Niki Lauda, 1949-2019

F1 history

Posted on

| Written by

Niki Lauda, who has died at the age of 70, was more than just a member of Formula 1’s elite group of multiple world champions.

The extraordinary story of his return to F1 following a near-fatal crash during the 1976 German Grand Prix made him a hero to many. But he also made his mark on the sport through managerial roles at Ferrari, Jaguar and, most successfully, Mercedes.

Lauda also led the reformation of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association in 1994 to campaign for improved safety standard following the crashes which claimed the lives of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.

Lauda came from a wealthy Austrian family, but one which did not approve of his desire to become a racing driver. He funded his own start in motor racing and took out a loan to fund his first season in a March. However the 721X chassis proved a disaster, and a lapped seventh at Kyalami was the best he had to show for his efforts.

March dispensed with his services at the end of the year but undeterred Lauda agreed terms with Louis Stanley to pay for a seat in his BRM team. After an encouraging start to the season – he score his first points with fifth at Zolder and was running in the top three at Monte-Carlo before his gearbox packed up – Stanley offered him a long-term contract.

Lauda and Luca di Montezemolo put Ferrari back on top
Ferrari endured a win-less 1973 and was made sweeping changes behind the scenes for the following season, which included hiring a new roster of driving talent. Former driver Clay Regazzoni was recalled from BRM, and on his recommendation approaches were made to his young team mate Lauda. Once prised from his freshly-inked three-year BRM deal, Lauda became a Ferrari driver for 1974.

Second place in the season-opening race at Buenos Aires hinted at what was to come. Lauda dominated the fourth round at Jarama, and left the race one point behind championship leader Regazzoni. Another win at Zandvoort plus second at Dijon put Lauda in the lead of the championship. However a series of misfortunes and technical problems dropped him out of contention.

The following year Mauro Forghieri’s 312T chassis arrived and Lauda asserted himself, taking four wins and a second place in a mid-season stretch which effectively saw off the competition. Third at Monza, Ferrari’s home turf, sealed Lauda’s first title and the team’s first constructors’ championship for more than a decade.

A repeat was on the cards the following year, which Lauda began with five wins, two second and a third from the opening eight races. Arriving at the Nurburgirng Nordschleife, his points lead looked unassailable.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Lauda had been a vehement critic of the dangers of racing on Germany’s daunting 14-mile course. On race day his fears materialised when he spun into a barrier on a slippery track, and his Ferrari erupted into flames. Rivals Brett Lunger, Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl helped free Lauda, who was trapped in the cockpit of his car, but he suffered burns and smoke inhalation.

Niki Lauda, Nurburgring Nordschleife, Ferrari, 1976
Lauda cheated death at the Nurburgring in 1976
His life hung in the balance. Lauda recalled awakening to discover he was being given last rites, whereupon he ordered to priest to leave his room. He survived, but only after excruciating therapy to clear his lungs. He bore the burn scars across the right-hand side of his face for the rest of his life.

Lauda’s extraordinary bravery compelled him back into the cockpit having missed just two races, in an attempt to prevent McLaren’s James Hunt overturned his championship lead. But in atrociously wet conditions at Fuji, Lauda withdrew after a single lap. Hunt took the title by one point.

The following year Lauda returned to claim the title again and stamp his authority on the Ferrari team. To his irritation, Enzo Ferrari had hired rival Carlos Reutemann, which Lauda believes was being lined up as his replacement. He won the title comfortably, then walked out of the team with two races to spare.

He left to join Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team but was unable to recreate the success he had previously enjoyed. Late in 1979 the team switched from Alfa Romeo to Cosworth engines, which would ultimately power them to championship successes, but Lauda’s patience was exhausted. Despite having agreed a new deal with Ecclestone, he quit the team during the Canadian Grand Prix weekend.

After two years away working on his airline, Lauda was tempted back to Formula 1 by sponsor Marlboro, who footed the bill for him to join a revived McLaren team headed by Ron Dennis, driving a John Barnard-designed car. Three races into his comeback, Lauda won at Long Beach, but he became anxious for the team to introduce a turbo-powered car so it would be competitive on quicker tracks.

At the end of 1983, at Lauda’ instigation, the new McLaren-TAG Porsche was pressed into service early. This stood the team in good stead for the following season, when it dominated. Nonetheless, Lauda had to see off the challenge from young team mate Alain Prost in what he described as his “toughest year”. He prevailed, by the closest-ever margin of half a point.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

The following year was an abject disaster. Lauda suffered a litany of technical problems which almost invariably prevented him from competing for wins. He announced his intention to retire at his home race, but managed one final win at Zandvoort, denying champion-elect Prost.

Lauda continued to play an influential role in the sport as a special advisor at Ferrari in the early nineties. In 1994, following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, Lauda assisted with the re-formation of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association to lobby the sport to improve safety standards.

Following another managerial stint at Jaguar, Lauda joined Mercedes as a non-executive director. He played a major role in the success the team enjoys today by helping to encourage Lewis Hamilton to join the team in 2013.

Lauda is survived by his five children.

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

24 comments on “Niki Lauda, 1949-2019”

  1. RIP Niki.

    1. Keith Fryer
      21st May 2019, 7:43

      Awkward Austrian, Surely?

      While I was a Hunt fanatic (why wouldn’t a 16 year old see Hunt as an icon?) history proves that Lauda was the consummate professional and, dammit, a far better driver.

      RIP Niki – Legend.

      1. Duncan Snowden
        21st May 2019, 18:56

        I think the closing scene of Rush, in the aircraft hanger, might be the best epitaph for Niki and James. Motor racing is both of them: passion, excitement, a celebration of life and human ingenuity, but also concentration, determination, and obsessive attention to detail. Hunt and Lauda, Senna and Prost.

        But all his great acheivements aside, I think what I’ll miss most are his more recent contributions to the TV coverage. Nobody called it the way he saw it like Niki. Always that definitive deep-voiced “No!” or “Yes!”, never a “Well… it depends on how you look at it”. Never any doubt. Always made me laugh. A very sad loss.

        1. Well said, Mr. Snowden.

          Niki will be missed. But not forgotten.

  2. DAllein (@)
    21st May 2019, 7:43

    F1 World would have been and will be very different without you.
    Thank you, Niki!

    (where R stands for “Race”)

  3. RIP Niki. Enjoy racing in the clouds above.

  4. A giant of a man and a damn fine driver. RIP Niki and thanks for the memories.

  5. Legendary driver but terrible TV expert. Rest in Peace Niki.

    1. He’ll improve, with James help..

  6. I was born in 1966 so I started following F1 in the early 70’s. Being a Brit, the hero at the time was of course James Hunt, and I remember expressing a dislike for Niki Lauda to my father – he told me that I may dislike him, but he was still a great racer. I am in my 50’s now and over the years I came to appreciate my father’s sentiment more and more and freely admitted a number of years back to admiring Niki Lauda and all that he had achieved. The naivety from a child with time turned into the admiration of an adult, and now unfortunately the sadness of a man who has lost someone who had become a hero.

    RIP Niki Lauda.

  7. ColdFly (@)
    21st May 2019, 9:54

    great racer, great personality.

  8. I am way too young to see him in his racedays, but the man Niki Lauda is himself a great example.
    Teaching us how to make the absolute most out of the time we have been gifted.
    RIP legend.

  9. My condolences to Niki’s friends and family. RIP.

  10. A courageous and tenacious man who stood up for his principles and himself, and then for others.
    Sometimes beaten but never defeated.

  11. Legends never die

  12. a fitting tribute. you forget just how successful he was (though he never equalled clark for most wins – stewart was ahead of them both at that point on 27) and of course 3 titles, especially in that era, is astonishing. the “story” of 1976 is one of the high points of drama in the history of the sport – and i love that lauda and hunt were actually good friends away from it all.

    i’ve just finished reading a biography of enzo ferrari and lauda seems to have been of the few (perhaps the only one) who commanded the full respect of il commendatore.

  13. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
    21st May 2019, 12:37

    Yet another example of Niki’s bravery and determination in 1976 was when he raced in Spain with 3 broken ribs after crashing his tractor.

    I seem to remember this was omitted from the film Rush. A film which doesn’t really portray his relationship with Hunt very accurately but is otherwise excellent.

    I’m in shock. I thought he was indestructible.

  14. I will miss his honest opinions about drivers and situations. Never held back.

  15. A sad loss.


  16. A great loss.

  17. Very sad. Niki Lauda will always be remembered as a great hero of F1 and one of the all time greats! His focus, determination and will to persevere and succeed despite the odds is a great inspiration

    RIP great man!

  18. I have so much respect for Niki. He earned his way to domination in times when the sport was deadly, challenges were harder, competition was fierce and he was a way different from the rest. He adapted, led and later inspired a whole generation of new driver and sport’s fans. He found life after F1 and got to the top again, but we saw nothing more than humble, pragmatic, persistent and honest human being who returned to the sport for a new chapter of success.

    A legend, one of his kind! R.I.P.

  19. Sad tonight – I thought he was indestructible – but grateful. Woah, that’s a life well lived. Super obituary, with some very nice forgotten details.

  20. He cheated death in 1976, but the damage to his lungs got him in the end.

    We are grateful that he went on and achieved in a way we had no right to expect after sustaining such injuries.
    On the other hand, he really had earned the right to outlive his injuries and die much later from other, more natural causes.

    Those who saw the fire, at the time would have accepted living to 70, in the thick of the action in one of the most successful F1 teams to the very end, as a good outcome. But we wanted more.

Comments are closed.