Written by SFCMelbourne member, Michele Terminello
On Tuesday it was with great sadness to hear the loss of a giant in the Formula One paddock, the legendary Niki Lauda.
Lauda was a three-time World Champion, winning twice with Ferrari in 1975 and 1977 along with one at McLaren in 1984. He was the only driver in Formula 1 history to have been champion for both Ferrari and McLaren, the two most successful constructors in Grand Prix racing. He was also remembered for producing one of the biggest comeback stories in the history of world sport after surviving a horrific accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix.
Andreas Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda was born on February 22, 1949 in Vienna, Austria to a wealthy family. His paternal grandfather was industrialist Hans Lauda.
Lauda decided to become a racing driver despite his family’s disapproval. After starting off in a Mini, the Austrian moved onto Formula Vee, as it was normal in Central Europe, but then rapidly made the move into driving Porsche and Chevron sports cars.
When his career stalled, Lauda took out a $30,000 bank loan, along with a life insurance policy, to buy a race-seat into the March team as a Formula 2 driver in 1971. With his family’s disapproval at large, he had an ongoing dispute about his racing ambitions and abandoned further contact with them. He earned a quick promotion to the Formula 1 team in 1972 as well as continuing on racing in the F2 outfit.
Although the F2 cars were performing well and receiving high praise from March Team Principal Robin Herd, March’s 1972 Formula 1 campaign was disastrous with it’s all time low point coming at Mosport Park in the Canadian Grand Prix, which saw both March racers disqualified with three laps of each other after ¾ race distance.
Lauda opted to take another bank loan and bought a drive into the BRM team for the 1973 season. The Austrian was immediately quick, but the team was on a down slope. However, his big moment came when BRM team-mate Clay Regazzoni re-joined Ferrari in 1974 and team owner Enzo Ferrari asked his fellow Italian compatriot what he thought of the talented Lauda.
Regazzoni spoke highly of the Austrian and his fine attention to detail that Ferrari would instantly sign him and paid him enough to clear his debts.
Ferrari endured a difficult start to the 1970’s along with a disastrous start to the 1973 campaign. The Scuderia regrouped quickly under Luca Di Montezemolo’s guidance and resurged in 1974. The
Maranello squad’s faith in Lauda was quickly rewarded as the Austrian scored a second place on debut for the team at the season-opening Argentine Grand Prix. His first victory came only three races later at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Although the Austrian was the season’s pacesetter, taking six pole positions, a mix of inexperience and mechanical unreliability meant Lauda only won one more race that year, which was the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. Lauda finished the season fourth in the Driver’s Championship standings and showed immense commitment to testing and improving the car.
The 1975 campaign saw a slow start for Lauda, with only a best fifth place in the first four rounds. However, he won four of the next five in the new 312t. Lauda’s first World Championship was confirmed after finishing third in Monza at the Italian Grand Prix with team-mate Regazzoni winning the race as the Scuderia wrapped up it’s first Constructors Championship in 11 years. Lauda then took his fifth victory at Watkins Glen in the season-ending United States Grand Prix.
Lauda also became the first driver to lap the Nurburgring Nordschleife in under seven minutes, which was considered a huge achievement as the Nordschleife section of the “Green Hell” was two miles longer than it is today.
Unlike the 1975 season, with tensions between Lauda and Montezemolo’s successor, Daniele Audetto. Lauda was flying at the start of the 1976 campaign, taking victory in four of the first six races and claiming second in the other two.
By the time he clinched his fifth win at the British Grand Prix, Lauda had more than double the points than his closest rivals Jody Scheckter and James Hunt, and a second consecutive World Championship was close to reality. A feat not seen since Sir Jack Brabham’s victories in 1959 and 1960. He was also on course to win the most races in a season, a record held by the late Jim Clark in 1963.
A week before the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring Nordschleife, although he was the fastest driver on that track at the time, Lauda urged his fellow competitors to boycott the race, because of the 23 kilometre circuit’s safety arrangements, the race organisers’ lack of resources to manage the huge track, lack of fire marshals, fire and safety equipment and safety vehicles. Majority of the drivers voted against the boycott in favour of racing.
On August 1, 1976, on the second lap at the very quick Bergwerk, Lauda was involved in a horrific accident where his Ferrari 312T2 went off the track, struck an embankment, erupted into flames and collided with Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford. Unlike Lunger, the Austrian was trapped in the wreckage.
Fellow drivers Arturio Merzario, Lunger, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl came to the scene moments later. Before Merzario could pull Lauda out of his car, he suffered severe burns to his head and inhaled toxic gases that damaged his blood and lungs. As Lauda was wearing a modified helmet because it did not fit properly, the foam compressed and slid off his head leaving his face exposed to the fire.
Although Lauda was conscious and able to stand following the accident, he later fell into a coma. The Austrian suffered extensive scarring, losing nearly all of his right ear, as well as the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows and eye lids. Despite being given the last rites by a Roman Catholic priest, Lauda’s inspiring determination and courage to get back in the car made him fight on. Lauda opted to limit reconstructive surgery to replace his eyelids and getting them to work properly. After the accident, he always wore a cap to cover the scars on his head and arranged for sponsors to use the cap for advertising.
Ferrari reacted quickly and brought in Argentine Carlos Reutemann as his replacement with the Scuderia boycotting the Austrian Grand Prix due to seeing what they described as preferential treatment towards McLaren driver James Hunt at the Spanish and British Grands Prix.
The Austrian only missed two races and appeared at the Italian Grand Prix press conference, six weeks after the accident with his fresh burns still bandaged. He finished fourth in Monza, despite feeling absolutely petrified. Lauda also had to wear a special helmet to reduce his discomfort. In Lauda’s absence, Hunt pushed a late challenge to cut the Austrian’s lead in the Driver’s Championship to just three points. The Briton and Lauda were close friends, despite their intense on-track rivalry, which was clean and fair. After wins in Canada and the United States, the title battle went down to the wire in Japan.
Lauda’s strong relationship with Ferrari was heavily affected after pulling out from the Japanese Grand Prix, which saw him retire after two laps due to torrential rain at Fuji Speedway. He later said it was unsafe to continue under the dangerous conditions, also especially because of his eyes watering excessively from his fire-damaged tear ducts and inability to blink. Hunt lead most of the Grand Prix before falling back down the field due to blistered tyres. The Briton recovered to finish third and won the title by a single point.
Lauda endured a difficult 1977 campaign, despite winning his second championship crown by great consistency. The Austrian was unhappy with Reutemann as his team-mate, who was served as his replacement driver. Lauda felt uncomfortable with Ferrari’s move and announced to quit the team at season’s end, with the Austrian leaving earlier after securing the title at the United States Grand Prix because of the Maranello-based squad’s decision to run the talented Gilles Villeneuve at the Canadian Grand Prix.
In 1978, Lauda joined Parmalat-sponsored Brabham-Alfa Romeo on a $1 million salary. The Austrian suffered two difficult seasons. He won one race with the famous BT46B fan car at the Swedish Grand Prix. But Brabham did not use the car in Formula 1 again, with its radical design being protested by the teams and Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone, who was pulling for Formula One’s commercial rights, did not want to fight a battle over the car with the victory in Sweden remaining official.
The flat-12 powered Brabham Alfa Romeo BT46 began the third round in South Africa. It endured a variety of problems, which saw Lauda retire from nine of 14 races. Apart from victories in Sweden and Italy after penalties handed to Mario Andretti and Villeneuve, he came second in Montreal and Great Britain along with a third-place finish at Zandvoort.
1979 proved a disastrous season for Lauda, with Alfa Romeo providing them with a V12 making it the fourth 12-cylinder engine design the Austrian used in F1 since 1973. The campaign was again hampered by reliability issues and dismal pace, even though he won the Dino Ferrari Grand Prix non-championship round at Imola. Lauda finished fourth in Monza with the Alfa V12, but later Brabham returned to the familiar Cosworth V8. During practice for the Canadian Grand Prix, Lauda informed Ecclestone that he wished to retire from the sport immediately and lost the desire to drive.
Lauda then focused on another passion, flying, and founded Lauda Air, a chartered airline and returned to his native Austria to work on the company full-time and held a commercial pilot’s licence.
In 1982, Lauda returned to Grand Prix racing with McLaren on a $3 million salary. McLaren’s MP4 carbon monocoque-chassis was still in development, which he helped accelerate. The Austrian scored victories at the US Grand Prix West at Long Beach and at Brands Hatch.
1983 was a transitional phase, which saw McLaren switch from Cosworth DFV V8 power to TAG-badged, Porsche V6 turbocharged engines. Lauda only finished on the podium once that season taking second at Long Beach behind team-mate John Watson. Lauda forced team designer John Barnard to design an interim car the MP4/1E to get the TAG-Porsche engine some race testing. The Austrian came close to scoring a victory with the car at the season-ending South African Grand Prix but suffered an engine failure with six laps remaining.
Lauda won his third World Championship in 1984 by only half a point to McLaren team-mate, the rising star Alain Prost, due to only half points being awarded at the rain-soaked Monaco Grand Prix. Initially, Lauda did not want Prost to become his team-mate, as he was a much faster rival. But the two formed a great partnership over the two years and both scored McLaren 12 victories out of 16 with the former scoring five and the latter seven.
1985 saw Lauda retire in 11 of the 14 races. He missed the Belgian Grand Prix due to breaking his wrist during practice and also the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, being replaced by John Watson. The three-time World Champion finished fourth at Imola, fifth at the Nurburgring and took a single victory at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, holding off a fast-charging team-mate of Alain Prost. Lauda’s team-mate Prost claimed his maiden title that year.
Lauda’s final race was the inaugural Australian Grand Prix on the streets of Adelaide where after qualifying 16th on the grid, he made is way through the field to lead by lap 53 before his McLaren’s ceramic brakes failed on lap 57 and the Austrian crashed at the end of the long Brabham Straight.
This was the end of an illustrious Formula 1 career, which saw three World Championships won, 25 victories, 54 podiums, 420.5 points, 24 pole positions and fastest laps.
Lauda then returned to working on his airline, Lauda Air, following his second retirement from Formula One. During his time as airline manager, in 1993, Di Montezemolo appointed the Austrian as a consultant for Ferrari to help rejuvenate the Maranello-based squad.
After selling his shares to majority partner Austrian Airlines in 1999, he managed the Jaguar F1 team from 2001 to 2002. The team was unable to improve and Lauda along with 70 other key personnel were made redundant at the end of 2002.
Towards the end of 2003, he started a new airline called Niki. Similar to Lauda Air, Niki aligned with major partner Air Berlin in 2011. In early 2016, Lauda took over Amira Air and renamed the chartered airline LaudaMotion.
After Air Berlin’s insolvent in 2017, LaudaMotion acquired the Niki brand and asset after unsuccessful bids from Luthansa and IAG.
Since September 2012, he was non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport Formula One Team and owned 10% of the German-Anglo outfit. He played a key role in luring Lewis Hamilton to the team as replacement for Michael Schumacher in 2013. The Silver Arrows since then has dominated the sport dominating both Driver’s and Constructors Championships from 2014-18.
On May 20, 2019, Lauda passed away in his sleep, aged 70, at the University Hospital of Zurich surrounded by his family, where he had undergone dialysis treatment for kidney problems.
Lauda is survived by his ex-wife Marlene Knaus, whom he married in 1976 and divorced in 1991 – they have two sons Mattia and Lukas. A third son called Christoph, who was conceived through an extra-marital relationship. Lauda remarried in 2008 to Birgit Wetzinger and have two twins Max and Mia.
All of us at Scuderia Ferrari Club of Melbourne like to extend our condolences to all of Mr. Lauda’s family and friends at this most difficult time.