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.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.
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
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.
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
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.