Earlier this evening, I received a text that absolutely shocked me. It read simply “Niki Lauda died”. It was the last thing I was expecting. After everything he’s been through, I thought Niki was invincible. He’s an aboslute legend in F1.
Most recently, Niki was the non-executive chairman of Mercedes AMG F1 Team with a 10% stake. This team will more than likely go down in history as the team with the most successful run of consecutive double championships. Let’s back up a bit first. Niki was born to an extremely wealthy family in 1949 who disapproved of his desire to become a racing driver. Niki being Niki broke off contact with his family and took out multiple loans to fuel his ambition, ultimately working in his favor and ending up with a seat at Ferrari in 1974, the same year Luca di Montezemolo took over the struggling outfit. Out of fifteen Grands Prix that year, he retired in 8, but won two and finishing second in three. He finished fourth in the championship that year behind his teammate Clay Regazzoni.
The following year, his first four races were unremarkable with his best result being a fifth place finish and with one retirement in Spain. Then he won three in a row, ultimately driving Ferrari to their first constructor’s championship since 1964 (strangely enough, it has currently been 11 years since their last constructor’s championship). Niki ended up winning the Driver’s Championship that year by 19.5 points (a massive margin back then).
1976 was the gamechanger. Through the first nine races, Niki won 4, and had been on the podium in all but the French Grand Prix where both Ferrari’s suffered engine failures. The following race, on August 1, was at the infamous Nurburgring, which was 14 miles long, roughly three times longer than the next longest circuit on the calendar, Interlagos. There had been concerns about the safety of the track, but all drivers eventually raced. Under changing track conditions, Lauda started in second position next to James Hunt. On the second lap, Lauda had an alleged suspension failure and lost control of the car, hitting the barriers and bouncing back into the track where his car caught fire. He was hit by two other cars. Eventually, in what must have felt like several lifetimes for him, he was pulled from his car and was taken to the hospital with serious burns to his head, face, and lungs. This is why he always wore a hat. Ferrari boycotted the next race, which was Lauda’s home race, in Austria. James Hunt won the following Dutch GP and was on his way to walking away with the championship. The following race at Monza, just 42 days after his accident that would have kept most people from ever getting behind the wheel of a car again, he was back in the car. It was such a surprise that Ferrari had to run three cars in the race.
Niki would have more than likely won the championship this year, except that he smartly chose to retire himself in the final race on lap 2 due to the track conditions. He knew it wasn’t worth the risk. James Hunt ended up finishing third at the Japanese Grand Prix and took his one and only title. Niki won the championship again in 1977 with Ferrari before moving to Brabham under relatively new owner at the time, Bernie Ecclestone. Lauda raced for Bernie for two seasons before announcing his retirement in September 1979.
He returned to Formula 1 in 1982 for McLaren finishing fifth and winning 2 races. In 1983, he retired from more than half races before McLaren switched engines for the 1984 season. Niki Lauda and his teamate, Alain Prost, absolutely dominated the season, winning 12 of 16 races. Niki won his third driver’s championship this year. He only won because of the Monaco Grand Prix being called early due to weather conditions, and the drivers were only awarded half points (Prost was leading at the end of the lap prior to the race being called). This was the same the race where a young Brazilian driver would truly show what he was capable of.
1985 was a poor year for Niki, having him retire 11 of the 14 races he started. He retired for the second time at the end of the season being replaced by Keke Rosberg.
Niki Lauda has done of alot of things since his racing days, including managing F1 teams, writing several books, and has run three different airlines. He was married twice and has five children. His youngest two are just 10 years old today.
Niki is a hero in my mind. He is the epitome of what hard work can do for you. The thing about Niki Lauda for me that I believe is how he has always been is in a scene at the end of the movie Rush, which is based on the 1976 rivalry between Niki and James. James has just won
the championship and is getting on his plane with several beautiful women. I’m sure I’ll butcher this, but here goes. Niki happens to be at the airport working on his plane. James says something to the effect of “did you really work this hard to just go back to work?” Lauda’s response was simply “of course”. He was the hardest working, most bad ass there was. He will be missed greatly.
May he rest in peace.