Three-time world champion Niki Lauda has died at the age of 70.
Nicknamed “The Rat”, the Austrian, who underwent a lung transplant nine months ago, was as famous for his recovery from a horrific accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix as he was for the world titles he won for Ferrari in 1975 and 1977, and then McLaren in 1984.
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.”
A 25-time grand prix winner, Lauda’s career began with a touch of the entrepreneurial flair that would define his later years. In defiance of his family’s disapproval of his racing ambitions, he took out a bank loan to finance a ride in a Formula 2 March in 1971. That led to further estrangement but rising opportunities, starting with a slapdash Formula 1 program with March in 1972, and then – with the help of another bank loan – a move to BRM. Just a year later, he was signed by Ferrari on the recommendation of former BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni, and he repaid Enzo’s faith almost immediately with victory in the 1974 Spanish GP.
In recent years his racing career has become defined largely by his battle with James Hunt for the 1976 title; a fight that was interrupted when he suffered extensive burns after his Ferrari crashed the Nurburgring and caught fire, trapping Lauda in the cockpit. He lost most of his right ear and his eyelids – the latter were later replaced through reconstructive surgery – and missed just two races before returning, still bandaged, at the Italian GP, where he finished fourth. Lauda ultimately fell short to Hunt that year, but the season was later recreated in the feature film Rush. Lauda bore the scars from the accident for the rest of his life, and took steps to mask them by always wearing a baseball cap – invariably carrying the logo of a sponsor.
An unsuccessful spell with Brabham prompted his retirement in 1979, upon which he turned his full attention to his airline, Lauda Air. He was tempted back into competition by McLaren in 1982, forging a relationship that lasted four years and delivered eight wins and a world title to go with the two he’d already won for Ferrari. He retired from racing at the end of 1985, this time for good.
Lauda sold his shares in his airline to Austrian Airlines in 1999, but remained connected to Formula 1 through consultancy and executive roles with Ferrari and Jaguar. In 2012, he was made non-executive chairman of the Mercedes Formula 1 team, and was involved in the negotiation to bring Lewis Hamilton into the fold from McLaren; a partnership that has since yielded four world championships.
Lauda is survived by his wife, Birgit, and his children Mathias, Lukas, Christoph, Max and Mia.