By Veronika Hribernik & Dardis McNamee
Niki Lauda loved risk: Revving into car racing on borrowed money at 22, he went on to win three world championships in 14 years. Retired from racing at 36, he took off once more, founding first one, then a second, and just last year, a third low-cost regional airline, all delivering quality service in highly competitive markets, After years of health problems left from his racing injuries, Niki Lauda died on Monday, May 20. He was 70 years old.
Born on Feb. 22, 1949 into an upper-class family of Viennese industrialists, Andreas Nikolaus Lauda went his own way very early on. Passionate about motor sports, he bought his first car at 15, a VW Beetle Cabriolet, and drove trucks to help support it, all to the dismay of his relatives. His decision to begin racing led to a complete break with the family, while he leveraged his well-known name into a series of bank loans that financed his entry into the sport: It was to be the start of Austria’s greatest racing career.
He made his debut in Formula One races in 1971. After short pit stops driving for March and BRM, he switched to Ferrari, winning world championships in 1975 and 1977. During this time he fought a bitter duel for first place with Briton James Hunt – a rivalry that was turned into the 2013 film Rush, written by Peter Morgan (The Queen).
Lauda’s true elevation to legend, however, may have been with the spectacular crash on the Nürnburgring in Germany on August 1, 1976. A faulty steering rod is thought to have wrenched his Ferrari into the guardrails, where the fuel exploded into flames. He was trapped in his burning car for 55 seconds before colleagues were able to pull him out. He was brought to the hospital with severe burns to his head and face, broken bones and lungs damaged from the noxious fumes. Miraculously, he survived – and celebrated his comeback in Monza only six weeks later, where he finished a sensational fourth. A surprise retirement in 1979 didn’t last long. He returned to racing in 1982, and two years later, he won his third and last world championship.
With his racing career now over, he devoted himself to his newly-founded airline, Lauda Air. In the 1990s he joined forces with AUA and Lufthansa, who gradually increased their positions, until in 2000, Lauda withdrew from the company. Three years later, he was back in business with Fly Niki, later shortened to “Niki”, which evolved into another cooperation, this time with Air Berlin, until his withdrawal in 2011. His final venture in aviation was Laudamotion, launched in 2018.
The injuries stemming from the dramatic crash haunted him for the rest of his life: In addition to the scarring on his face and head – the occasion for his signature caps – his kidneys, damaged from side effects of the powerful medications, led to transplants in 1997 and again in 2005. Last year, he had double lung transplant, his third, after years of severe pulmonary disease. He recovered, but returned to the hospital in early 2019, where he died surrounded by his family. He was twice divorced and is survived by five children; his second son Matthias is also a professional race driver, managed by his elder brother Lucas.