Austrian F1 legend Niki Lauda dies at 70

Niki Lauda, who has died aged 70, was a three-time Formula 1 world champion, non-executive chairman of the world champion Mercedes team, and one of the biggest names in motorsport.

He was also a pilot and successful businessman, who set up two airlines and continued to occasionally captain their planes into his late 60s.

But he will be remembered most for the remarkable bravery and resilience he showed in recovering from a fiery crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix at the fearsome Nurburgring.

Lauda, then leading the World Championship – having won his first title a year earlier, suffered third-degree burns to his head and face that left him scarred for life, inhaled toxic gases that damaged his lungs, and received the last rites in hospital.

Yet he returned to racing just 40 days later – finishing fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. By the end of the race, his unhealed wounds had soaked his fireproof balaclava in blood. When he tried to remove the balaclava, he found it was stuck to his bandages, and had to resort to ripping it off in one go.

It was one of the bravest acts in the history of sport.

Sporting Witness: Niki Lauda crashes

At the time, Lauda played down his condition. Later, in his disarmingly frank autobiography, he admitted he had been so scared he could hardly drive.

“I said then and later that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly,” Lauda wrote in To Hell And Back. “That was a lie. But it would have been foolish to play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza, I was rigid with fear.”

Lauda drove that weekend because he felt it was the “best thing” for his physical and mental wellbeing. “Lying in bed ruminating about the ‘Ring,” he said, “would have finished me.”

The accident ended the notorious Nurburgring’s time as a Formula 1 circuit.

Lauda had been warning for some time that the circuit was too dangerous for F1. Its 14 miles twisting through the Eifel mountains meant the emergency services were stretched too far, he said, and any driver who had a serious crash was therefore at a disproportionately high risk in an era that was already extremely dangerous.

What happened on 1 August proved him right. For unknown reasons, Lauda lost control at a flat-out kink before a corner called Bergwerk, hit an embankment and his car burst into flames.

Trapped in the wreckage, but conscious, he was dragged clear by four fellow drivers – but not before he had suffered severe injuries.

Lauda carried the scars, including a mostly missing right ear, for the rest of his life and always had a matter-of-fact approach to his disfigurement. It didn’t bother him, he said, and if others felt differently, that was their problem.

His injuries, in fact, were often the butt of his merciless wit.

Once it was pointed out to him that, owing to the rule that says the original start of a race does not count if there is a restart, he had not officially taken part in the 1976 German Grand Prix. “Oh yes,” he said, in his clipped tones, “so what happened to my ear?”

The accident came at a time when Lauda appeared to be cruising to a second consecutive world title for Ferrari, and his determination to return was founded in his desire to shore up a lead that was rapidly diminishing in his absence from competition, under assault from British McLaren driver James Hunt.

The compelling narrative of that season was effectively the kick-start for F1’s current global popularity. The storyline had something for everyone – the ascetic Austrian racing driver-cum-engineer, renowned for his clinical approach and lack of emotions, driving for Ferrari; the handsome, playboy Englishman bon vivant for McLaren. Lauda’s crash and awe-inspiring recovery only added to the frisson.

By the final round in Japan, Lauda was only three points ahead, and when raceday brought torrential rain, he refused to race, saying it was too dangerous.

Lauda admitted he was “panic-stricken” – feelings rooted in his crash – but later said he regretted the decision. Ferrari remonstrated with him and tried to convince him to race, but he refused, and Hunt took the third place he needed to win the title by one point.

Their battle has been turned into a Hollywood film, but it misrepresented them as enemies – in fact, Lauda and Hunt were close friends. So much so they had next-door rooms that weekend in Japan and, on race morning, with Hunt in bed with a girlfriend, Lauda goose-stepped into the room and barked out: “Today, I vin the Vorld Championship”.


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