21 May 2019

Niki Lauda 1949 - 2019

It is with enormous sadness that I must report the death of Niki Lauda, a giant in the world of motor racing - and in business - at the age of only 70. The Austrian underwent a lung transplant eight months ago, but struggled to recover. He had previously undergone two kidney transplants.

The sport has lost a man who truly was a living legend, a phrase that is much misused. Nicknamed The Rat because of his pragmatic ways, Niki was an inspiration to generations of race fans after his extraordinary comeback after a fiery accident during the 1976 German Grand Prix that summer, which left him permanently scarred yet unbowed. He returned to the cockpit at Monza in September that year and continued to fight James Hunt for the World Championship until the season finale in the rain in Japan, where he made the courageous decision to retire his car because he felt conditions were too dangerous to continue.

"His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain a role model and a benchmark for all of us," his family said in a statement.

Lauda was always brutally honest and forthright. If you wanted to know the truth, you asked Niki. He was never one to suffer fools but once you earned his trust, he was a firm friend and advisor, his sharp mind analysing problems in a way that often seemed brutal, but which was a key to his incredible success on the race track and in the business world.

Lauda was born into a wealthy family in Vienna but rather than going into the world of finance, he decided he wanted to race, despite opposition from his parents. With help from his grandmother he bought a Mini and started competing and gradually climbed the racing ladder, borrowing money to do so. He arrived in F1 with a March at the Austrian GP in 1971 and graduated full time in 1972. Although the team did well in F2, the F1 programme was a disaster and the team did not pay much attention to someone they saw as being a pay-driver.

He took out another loan to get a drive with BRM in 1973 where he showed his pace alongside former Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni. When the Swiss driver went back to Ferrari in 1974 team boss Enzo Ferrari asked him what he thought of Lauda and Regazzoni’s opinion was such that Ferrari decided to sign Niki as well. Lauda repaid his debts and Ferrari’s faith in him by winning the 1975 World Championship. He was fighting for the championship again in 1976 when he crashed at the old Nürburgring in August and was trapped in his flaming car. Rescued by other drivers, notably Arturo Merzario, he had suffered terrible burns and was not expected to live. He was administered the Last Rites but he fought back, overcame his fears and fought for the title. The story was told in the 2013 Ron Howard film Rush.

Despite a strained relationship with Ferrari, Lauda showed he had lost none of his pace when he won the World Championship for a second time in 1977 but then quit Ferrari to join Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team.

He retired from F1 in true Lauda style, deciding he had had enough of “driving around in circles” at the Canadian GP in 1979 and he set about building an empire in aviation. Lauda Air was a great success, with previously unseen levels of service at reasonable prices. He worked with a catering firm called Do&Co and later introduced the company to F1 to cater for the Paddock Club VIP hospitality, a role it continues to fulfil today. 

He came out of retirement in 1982 after McLaren’s Ron Dennis convinced him to race for the Woking team, with its revolutionary carbon fibre composite car. He signed what is believed to have been the biggest driver contract at that point - at $3 million a year. He finished fifth that year and in 1984 battled Alain Prost for the World Championship, winning by half a point. It was the narrowest margin of title victory ever.

Lauda quit F1 again at the end of the 1985 season and went back to his airline. In May 1991 one his planes flying from Hong Kong to Vienna crashed in Thailand after a thrust reverser was deployed in flight without the pilots being involved. The Boeing 767 went out of control and broke up in flight, killing all 213 passengers and the 10 crew members on board. Lauda went to the site of the crash to try to understand what had happened, attended funerals of the victims and fought Boeing to get the truth. This resulted in the firm issuing a statement that the crew could not have saved the plane and modifying the thrust reverser system to prevent the same thing happening again.

Lauda was then asked by his old Ferrari boss Luca Montezemolo to act as an advisor in rebuilding Ferrari, although he departed soon after the new team manager Jean Todt took over. He sold Lauda Air to rival Austrian Airlines in 1999 and would return to F1 In 2001 working with Ford and was the boss of Jaguar Racing for a season before falling victim to political machinations within the car company. He then started a new airline called Niki in 2003, while working as an analyst on the German TV channel RTL's F1 coverage. In 2011 he sold Niki to Air Berlin but later retook control of the business under the Laudamotion name.

In September 2012, he was appointed a non-executive director of the Mercedes F1 team and played a key role in the signing of Lewis Hamilton to replace Michael Schumacher. When the ream was restructured early in 2013, he became a 10 percent shareholder in the team and was named non-executive chairman, helping Toto Wolff to build the team that has dominated the sport since 2014. It was not an easy relationship at the start as Wolff felt that Lauda was not enough of a team player and so fined him €50 whenever he said “I” instead of “we”. Lauda would eventually tell the team that his success with Mercedes meant more to him than all his own driving achievements.

In July 2018, Niki was diagnosed with a severe lung infection and underwent a double lung transplant but hoped to return to the team this year. Sadly his health remained frail and he has spent the last months in and out of hospitals with illnesses and kidney problems.

Lauda leaves his wife Birgit, their twins Max and Mia - born in 2009, two sons (Mathias and Lukas) from his first wife Marlene Knaus, and a son - Christoph - born from another relationship.

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