Oliver Brown: 'Lauda leaves great void in F1 but legend will endure'
If Niki Lauda was at peace with the prospect of death, it was because he had been read the last rites once before. With his lungs scorched, his eyelids gone and his face all but unrecognisable from the third-degree burns he had suffered inside his blazing Ferrari at the Nurburgring, it fell to a Catholic priest at a nearby hospital to offer the final ministrations.
Except this clergyman was too early - almost 43 years early. Such was Lauda's defiance, his death yesterday at the age of 70 came as a jolt; a shocking loss of a figure who had come to seem somehow imperishable. Sport - never mind Formula One - has lost perhaps its greatest survivor.
With his ever-present red cap, worn to disguise his disfigurement, Lauda established himself as the irascible elder statesman of modern F1. Not even Lewis Hamilton, the reigning five-time world champion, was safe from the Austrian's waspish rebukes. Long before the two forged a powerful bond at Mercedes, Hamilton tangled with Felipe Massa in Monaco, only to be described by Lauda as "completely mad". In the circumstances, the young driver could not offer much of a riposte. For Lauda was one whose story ensured absolute deference.
In later life, he remained a bridge to a more lethal era of F1; a time when a fatal accident was an occupational hazard. James Hunt, his arch-nemesis, channelled such proximity to death into a famously hard-living credo.
Lauda, though, was never quite so accepting of mortal danger. In the lead-up to the 1976 German Grand Prix, the last ever held on the leviathan Nordschleife lay-out, he cautioned that safety provisions were inadequate. So, when his own car veered off track on the second lap, striking an embankment and bursting into flames, it looked like the fulfilment of his prophecy.
Lauda's injuries were horrendous. It had taken several minutes for Italy's Arturo Merzario to haul him from the wreckage, during which time he had much of his face burnt off, while inhaling toxic fumes that damaged his lungs. There is an unsettling picture from hospital that shows Lauda behind a mask and a doctor at his bedside wearing an expression of frozen horror. And yet Lauda, who later lapsed into a coma, missed just two races.
At Monza, he was back behind the wheel, suppressing all the pain and terror to finish fourth. The term "comeback" has turned into a glib catch-all in sport, but the sight of Lauda post-race, his balaclava soaked in blood from his still-healing wounds, redefined the parameters of athletic courage.
For Lauda, the swiftness of his return was less a reflection of his valour than of the fact that he felt he had no choice. "Lying in bed ruminating about the 'Ring would have finished me," he said.
Instead, he discovered the means not merely to carry on, but to thrive.
Although he lost his 1976 title duel to Hunt, as immortalised in the film 'Rush', he won in South Africa the following year, despite running over wreckage that damaged his radiator. Two other wins would follow and with them a second world championship.
Lauda had not always been accustomed to battling such adversity. As the grandson of Hans Lauda, a prominent Viennese industrialist, he was born into abundant wealth. However, he needed to overcome fierce family resistance to carve out a racing career, earning his first F1 drive by virtue of a loan secured against his life insurance policy.
Lauda signalled his talent first at the moribund BRM team and then at Ferrari. Not that the switch polished his powers of diplomacy - especially when Enzo Ferrari asked him, after a first test at Fiorano, how it felt to drive the gleaming red machine: "I told him that the car was s**t."
Throughout his life, Lauda was never one to suffer fools gladly. In his most recent role as a non-executive chairman of Mercedes, he spared nobody, accusing Nico Rosberg of "ripping a giant hole" in the team by his sudden retirement, and deriding Sebastian Vettel for "screaming like a child".
His relationship with his sport could be tempestuous. In 1979, Lauda walked away, telling Bernie Ecclestone that he had no further desire to "drive around in circles". To fill the void, he focused his energies on making Lauda Air - the charter airline he had set up - a worldwide success. But here, too, his life would collide headlong with calamity. In May 1991, Lauda Air flight 004 from Bangkok to Vienna plunged to earth within moments of take-off, with the loss of all 223 people on board.
Despite a popular assumption that the Nurburgring aftermath represented his darkest days, Lauda would refer to the air disaster - without hesitation - as his life's worst chapter.
Lauda's place among the F1 immortals is secure. As a driver, he left the sport a triple world champion, having vanquished his McLaren team-mate, Alain Prost, in 1984 by half a point, in the closest finish to a season ever seen.
As an executive, he was equally compelling, an antidote to Mercedes' slick corporate sheen, with his boisterous personality and withering put-downs.
But it was his cussed spirit by which he should be most remembered. In his eyes, even the double lung transplant he required last year was but a fleeting inconvenience. While spending several hours a day hooked up to a respirator, he kept promising that he would see his Mercedes colleagues "soon".
In the end, it took a short family statement to confirm the news that the sport had dreaded. Lauda wasn't indestructible, after all. But he was, in more ways than perhaps he realised, irreplaceable.
© Daily Telegraph, London