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Niki Lauda: The Greatest Austrian Race Car Driver

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It has been a year since the world of motorsports lost one of its icons in Niki Lauda.  The Austrian, a three-time Fomula One World Drivers’ Champion, died at the age of 70 in May 2019. Throughout his career, Lauda showed how his love for F1 gave him the strength to overcome his tragedy, and stage arguably the greatest comeback in all of sports.

Early days in motorsports

Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born on February 22, 1949 to a wealthy family in Vienna, Austria. Lauda began racing Mini Coopers in 1968 despite his family’s disapproval. With no financial support, he had to find funding  to compete.

Niki Lauda’s legendary status in Formula One earned him a commemorative stamp issued in Austria in 2005.

By 1972, Lauda secured a loan using his life insurance as collateral to buy his way into the March Engineering Formula 2 team. The following year, he managed to join British Racing Motors (BRM) at the expense of another debt. Despite the financial setback, Lauda made sure that he drove impressively alongside Clay Regazzoni. His performance was rewarded with a new two-season contract that helped him write off his debt.

Scuderia Ferrari and Formula One

Lauda joined the Scuderia Ferrari in 1974, when Enzo Ferrari bought him out of his contract with BRM and cleared his debts. He had his eyes set on the championship, which was immediately apparent during the 1974 season when he got his first two wins. Unfortunately, unforced errors placed him back in fourth overall in points at the end of the season.

The following season, Lauda secured the title after winning five races. He finally got what he desired the most – his first Formula One championship in 1975. This was Ferrari’s first driver’s championship since 1964 with John Surtees.

The tragic Nürburgring crash

Lauda was on a mission to get back-to-back championships in 1976. He already led the standings by 31 points going into the German Grand Prix. Concerned about safety at the Nürburgring, Lauda tried to sway other drivers into boycotting the race. However, he was outvoted, and the race proceeded.

During the second lap of the race, Lauda’s Ferrari lost traction at high speed. The car hit a bank hard,  was engulfed in flames, and hit Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford. Lauda couldn’t get out of the burning Ferrari and was trapped until one of the other drivers, Arturo Merzario, was able to unlock his seat belt. Merzario and a couple of other drivers were able to pull Lauda out of the wreckage, but he still suffered first and third-degree burns, broken bones, and lung damage. He was in such poor shape that a priest already administered his last rites.

Debt Paid, Death Cheated: Before becoming an F1 icon, Lauda had to endure challenges overwhelming enough to send the average sportsman to retire.

Niki’s return to Formula One

Miraculously, Niki Lauda was back racing just 40 days after his horrific accident. He finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix on his first race back. Despite his relatively successful return, he admitted that he was so scared that he could hardly drive.

Lauda’s 1977 season with Ferrari is hailed as one of the bravest acts in the history of Formula One. He showed dedication to the sport despite almost perishing in his fiery crash in the previous season. Unfortunately, Lauda and Enzo Ferrari’s relationship fell apart following the crash. He felt that the head of Ferrari was not giving him the support he needed. Lauda pulled out of the last two races of the season before he moved to the Brabham team for the 1978 season.

While at Brabham, Lauda lost interest in Formula One. He retired during the Canadian Grand Prix in 1979. However, McLaren was able to convince the Austrian to come back with a $3-million salary offer in 1981. He continued to win races until 1985,  and finally decided to quit driving in Formula One for good afterwards.

Niki Lauda ended his racing career after 171 races, with 25 wins, 3 championships, 24 pole positions, and 54 podium finishes. During this time, he also fostered a fierce six-year rivalry with British Formula One legend, James Hunt. The two went on to have an enduring friendship until Hunt’s death in 1993.

Niki Lauda as a Formula One legend

Niki Lauda focused on running his own airline business after his driving career in Formula One ended. However, he continued to offer his Formula One expertise to the Ferrari team (1993) and to the Jaguar Racing team (2001). Lauda was also instrumental in signing Lewis Hamilton to the Mercedes team at the end of 2012.

Lauda passed away last May 20, 2019, nine months after receiving a lung transplant. A statement issued on behalf of his family said that the legend died peacefully in his sleep.

Niki Lauda’s legacy continues to live through the discipline and dedication of all Formula One drivers around the world.

Lauda’s 1975 Ferrari F1 312 T on display in Mugello Circuit at the Finali Mondiali Ferrari 2017.
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