Niki Lauda, the Austrian racecar driver who won three world championships in Formula One, the sport’s highest level of international competition, and was regarded as one of the greatest speedway drivers of all time, died on Monday in Zurich. He was 70.
His family confirmed the death, at University Hospital, in a statement to the Austria Press Agency. No cause was reported.
Lauda was injured many times in race crashes and once nearly killed. He had kidney transplants in 1997 and 2005, and last August, while struggling with severe lung disease, he underwent what was described as a successful lung transplant at a hospital in Vienna.
The scion of an industrial family that opposed his daredevil driving career, Lauda (pronounced LAO-da) was a road warrior who dazzled motoring experts and crowds that lined the twisting, turning Grand Prix courses of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas for grueling all-weather races. For a driver, it took guts, focus and precision moves among the shifting packs roaring at high speeds.
“Formula One is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits,” Lauda told The Telegraph of London in 2015. “This is why people race — to feel the speed, the car and the control. If in my time you pushed too far, you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive.”
Unlike the Indianapolis 500, America’s Memorial Day weekend classic in which drivers take 200 laps around a 2.5-mile rectangle with rounded corners, Grand Prix races are held worldwide on public roads with hills and turns and on odd-shaped specially built circuits with right- and left-hand curves of varying sharpnesses.
In his 17-year career (1969-1985) in the open cockpit of Porsches, Ferraris, McLarens and other high-tech torpedoes on wheels, mostly in Formula One competition, Lauda won 25 Grand Prix races. Points were awarded to the top six finishers in a race (today it is the top 10), and by amassing the highest point total in 16 authorized races, Lauda won the Formula One world driving championships in 1975, 1977 and 1984.
Since the crowns were first awarded, in 1950, only five drivers have surpassed Lauda’s three titles. The record, seven, was set by Michael Schumacher, of Germany, between 1994 and 2004.
Lauda, a licensed commercial pilot, founded and for years ran his own airline, Lauda Air, first as a charter, then as a scheduled carrier from Austria to Southeast Asia, Australia and the Americas. He sometimes piloted his airline’s flights. In 1991, a Lauda Air jetliner crashed in Thailand, killing all 223 people on board. Lauda was personally involved in the investigation, which was ruled an accident.
After winning his first world driving championship, Lauda seemed destined to repeat in 1976. He won five early events and came in second in two more. But in his next race, the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, a 14-mile, 76-curve course, things went drastically wrong for him and his 1,300-pound blood-red Ferrari.
It had rained, and he hit a slippery patch at 140 miles per hour. He spun out, broke through a restraining fence, which snagged and tore away his helmet, then hit an embankment and bounced back onto the track, where he was hit by several following cars. His ruptured fuel tank burst into flames, which engulfed him in the cockpit.
By the time three other drivers pulled him from the wreckage, he had severe burns of the face, head and hands, a concussion, a broken collarbone and other fractures. His right ear was badly burned. Noxious smoke and gases from the car’s burning interior seared his lungs. He was taken to a hospital in a coma, then to a burn center, seemingly near death.
On Lauda’s third day in intensive care, a Roman Catholic priest gave him the last rites of the church. Lauda was conscious, and the rites only made him angry.
“I kept telling myself, If he wants to do that, O.K., but I’m not quitting,” Lauda told Newsday after he began a remarkable recovery.
He had a series of operations and skin grafts that left permanent scarring on his head. He lost part of his right ear, the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows and both eyelids. He chose to limit reconstructive surgery to the eyelids, and thereafter wore a red baseball cap to cover the worst disfigurements. But he began talking, walking and making plans for his return to racing.
Six weeks after his devastating crash, Lauda returned to competition in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, near Milan. He finished fourth. Against all odds, he began winning again, and finished as runner-up to the 1976 world champion, his British friend James Hunt.
Sustaining his comeback a year later, Lauda again won the world championship, beating Hunt by a single point. Seven years later, after a series of poor racing seasons and a two-year “retirement,” Lauda won his final Formula One championship. He retired from racing in 1985.
For many years, Lauda championed safer racecar and track designs, and urged tighter controls over driving conditions and rules governing race organizers.
“Racing on substandard tracks or in unsafe weather doesn’t test courage,” Lauda told The Boston Globe in 1977. “At present, some of the Grand Prix circuits we drivers are asked to race on do not fulfill the most primitive safety requirements. Also, the decision to call off or stop a race can’t be left entirely to the organizers, who too often put prestige before the safety of the drivers. We need independent experts whose authority should be supreme.”
Over the years, in response to deadly crashes and the increasing power of engines, sanctioning organizations have mandated many changes in safety regulations and technology, including electronic driver aids and grooved tires, to improve the road grip and cornering controls of cars, as well as rules limiting racing in extreme weather conditions to minimize dangers of aquaplaning. Tracks have been redesigned and stronger barriers built to increase the safety of spectators. Major accidents in Formula One racing have steadily declined.
Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born in Vienna on Feb. 22, 1949, to Ernst-Peter and Elisabeth Lauda. Niki and his brother, Florian, grew up in one of Austria’s leading families. Their paternal grandfather, Hans Lauda, had built a papermaking empire.
Niki was a bright but lazy student, and his parents wanted him to go into the family business. But cars became his passion. As a schoolboy, he drove an uncle’s BMW around a paper mill yard, and at 14 he was taking Volkswagens apart. At 18, he quit school, borrowed money to buy a Mini Cooper and got into mountain racing. A year later, he went deeper into debt to acquire a Porsche 911.
In 1969, he began racing in earnest, and won eight races at a low level of competition. Over the next few years he borrowed on his life insurance and, without authorization, used his family name to finance better cars for tougher racing events. His success drew the attention of Enzo Ferrari, the aging head of the Italian motor car company, who in 1973 invited him to join the Ferrari racing team.
Lauda jumped at the chance. He marveled at the Ferrari test track at Fiorano, near Modena in northern Italy, comparing it to a NASA training site, with a private track, automated timekeepers, closed-circuit television facilities and an army of automotive engineers, fitters, technicians and administrators.
“I couldn’t imagine how such a setup could fail to win,” he wrote in “My Years With Ferrari” (1978), one of his five books. Two years after joining the team, he gave Ferrari its first victory in 20 years at the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, and went on to win the world championship.
In 1976, Lauda married Marlene Knaus. They had two children, Mathias and Lukas, and were divorced in 1991. He also had a son, Christoph, in an extramarital relationship. In 2008, he married Birgit Wetzinger, a flight attendant 30 years his junior, who gave birth to twins, Max and Mia, in 2009. European news reports said his survivors include his wife and children.
Lauda established Lauda Air as a charter service in 1979, and it began scheduled flights in 1987. He sold the company in 1999 and four years later started a new budget airline, Niki. He often piloted its flights twice a week. Niki merged with Air Berlin in 2011, and in 2016 he took over another charter airline, calling it Lauda Motion.
For many years he was a commentator on German television for Grand Prix races.
Ron Howard’s 2013 biographical sports film, “Rush,” portrayed the 1976 Grand Prix season rivalry between Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). The film grossed nearly $100 million at the box office. (Hunt died in 1993.)
“Mr. Howard doesn’t just want you to crawl inside a Formula One racecar,” Manohla Dargis wrote in a review for The New York Times, “he also wants you to crawl inside its driver’s head.”
Lauda praised the film, whose exhilarating race sequences were shot on location at German and British racetracks, as a “very accurate” drama.
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the number of finishers in a Formula One race who are awarded points toward winning a world driving championship in a given year. Though it is true, as the obituary stated, that points were awarded to the top six finishers when Lauda was racing, today points are given to the top 10 finishers.
Daniel Victor contributed reporting.
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