 history, that Hollywood released Rush – a film which depicted the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt – the slim, calculated Austrian, nicknamed the ‘Rat’, versus the playboy Englishman.

Heading into the 10th round in Germany, Lauda looked set to defend his title, having amassed a 31-point lead.

But Lauda held grave concerns about the safety of the Nurburgring – a 14-mile circuit so feared it was nicknamed the Green Hell – and he wanted to boycott the race. He was voted down by his fellow drivers, and on lap two, Lauda’s Ferrari was in flames.

Lauda lost control of his car at the embankment, crashed into a wall, and as he slid back across the track, his Ferrari caught on fire. Four passing drivers stopped to drag him out of the burning wreckage.

“The main damage to myself, was from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds,” said Lauda, many years later. “It was something like 800 degrees.”

Lauda had breathed in toxic gases, suffered third-degree burns, and fell into a coma.

He lost most of his right ear, his eyebrows and his eyelids, and would carry the scars from the accident for the remainder of his life – Lauda’s red cap to hide his partial disfigurement would be seen in Formula One paddocks around the world for the next 40 years.

Yet miraculously, he missed just two races, returning for the Italian Grand Prix six weeks later. He finished fourth, ending the race with his balaclava stuck to his face such was the extent of his unhealed facial wounds. It was a remarkable moment of sporting bravery.

The title went to the wire at a rain-hit Fuji. Lauda, who led Hunt by three points, retired from the race blaming the awful conditions. Hunt raced on, and despite dropping down the field after a dramatic late tyre problem, crossed the line in third to take the title. The contest between Lauda and Hunt ignited the popularity of Formula One around the globe.

Lauda would win the championship in 1977, and then for a third time for McLaren in 1984, beating team-mate Alain Prost by just half a point. He would hang up his helmet with a hat-trick of titles, 25 victories and 54 podiums from 171 starts.

A consultancy role at Ferrari would follow in the 90s before he became non-executive chairman at Mercedes in 2012 – his first act persuading Lewis Hamilton to join the team the following year, ensuring Lauda’s stamp on Formula One for five decades.

Lauda is survived by his second wife Birgit, and his children, Max, Mia, Mathias, Lukas and Christoph.

Provided by Press Association Sport

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Formula One icon Niki Lauda passes away at 70

Sport360 staff 21/05/2019
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Niki Lauda.

Iconic Formula One driver Niki Lauda has passed away at the age of 70, his family said in a statement on Tuesday.

“With deep sadness, we announce that our beloved Niki has peacefully passed away with his family on Monday,” the statement read.

Lauda died eight months after undergoing a lung transplant.

“His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain,” the statement added.

“A role model and a benchmark for all of us, he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather away from the public, and he will be missed.”

The Austrian race legend won the F1 drivers’ world championship three times, in 1975 and 1977 for Ferrari and in 1984 with McLaren.

“All at McLaren are deeply saddened to learn that our friend, colleague and 1984 Formula 1 World Champion, Niki Lauda, has passed away. Niki will forever be in our hearts and enshrined in our history. #RIPNiki,” his former team tweeted.

Lauda was the non-executive chairman at Mercedes since 2012 and was instrumental in bringing in Lewis Hamilton.

During his racing career, Lauda suffered horrific injuries during the 1976 German Grand Prix when his vehicle burst into flames at the Nuerburgring. Despite being given the last rites in hospital he made a miraculous recovery to race again just six weeks later still bandaged and in immense pain.

He missed only two races that season but was unable to deny Britain’s James Hunt, who won his only world title.

That great rivalry was the storyline of the 2013 film “Rush”.

Lauda quit F1 at the end of 1979 to pursue civil aviation. But he returned in 1982, this time with McLaren and won his last world championship with them in 1984.

Lauda underwent a lung transplant in Vienna last year due to infection in his lungs, which had been damaged by the high temperature smoke during the 1976 accident.

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Lewis Hamilton leads fifth successive Mercedes one-two and other talking points from Spanish GP

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Lewis Hamilton is back in charge of the world championship after a superb start fired him to victory at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Hamilton was handed a rare thrashing by Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas in qualifying at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya on Saturday, but the British star returned to his notorious best, winning at a canter.

Hamilton, who also scored a bonus point for the fastest lap, now leads Bottas by seven points in the title race.

Ferrari’s disappointing campaign continued as confusion reigned over their strategy with both drivers losing out to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who finished third.

Vettel crossed the line in fourth, with team-mate Charles Leclerc fifth.

Here are our key talking points from the race.

HAMILTON ROARS BACK

It feels like repetition every race week but Mercedes are simply the superior team and not even a team of Ferrari’s calibre are able to challenge them at the moment.

One of the men at the centre of their success is Hamilton who sealed his third win of the season to add to his two other second place finishes in Melbourne and Baku.

Starting from second, he produced a lightning start to outpace Bottas before turn one and maintained his lead until the end of the race.

Around Circuit de Catalunya, the 34-year-old looked comfortable and did not encounter any difficulty, finishing three seconds ahead of the Finn.

With 16 races remaining in the season, the pendulum is no doubt going to swing in opposite directions, but the Stevenage man has always proved he can come out on top when the pressure is on.

POSITIVE FINISH FOR BOTTAS

Starting on pole for a third successive time, Bottas didn’t look a patch on his Mercedes team-mate despite being fastest all weekend.

The 29-year-old was expected to clinch a third win of the season but a combination of a slow start and general lack of consistent pace saw him finish behind Hamilton and deservedly so. But, in truth, he could have been further behind, only for a safety car late on.

Still, it’s a positive start to the season for Bottas who has won twice and clinched four second place finishes – and sits second in the drivers championship.

DRIVER OF THE YEAR SO FAR?

Verstappen has been pushing his Red Bull to the absolute max and clinched his second podium of the season in Barcelona.

The Dutchman managed to put himself between Vettel and Leclerc on the starting grid in P4, and soared past Vettel early into third.

The 21-year-old proved his mettle throughout the race, staying calm and pushing hard when Vettel tried to claw back his lead late in the race.

With his teammate Pierre Gasly finishing sixth, the package appears tasty and Sunday’s results will only add to Red Bull’s prospects to compete on both drivers and constructors championship fronts for the rest of the season.

FUMBLING FERRARI

Tough times at Ferrari.

Vettel looked slow on pace from the opening lap and Leclerc was allowed to swap places with the German on lap 13.

And just as Leclerc pushed Verstappen for third spot midway through the race, the Scuderia decided to put the Monaco man on the hard tires and Vettel on the mediums, essentially ruining his race.

One would be forgiven for thinking the Italian marque were trying to sabotage his race again, as he came out of the pits slow on pace and confidence.

Vettel and Leclerc went on to finish fourth and fifth respectively, but the strategy at the Prancing Horse is simply too poor and the pit stops too slow.

No wonder their title hopes are over after five races.

HAAS SHINE

It was notable to see the Haas duo of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean finish in the top 10 for the first time since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November.

Magnussen secured his second top-10 of the season, while Grosjean sailed home in tenth after holding off the strong efforts of Alexander Albon late on.

It proved to be a successful day for Guenther Steiner and Co., but their results need to stay consistent after a poor campaign to date, where Grosjean has retired three times and Magnussen finishing 13th on three occasions.

SAINZ ON HOME SOIL

A solid afternoon for the Madrid man.

Racing in front of his home fans, Sainz shone in his McLaren and finished tenth – his second points finish this season after picking up six in Baku.

In contrast, his team-mate Lando Norris crashed out on lap 46 after a collision with Lance Stroll.

Expect this to be a close battle for the rest of the season.

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