Wednesday 21 August 2019

Obituary: Niki Lauda

Racing driver who won three Formula One world championships, returning to the track only weeks after a bad crash

Niki Lauda recovering after his horrific crash. Photo: PA
Niki Lauda recovering after his horrific crash. Photo: PA
Courageous: Formula One legend Niki Lauda. Photo: AP

NIKI Lauda, who has died aged 70, was a three-times Formula One world champion, winning two of his titles after surviving a near-fatal crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix; on retiring from motor racing he became an aviation entrepreneur, establishing commercial airline businesses in his native Austria.

Driving for Ferrari, Lauda had taken his first world title in 1975, and he won four of the first six races in the new season, finishing second in the other two. By the time the drivers gathered for the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring on August 1, he had amassed 61 world championship points, 35 clear of his nearest rivals, James Hunt and Patrick Depailler.

In those days death and serious injury were an everyday hazard for the drivers, and a week before the Nurburgring race Lauda had criticised safety features at the circuit, calling for a boycott. His colleagues demurred and the Grand Prix went ahead as planned.

On only the second lap, Lauda's Ferrari swerved off the track, crashed through the safety net and hit the embankment, bouncing back on to the circuit, where it collided with another car. As the Ferrari burst into flames, Lauda was trapped in the wreckage. Four other drivers came quickly to his aid, Arturo Merzario managing to pull him clear.

Lauda lapsed into a coma. For four days he was treated in intensive care for severe burns, broken bones and scorching to the lungs caused by the inhalation of smoke and petrol fumes. At one point a priest was called to administer the last rites.

The burns to Lauda's head and face were particularly extensive (his wife Marlene fainted when she first saw the damage), and he underwent an operation to reconstruct his eyelids. But although he lost most of his right ear, he always refused to submit to cosmetic surgery, saying: "There is really no point in having a complex about losing half an ear." After the accident, to cover the scars on his head he always sported a red cap, characteristically charging a company to advertise its logo.

Remarkably, Lauda was back behind the wheel six weeks after his "shunt", as he always referred to it. Although he later claimed that initially he had been "rigid with fear", he managed to finish fourth in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in what must rank as one of the most courageous comebacks in the history of sport.

He had missed only two races but had conceded 12 points of his world championship lead to Hunt, who went on to win in Canada and the United States, reducing the deficit to three before the final race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji.

Lauda and some of the other drivers were reluctant to start at Fuji owing to the torrential rain, but they were overruled by the organisers. Lauda decided to retire on the second lap; Hunt finished third, thus winning the title by a single point.

In Italy, Lauda faced accusations of cowardice, and his already difficult relationship with his boss, Enzo Ferrari, suffered further: before the crash at the Nurburgring, Enzo had opened negotiations to extend Lauda's contract, calling the driver an "insolent pig" for demanding too much money.

In the event, Lauda took a second world championship in 1977, winning the South African, German and Dutch Grands Prix; but having secured the title with two races remaining, he walked out on Ferrari and signed for Bernie Ecclestone and Brabham-Alfa Romeo.

Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born in Vienna into a prominent Austrian business family on February 22, 1949. "I was brought up in a distinctly cold environment," he later wrote, observing that he was forced to learn to ride a horse despite the fact that "everything about it disgusted me"; but he did credit his upbringing with imbuing in him both self-confidence and an "addiction to excellence".

The latter quality was not expressed at school, where he was a scholastic failure, and his refusal to sit the exams for university caused his worried parents to enrol him on a car mechanics' course. Cars had been his only obvious interest from an early age, and in his early teens he had managed to acquire a 1949 Volkswagen Beetle convertible which he would drive on the country estate of one of his relations, building a take-off ramp to see how far it would "fly".

He began his motor racing career in hill climbs and Formula Vee, and in 1971 bought his way into the March Formula Two team with a £20,000 bank loan - necessary because his father, considering a Lauda's participation in motorsport to be seriously declasse, refused to help him financially.

No doubt the family name opened doors, however, because a year later, when March wanted a further £100,000 to let him have drives in Formula One, Niki was able to borrow from another Austrian bank; and in 1973, when BRM agreed to take him on, he once more bought his way in, leaving him with total debts of around £160,000.

Although he failed to finish higher than fifth in a Formula One race for BMW, Lauda caught the eye of Enzo Ferrari, who signed him for the 1974 season, paying him enough to clear his debts. Ferrari had not had a world champion since John Surtees in 1964, and had subsequently won an average of only one race per season; but it was about to enter a new era under the management of Luca di Montezemolo.

In his first Grand Prix for his new team, Lauda finished second in Argentina, and in March 1974 he took the chequered flag - his debut Grand Prix victory - in Spain. He went on to win in the Netherlands, and although failing to finish in the last five races, he managed to end the season fourth in the drivers' championship.

Driving the new Ferrari 312T, Lauda made a slow start in 1975, but then won in Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France and the United States. He won his first world title, and Ferrari took its first constructors' championship in 11 years. Famously, Lauda gave away his trophies to his local garage in lieu of paying for his car to be washed and serviced.

In 1978, after signing for Brabham-Alfa Romeo for a reputed $1m salary, as defending world champion Lauda won only the Swedish and Italian Grand Prix. The following year he failed to win any, and that September he announced his immediate retirement, declaring that he was "fed up driving round in stupid circles".

He had recently launched a charter airline, Lauda Air, and he returned to Austria to concentrate on running the business full-time. Operating short- to medium-haul routes with aircraft carrying a maximum of 44 passengers, Lauda was aiming for a different market to that occupied by Austria's national airline, AUA. But he later complained that AUA, with its considerable influence at the transport ministry, made every effort to put him out of business: permits for Lauda Air routes took a mysteriously long time to be granted, and at one stage AUA triggered a price war.

There were those who therefore suspected that, when Lauda returned to motor racing in 1982, it was because he needed to generate more capital for his ailing business. Lauda dismissed this, saying that he had signed for Ron Dennis's McLaren team because, "I wanted to find out whether I would be capable of coming back".

What is certainly the case is that he demanded from McLaren's sponsor, Marlboro, "more money (an estimated $5m) than anyone had ever earned in Formula One", telling them: "My PR value alone is worth that much. You'll be paying only one dollar for my driving ability, all the rest is for my personality."

Before taking his place on the grid for the first race of his comeback (the South African Grand Prix), Lauda persuaded most of his fellow drivers to "strike" over a new Formula One licence requirement stipulating that drivers did not have the right to switch to another team before the end of their contracts. The authorities eventually capitulated, and the race went ahead, Lauda finishing fourth. He returned to the winner's podium in his third race back, the Grand Prix at Long Beach.

During the 1983 season McLaren introduced a turbo engine, but Lauda failed to win a race. The following year he was joined on the team by the brilliant French driver Alain Prost, and while Prost won seven Grands Prix to Lauda's five, Lauda secured his third and final world title by half a point.

Initially, Lauda had not welcomed Prost as his team-mate: "I was not happy at the prospect of having a superstar in the team... I knew deep down that I was in for a hard time." During their two seasons together, however, they developed a good relationship.

The same could not be said of Lauda and McLaren's team leader, Ron Dennis, who thought that Lauda was earning too much money and succeeded in cutting his salary by a third.

For his part, Lauda was convinced that Dennis was favouring Prost at his expense. In 1985 he retired from driving for good, having enjoyed a final Grand Prix success, in the Dutch race at Zandvoort.

There is no doubt that Lauda was one of the great Formula One drivers, noted for his cool and clinical approach, and, of course, for his courage.

At the same time, he never had the charisma that fans identified in drivers such as Hunt, Ayrton Senna and Gilles Villeneuve.

After retiring Lauda concentrated on running his airline, although he continued to be a familiar figure on the Grand Prix circuit as a television pundit.

In business Lauda acquired a reputation for ruthlessness; in his private life, for parsimony. When he agreed to give people a lift in his private jet, which he piloted himself, the passengers were not allowed to drink alcohol.

Niki Lauda married first, in 1976 (dissolved 1991), Marlene Knaus, a former girlfriend of the actor Curt Jurgens. When she and Lauda first met, she thought he was a tennis player. They had two sons, Mathias, who followed his father as a racing driver, and Lukas, who became his brother's manager.

He married secondly, in 2008, Birgit Wetzinger, a flight attendant for his airline. They had twins, a boy and a girl, Max and Mia. Lauda also had a son, Christoph, from an another relationship.

Niki Lauda died on May 20.

© Telegraph

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