Niki Lauda - Andrew Noakes - Motoring Writer

Niki Lauda, three times F1 World Drivers Champion, team executive and airline entrepreneur has died at the age of 70.

Andreas Nikolaus 'Niki' Lauda was born in Vienna, Austria in 1949. He started racing in a Mini, despite disapproval from his family, then raced in Formula Vee and sports cars. Always a canny financial operator, he borrowed £30,000, secured by a life-insurance policy, to buy his way into the March F2 team for 1971. He graduated to March's F1 team for 1972 but the team had a scrappy season, and Lauda departed for BRM the following year but with little success.

Lauda followed former BRM team-mate Clay Regazzoni to Ferrari in 1974 and rewarded the team's faith in him by winning the Spanish GP at Jarama - Ferrari's first F1 win for almost two years. He followed that up with a win at Zandvoort and ended the year fourth in the F1 championship.

Lauda 1974 Gillfoto CCBYSA

Lauda in 1974 Gillphoto CC-BY-SA

In 1975 Lauda used the new Ferrari 312T to great effect, winning five races on the way to his first F1 drivers title, and when he won four of the first six races in 1976 he appeared to be on his way to a second consecutive championship. All that changed at the Nürburgring, where Lauda tried, unsuccessfully, to organise a boycott of the race on safety grounds.

On lap 2, at the fast left-hander between Bergwerk and Kesselchen, the back of Lauda's Ferrari stepped out and the car hit the bank on the outside of the corner before bouncing back into the middle of the track, already on fire. Guy Edwards' Hesketh squeezed by but the stricken Ferrari was hit by Brett Lunger's Surtees and Harald Ertl's Hesketh. Lauda's helmet had come off during the accident and he was trapped in the cockpit of the burning Ferrari, breathing a mixture of smoke and fuel vapour, until he was extricated by Edwards, Lunger and Ertl, together with another driver, Arturo Merzario.

Lauda 1976 Voudouris

Reigning champion Lauda's Ferrari carries No1 at the British GP in 1976, two weeks before the Nüburgring accident George Voudouris CC-BY-SA

For the next few days Lauda fought for his life – at one stage a priest administered the last rites. But remarkably Lauda was racing again just six weeks later, finishing fourth at the Italian GP wearing a helmet that was modified to provide space for the bandages he still had to wear over his burns. He was still in contention for the championship until the last round, in the rain at Suzuka in Japan, where he parked his Ferrari saying the conditions were unsafe to race. The story of that season was made into a feature film, Rush, in 2013.

Lauda 2017 Toto Wolff Dieter Zetsche

Lauda (right) shares a joke with Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff (left) and Daimler AG chairman Dieter Zetsche at the 2017 Italian GP Daimler

Despite an acrimonious 1977 season at Ferrari, Lauda easily won the championship. For 1978 he moved to Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team but the team's Alfa Romeo engines were a handicap, and Lauda abruptly announced his retirement from F1 during practice for the 1979 Canadian GP.

Lauda had set up the LaudaAir airline and to fund its expansion he returned to F1 in 1982 with McLaren, winning the world championship again in 1984 by just half a point from team-mate Alain Prost. He retired again at the end of the 1985 season, having won 25 races from 171 starts in 13 seasons.

After selling LaudaAir to Austrian Airlines he started two more airlines – Niki and LaudaMotion. He also acted as a consultant to Ferrari's F1 team in the 1990s and then ran Jaguar's shortlived F1 operation from 2001-02. In 2012 he was brought in as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG F1 team, while also acting as a commentator on F1 races for German TV station RTL.

His brother Florian donated a kidney to him in April 1997. When the kidney failed in 2005 his girlfriend, later wife, Birgit Wetzinger donated a kidney for a second transplant. In August 2018 Lauda underwent a lung transplant.

Without doubt Lauda was one of the finest drivers F1 has ever seen. Early in his career he was very fast, setting a record for pole positions in 1975. After his accident he was never quite as quick, but made up for it with consistency and a thoughtful approach like that of Jackie Stewart before him or his McLaren team-mate Alain Prost.

He is survived by his second wife Birgit and their twins, Max and Mia, his first wife Marlene and their two sons Mathias and Lukas, and a son Christophe from another relationship.

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