Died, F1 Legend

Niki Lauda

Austrian

  • Vienna, Austria Place of Birth
  • 22 February 1949 Date of Birth
  • 1971 Austrian Grand Prix F1 Debut
  • McLaren Current/Last Team

On February 22, 1949, Nicholas Andreas Lauda was born in Vienna into a prominent Austrian business and banking family. His father made a fortune in paper manufacturing, but he withheld financial support from Niki, who he believed would tarnish the Lauda name by pursuing a career in racing. Niki left university and embarked on a self-funded racing career, borrowing money from Austrian banks. Starting in a Mini in 1968, he progressed through Formula Vee and Formula Three. In 1972, he bought his way into the March Formula Two and Formula One teams with another bank loan secured by his life insurance policy.

NationalityAustrian
BornAndreas Nikolaus Lauda
22 February 1949
Vienna, Austria
Died20 May 2019 (aged 70)
Zürich, Switzerland

With an uncompetitive seat with the March teams, in 1973, Niki secured a complicated rent-a-ride deal with BRM. His improving results during the season earned him a new contract that would forgive his debts in exchange for staying with BRM for another two years. However, he bought his way out of BRM with money from Enzo Ferrari, who hired him in 1974.

Ferrari, without a champion since John Surtees in 1964, was impressed by Lauda’s self-confidence and work ethic, though taken aback by his brutal honesty. After testing the 1974 Ferrari 312, Niki bluntly told Enzo it was “a piece of shit,” but promised to make it raceworthy. Lauda’s cool, calculating approach earned him the nickname “The Computer.” Despite some costly errors in 1974, he won his first Formula 1 race in Spain, followed by another in Holland.

In 1975, driving the Ferrari 312/T, Lauda won races in Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France, and the USA, becoming World Champion. Italy rejoiced at Ferrari’s first driving title in over a decade, but Lauda, unsentimental, gave his trophies to a local garage in exchange for free car washes.

By mid-summer 1976, Lauda had won five races and seemed poised to repeat as champion. However, during the German Grand Prix at the dangerous Nurburgring, his Ferrari crashed and burst into flames. Four drivers and a marshal rescued him from the inferno. He suffered severe burns, broken bones, and lung damage from inhaling toxic fumes. Given last rites by a priest, Lauda was expected to die.

Astonishingly, six weeks later, he finished fourth in the 1976 Italian Grand Prix, with blood seeping from his head bandages. Doctors attributed his recovery to sheer willpower. Jackie Stewart called it the most courageous comeback in sports history. Lauda quipped that losing half an ear made it easier to use the telephone. To spare others from his disfigurement, he wore a red baseball cap, renting it to sponsors for a hefty fee.

The 1976 championship concluded with a showdown between Lauda and McLaren driver James Hunt at Japan’s Fuji circuit in torrential rain. Lauda deemed the conditions too dangerous and withdrew, handing the title to Hunt, who called Lauda’s decision an act of bravery. In Italy, some branded him a coward. Even Enzo Ferrari had doubts and planned to replace him. This reaction angered Lauda, making his 1977 championship win a form of revenge. After clinching the title with two races remaining, he left Ferrari, who called him a traitor for joining Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team.

In 1978, Lauda won twice with Brabham and finished fourth in the championship. The following year, driving an uncompetitive car, he scored only four points before the penultimate race in Canada. After the first practice session, he abruptly retired from Formula 1, stating he was “tired of driving around in circles” and wanted to start his own airline.

Lauda Air, with Niki as one of its pilots, grew to the point that further expansion required more capital. To secure this, Lauda returned to racing in 1982, signing with McLaren for a reported $5 million, the most lucrative contract in Formula 1 history. Lauda joked that he was charging only one dollar for his driving services—the rest was for his personality. In 1984, he won his third driving title, narrowly beating his young McLaren teammate Alain Prost. Lauda won his final Grand Prix in 1985 before retiring from racing, though he never fully left the sport. He served as an adviser for Ferrari, a team principal for Jaguar, and a television commentator, providing unique insights into the sport he had survived and mastered.

Before the 2013 season, Lauda added more titles to his collection, becoming Non-Executive Chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, a board member of Mercedes AMG Powertrains, and a special adviser to the Board of Daimler AG. Wearing his famous red cap, he was instrumental in persuading Lewis Hamilton to join Mercedes, helping the team dominate the decade.

Despite his indomitable spirit, Lauda’s health deteriorated. He underwent two kidney transplants and a lung transplant in 2018, the latter required by his nearly fatal accident in 1976. On May 20, 2019, Niki Lauda passed away peacefully at the age of 70. His funeral in Vienna was attended by many drivers and dignitaries who paid tribute to one of motorsport’s greatest heroes.

Niki Lauda Formula One World Championship career

F1 Career1971–1979, 1982–1985
TeamsMarch, BRM, Ferrari, Brabham, McLaren
Entries177 (171 starts)
Championships3 (1975, 1977, 1984)
Wins25
Podiums54
Career points420.5
Pole positions24
Fastest laps24
First entry1971 Austrian Grand Prix
First win1974 Spanish Grand Prix
Last win1985 Dutch Grand Prix
Last entry1985 Australian Grand Prix

Teammates

Driver Nationality Current/Last Team F1 Debut Status
Swiss Ensign 1970 Dutch Grand Prix Died
Argentine Williams 1972 Argentine Grand Prix Died
British McLaren 1973 British Grand Prix Retired
Brazilian Benetton 1978 German Grand Prix F1 Legend
French Williams 1980 Argentine Grand Prix F1 Legend

Teams

Team Nationality Debut Season Status
March British 1970 Historic
BRM British 1951 Historic
Ferrari Italian 1950 Current
Brabham British 1962 Historic
McLaren British 1966 Current