Zurich, Switzerland–Three-time World Driving Champion Niki Lauda died Monday May 20 at University Hospital here. Lauda had been in failing health since the beginning of the year when he contacted pneumonia, several months after undergoing a lung transplant in August 2018. His death was confirmed in a statement from his family, which read in part: “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.”
One of the most legendary drivers in motorsport, his remarkable comeback from a near fatal crash and fire at the August 1976 Nürburgring Formula 1 race showed what a true hero is made of, Lauda rescued from his burning Ferrari 312 T2 by Harald Ertl, Guy Edwards and Brett Lunger with Arturo Merzario pulling him out of the flaming cockpit. Lauda had lost his helmet in the crash, so burns to his head and face were extreme, but it was the inhalation of flames and fumes that did damage to his lungs and his chances of survival were very slim.
Six weeks later he was back, battling his rival James Hunt, but Lauda missed the ’76 championship by only a single point. The return from such a devastating crash was astounding, but even more astounding was him winning the championship the following year in 1977, making the recent comeback by a famous golfer laughable by comparison. Lauda knew how to get the best out of his team, his car and mostly himself–a thinking racer and a stickler for details who won 25 Grands Prix in total.
Lauda later regretted leaving Ferrari at the end of 1977 because Enzo Ferrari made him the number two driver behind Carlos Reutemann, saying if he had stayed with the competitive Ferrari he felt he could have won more races and perhaps more championships.
After a brief retirement in 1979 to concentrate on his commercial airline business Lauda Air, he joined McLaren in 1982 and won another title with them in 1984, but retired for good in 1985.
Lauda is survived by his wife Birgit and children Mathias, Lukas, Christoph, Max and Mia.
Vintage Motorsport will present a tribute to Lauda by Pete Lyons in the 19.5 Sept/Oct issue.