This is not the story of just any man, but one who overcame great odds to fulfill a dream. He’s been immortalized in records, books, film, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and even a postage stamp: Niki Lauda, perhaps Formula 1’s greatest legend.
Born into a prominent Austrian banking family in 1949, Niki Lauda eventually determined he had no interest in plying the family business. Instead, against his family’s wishes, he used some of his wealth to secure a bank loan, financing to achieve his dream of becoming a championship race car driver.
Later, Lauda admitted his bold move should never have worked, finishing poorly, if at all, driving for STP March Racing and Marlboro-BRM. Still, Enzo Ferrari himself took notice of Lauda’s speed and potential, offering him a driving spot in 1974. Lauda bought his way out of the BRM contract and started driving for Scudiera Ferrari, becoming Ferrari’s first championship driver in a decade. Fueled by the 1975 World Championship win,
Inexplicably, in the second turn of the Nürburgring, then considered to be the most challenging and demanding circuit in the world, Lauda’s car slipped off the track, bounced off the berm and back into the track and burst into flames. Despite the brave efforts of fellow drivers and emergency response teams, he suffered third-degree burns on his head and wrists, several broken bones, and scorched lungs from breathing superheated toxic fumes.
Due to the seriousness of his injuries, it seemed Lauda had a slim chance at recovery, even being read his last rites, but he proved everyone wrong just six weeks later, taking part in the Italian Gran Prix. Even though his wounds hadn’t fully healed and his doctors cautioned against it – he wore a specially-modified helmet to keep from chafing his head – he finished in fourth place, maintaining his prospects of another world championship.
Just a few weeks later, in fact, the 1976 championship would be decided by just two racers, Lauda and McLaren’s James Hunt, longtime friend and rival racer. Lauda gave up the World Championship, pulling out early in the Japan’s Fuji Circuit because of the torrential rains. The gripping 1976 Formula 1 rivalry between Hunt and Lauda was eventually dramatized in Hollywood’s Rush, released in 2013 and in which Lauda cameoed.
Lauda’s withdrawal was indeed “an act of bravery,” as Hunt put it, not a moment of weakness, and Lauda went on to dominate the 1977 season, taking the title with two races to go. At that point, he left the Ferrari team, going on to drive for Parmalat Racing for a couple of seasons, when he suddenly announced his retirement. Mid-way through the Canadian Gran Prix weekend, Lauda hung up his driving gloves, but it wouldn’t be for long.
“Tired of driving in circles,” Lauda used his wealth and business savvy to establish his own charter airline company, Lauda Air, only to return to racing again a few years later. He signed an unprecedented salary of $3 million with Marlboro McLaren, in 1983, going on to take his third World Championship in 1984, by just half a point. In 1985, Lauda won a couple more races, but failed to finish nearly a dozen races and crashed out of his last race, announcing his retirement from driving, this time for good.
In 1993, Lauda was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, meanwhile returning to running his airline and occasionally flying – he had a commercial pilot’s license. He worked as a consultant with Ferrari for a couple of seasons, then as a Formula 1 television commentator. Later, he was team principal for Jaguar a couple of seasons, but his greatest success out of the driver’s seat might be as non-executive chairman of Mercedes AMG Petronas, to which he was appointed in 2012, building a nearly unbeatable team of drivers and cars, racking up world championships to this day.
Sadly, Niki Lauda will not see the end of this Formula 1 racing season. On May 20, 2019, Lauda died in his sleep following a period of declining health. His funeral was attended by prominent Formula 1 personalities and Austrian politicians. Lauda was 70 years old and will be remembered for his calculating and matter-of-fact driving, as one of Formula 1’s greatest legends.