Niki Lauda: The Motorsport World Mourns The Loss of an Icon
This week the world of motorsport lost a true great as three times Formula One World Champion Nik Lauda left us. A man of enormous fortitude, Lauda was the living embodiment of reigning through adversity and a constant presence in the Formula One paddock. He passes aged 70.
Niki Lauda was smart, shrewd and an analytical operator. Combine that with his devasting speed behind the wheel and his famous ‘no bullshit’ approach and you had a formidable sportsman and person.
Niki’s path into motorsport wasn’t by the conventional sense. Born into a wealthy Austrian family on February 22nd 1949, Lauda lived a comfortable upbringing. With his father and grandfather before him successful businessmen, Niki was exposed to the world of finance and business from an early age.
Naturally, the Lauda family expected young Niki to follow in the footsteps of his elders. However much to the Lauda family's dismay and his father's protest, Niki found himself hooked on motor racing and began to explore an ever-deepening path in his new found passion.
This path led him into his first competitive races in the junior Formula Vee championship. Taking in rounds across Europe, this junior championship allowed Niki to ply his trade and hone his natural abilities. Looking to forge the next avenue on his motorsport ascendency, Niki Lauda used his unwavering determination to secure a bank loan to fund his place in March’s Formula Two team.
Lauda’s venture into Formula 2 would ultimately prove to be fruitless before securing further funding to join Formula One team BRM the following season. Instantly hitting the ground running, Lauda proved to be sublimely quick in subpar equipment at BRM and unbeknown to Lauda at this point, those latter performances had caught the eye of some influential names at the heart of Scuderia Ferrari.
Throughout 1973 Lauda was teammates with Clay Reggazzoni and this connection was to prove vital in 1974. Ahead of the ‘74 season, Reggazzoni was heading back to Ferrari to contest the upcoming season. During the course of this move, Enzo Ferrari discussed the merits of Lauda joining the team alongside him. Reggazoni was gracious in his assessment of Niki and as a result of this endorsement, Lauda was signed to the Scuderia for the 1974 season, a major breakthrough in his motorsport career.
1974 was to be a watershed moment for Niki. Podium results were achieved instantly alongside his first win and a consecutive run of pole positions. A major factor of Niki’s success was his deft hand for setting up a race car. Pulling no punches Lauda stressed exactly what needed to be done to the Ferrari to make it a genuine contender. His feedback proved to be invaluable and enabled him to take Championship honours the following year.
1975 left Niki with the world at his feet, a name fully established and a driver the top of his game. He looked set to repeat this feat in 1976 however fate was about to deal a devasting hand.
Caught in the midst of a tight championship battle with Britains James Hunt, Lauda suffered a horrendous accident in the German Grand Prix which led to him receiving significant burns to his face. Despite surviving the accident he later slipped into a coma and faced significant amounts of time in hospital as he recovered.
Such was the mark of the man, Niki was back behind the wheel just two races later for Ferrari’s home Grand Prix at Monza. Racing with his head bandaged, he was by his own emission ‘absolutely petrified’ but somehow managed to finish the race in a remarkable 4th place.
His return to racing wasn’t enough to surmount Jame Hunt’s late-season surge as he collected the 1976 crown by just a single point at the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix in horrendous weather conditions.
Stints at Brabham and another championship title would follow before Niki called time on his F1 career to focus on his fledgeling airline, Lauda Air. Despite his growing airline business, Lauda wasn’t done with Formula One and later returned with McLaren to contest the 1982 season. This partnership would last through to the end of 1985 and yield a third world championship crown in 1984 before retiring from F1 for good after a turbulent 1985 season.
Niki Lauda would go on to hold later roles as team principal of Jaguar Racing from 2001 to 2002 before becoming an instrumental player in the current success of the contemporary Mercedes F1 Team. Acting as non-executive chairman, Niki is often credited as being the major player alongside Ross Brawn in bringing Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes.
Despite suffering from ill health over the last few months of his life, Lauda was an avid supporter of his team and pledged to make a return this season after recuperating from a double lung transplant last summer.
Ultimately Niki’s health deteriorated despite his determined ambition to make a return. Niki Lauda was a man of enormous fortitude who was a relentless fighter even in the toughest of times. Niki is a true icon. A man of immense authenticity and remarkable intellect, he was an avid supporter of Formula One and a true inspiration for so many around the world.
Niki Lauda leaves an indelible mark in the Formula One history books and a legacy that will illustrate one of the most remarkable sporting comebacks in history.