Grand Prix career: 1971-1979, 1982-1985
World Champion: 1975, 1977, 1984
Andreas Nikolaus ‘Niki’ Lauda was born in 1949 to one of Vienna’s wealthier families. A powerful interest in all things automotive led young Niki to learn to drive at a very early age – so well, in fact, that visiting relatives were trusting him with parking their cars when the eager driver was just 12 years old.
However, Niki’s love affair with cars was soon to cause the Lauda family a great deal of concern, as it became evident that this was not going to be a passing phase. Despite his father’s disapproval, Niki took up racing seriously, progressing from wild hill climbs to Formula Vee – popular in Central Europe at the time – and on to Formula 3, with a combination of reckless style and dedication.
Success eluded the young driver in these categories, and in 1971 Niki decided to move up. He used the reputation of the Lauda family name to take out a sizeable bank loan, and with it, he managed to buy an F2 seat in the young March team. Lauda’s driving impressed the March owners, who promoted him to F1 for the next year. These efforts notwithstanding, 1972 proved to be a disappointing year for the team, and Lauda decided to leave for more promising pastures. Running even deeper into debt, he managed to buy an F1 seat in rival team BRM and delivered a brilliant 1973 season. It was to be Niki Lauda’s first big year.
The Ferrari Years
Former BRM teammate, Clay Regazzoni, had a high opinion of Lauda, and said so when asked by Enzo Ferrari. This was good enough for the legendary team boss to sign Lauda – and just in time, too. By then, the young Austrian‘s debts had risen to dizzying heights even by his own devil-may-care standards.
Newly solvent and with a good car under him, the initially little-known Lauda quickly proved himself to be a valuable new addition to the Prancing Horse stables. After only four races with Ferrari, he gave his new team its first victory in two long years, at the Spanish 1974 GP.
A combination of inexperience and impetuosity lost him the title that year, despite having shown remarkable skill and commitment. Lauda returned in 1975 to a season that began modestly but soon built up to a conclusive victory, his first Formula One World Champion title. Lauda himself would later refer to 1975 as ‘the unbelievable year’.
By now, Niki Lauda was a major force in F1, and a string of impressive victories had earned him a place of honour in Grand Prix history. Yet, it was a race he did not win that would make him a legend.
Lauda was clearly leading the 1976 season. He was soaring towards his second consecutive World Championship – a feat not achieved by any driver since the late 50’s – with a first-place position in five out of the season’s nine races. The tenth was to be the German Grand Prix at the daunting Nürburgring circuit.
After a pit-stop early in the race, Lauda’s Ferrari inexplicably swerved out of control, into an embankment and across the track. The car burst into flames, and Lauda was trapped inside. Several drivers bravely managed to extract him from the burning wreck, including a fearless Arturo Merzario and Englishman Guy Edwards, who was later awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his valour. Lauda was able to stand immediately after the accident, but he had been badly injured, having suffered horrific burns and lung damage from the hot, toxic gases. He soon lapsed into a coma. He was in such a bad state that a priest was called in to administer the Last Rites. Six weeks and two races later, in a show of courage seldom seen in any sport, the indomitable Niki Lauda was competing again and finishing a sensational 4th place at Monza. He had accepted only the bare minimum of reconstructive surgery, just enough to have working eyelids.
It came to the last race of the year, the Japanese GP at Fuji Speedway, and Lauda was still three points ahead of his closest rival, McLaren’s James Hunt. A torrential downpour greeted the start of the race, and after two laps Lauda – whose eyes had yet to heal completely – decided it was unsafe to continue under those conditions. It was a controversial and brave decision, so close to victory. Even so, he only lost that year’s Championship by one point.
His withdrawal from Fuji was not well received by Ferrari, and the relationship between team and driver became severely strained because of it. Despite winning a second World Championship with Ferrari in 1977, Lauda parted company – in no friendly terms – with the team that he had come to symbolize for the past four years. He then joined Brabham Alfa Romeo for two lacklustre seasons.
Retirement & comeback
Lauda retired from racing in characteristically unpredictable fashion, announcing in the middle of practice for the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix that he was tired of ‘driving around in circles’. In a move that has yet to be emulated by any other F1 champion, he promptly went on to run his own airline. In another unprecedented move, Lauda decided to return to Formula One two seasons later, by his own admission to aid his struggling Lauda Air financially.
He signed with McLaren in 1982, despite the initial doubts of the team’s sponsors. It was a triumphant comeback, and it took Lauda just three races to silence the sceptics and win again at the Long Beach GP in 1982. He won his third World Championship in 1984, snatching the trophy from teammate Alain Proust by just half a point, the narrowest margin in F1 history. He retired definitively from Formula One racing the following year, with 25 GP wins and three World Championships under his belt.
Niki Lauda today
Today Lauda divides his time between running Niki, the airline he founded in 2003 (a licensed commercial pilot, he has been known occasionally to be the captain of his airline’s flights), and providing sharp commentary for Austrian and German television. His feud with Ferrari has long since cooled, and he now serves as a consultant for the Italian team. Time has taken none of the edge off Lauda, however, and he recently directed some stinging words towards fellow F1 idol Michael Schumacher. He has also written four books on his career and on Formula One racing.
Fans of the Formula One will always remember Lauda as a precise and cerebral driver, a fiercely independent champion with a quick, clever way of handling interviewers, but more importantly, a courageous individual who faced formidable drawbacks with fearless determination. A true legend of the sport, Niki Lauda was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993.