Rarely do sportspeople transcend their genre and become recognised in other avenues. Some manage it, such as David Beckham, Michael Jordan, Ayrton Senna, to name a few. One name that deserves to be on that list is Niki Lauda, who passed away on the 20th of May, 2019, at the age of 70.
I never had the privilege of watching Lauda race, at least not live. His story though, is one that swiftly passed into legend, and Lauda’s name was echoing in the pantheon long before his passing. A three-time world champion (1975, 1977 and 1984), Lauda made an early name for himself driving for the March and BRM teams in the early 70s, but both teams had problems and Lauda’s teammate at BRM, Clay Regazzoni, recognising Lauda’s skill and potential, persuaded Ferrari to sign the young Austrian when Regazzoni himself moved to the Italian outfit in 1974. What Lauda demonstrated was a keen mind and eye for detail – his work on the car, dramatised by the movie Rush, yielded improvements Ferrari could use, whilst his clinical, focused approach saw him claim his first win in that same year, in Spain.
Not everyone was happy to see Lauda climbing the ladder. His family disapproved of his career path and Lauda more or less cut off contact with them, a sad state of affairs, but Lauda was not one to be dictated to. He had carefully determined the risks and the benefits, meticulous in his planning.
In 1975 Lauda had both a reliable and quick car. That combination, in the hands, of Lauda, was unbeatable. Though he had a, slow start, four wins in the opening nine races and consistent points saw him claim his first world championship. It also marked the beginning of a friendship and rivalry with the charasmatic playboy James Hunt. The pair pushed each hard on the track and off it, could best be described as an odd couple – the practical and pragmatic Lauda and the larger-than-life figure of Hunt. In 1976 it looked as though Lauda would get the better of Hunt, with four wins and two second places in the first six races.
With a fifth win in Britain, Lauda had more than double the number of points of Hunt, but fate intervened. The infamous Nurburgring in Germany was at one stage a huge course, with sketchy-at-best emergency service coverage. Combined with torrential rain, the circuit conditions were dangerous, enough for Lauda to declare the race should be abandoned, despite having set the fastest times at the venue. Most of the other drivers voted to continue the race, with consequences that would last a lifetime. On the second lap, Lauda’s car careened out of control, hitting a barrier, then being hit by another car before bursting into flames. Lauda was trapped for at least a minute, inhaling toxic burning fumes that scorched his lungs. His injuries were so severe that he was read the last rites in hospital – though he told the priest in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t dead! What followed is a demonstration of courage and bravery that is virtually unmatched in the sporting world. Lauda not only recovered but just over a month after his accident he was back at the wheel.
Lauda finished fourth in Italy, having only missed two races. He did not reveal so at the time, but mentioned later that he’d been terrified of getting back to racing, but that he had to make the attempt or he never would. Lauda continued to fight for the 76 title but in the end, facing a rain-soaked final round, in the form of the Japanese Grand Prix, Lauda decided against competing, withdrawing early on, a move that allowed Hunt to win the championship.
Lauda though, would not give up on winning. In 1977, despite a difficult relationship with Ferrari following his retirement in Japan (Lauda felt the team was not supporting him), he became champion again, before moving to the Brabham team for 78 and 79. The car was unreliable and the one and only victory Lauda enjoyed was in a variant of the car that was never used again, owing to questions over its legality. Dissatisfied with how things were going, Lauda retired from F1 during practice for the Canadian Grand Prix, unhappy to ‘drive around in circles’.
His return to the sport in 1982 was via the McLaren team, and it took only a few races for him to win again. In 1984 he won his third world title, piping Alain Prost by just half a point. His triumph was one of strategy and consistency over skill and raw talent, with five wins to Prost’s seven, but enough work elsewhere to snatch the championship. Lauda would give Formula One one more season, winning the the Dutch Grand Prix, before retiring for good at the end of 1985. This was not to be the end of Lauda’s involvement in the sport, but for a time he explored other avenues – including becoming a qualified pilot and running his own airline! He also wrote many books on F1 and would dabble at running a team, albeit unsuccessfully. His most prominent post-racing role was as the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, helping to shape the direction of the team.
For millions, he will be remembered most for battling back from the brink of death to become a three-time world champion. He was also a direct, honest and determined soul, who shall be missed.