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Who is Niki Lauda?

Niki Lauda, former Ferrari and McLaren driver and three-time F1 champion, "passed away peacefully" at the age of 70 after long-term illness.

By: Sports Desk |
Updated: May 21, 2019 1:10:46 pm
Niki Lauda during the qualifying in Hockenheimring. Niki Lauda passed away surrounded by family after long-term illness. (Source: Reuters file photo)

Austria-born Niki Lauda, one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time, died on May 21, 2019, at the age of 70, his lawyer and a family spokesman confirmed.

“With deep sadness we announce that our beloved Niki passed away peacefully surrounded by family on Monday,” a spokeswoman for Lauda’s airline Laudamotion said in a statement carried by Austria’s public broadcaster ORF and Germany’s DPA news agency. “His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable.”

He had been ill in the recent past, developed a lung infection in 2018 and was forced to undergo an emergency lung transplant. He was hospitalised again in January this year with the flu.

Personal life

Former Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda poses for photographers in front of an airbus A320 at Vienna's Airport, Austria Niki Lauda ran an aviation business since the 1980s. (Source: Reuters File Photo)

Born on February 22, 1949 into a wealthy Vienna family, Nikolaus Andreas Lauda was expected to follow his father into the paper-manufacturing industry, but instead concentrated his talents and determination on his dreams of becoming a racing driver.

Lauda set up his own airline in 1979 after retiring from the sport. Initially a charter airline, Lauda Air expanded in the 1980s to offer flights to Asia and Australia. In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand after one of its engine thrust reversers accidentally deployed during a climb, killing all 213 passengers and 10 crew.

In 1997, Austrian Airlines took a minority stake and in 2000, with the company making losses, Lauda resigned as board chairman after an external audit criticised a lack of internal financial control over business conducted in foreign currency. Austrian Airlines later took full control.

Lauda founded a new airline, Niki, in 2003. Germany’s Air Berlin took a minority stake and later full control of that airline, which Lauda bought back in early 2018.

He partnered with budget carrier Ryanair on Niki’s successor, LaudaMotion.

Formula 1 career

Austrian auto racer Niki Lauda, right, defending champion in world driving, and James Hunt, of Britain, look at the rain before the start of the Japan Grand Prix Formula One auto race at Fuji International Speedway, Gotemba, Japan Niki Lauda enjoyed a fierce rivalry with James Hunt. (Source: AP File)

Lauda financed his early career with the help of a string of loans, working his way through the ranks of Formula 3 and Formula 2. He made his F1 debut for the March team at the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix and picked up his first points in 1973 with a fifth-place finish for BRM in Belgium.

Three-time Formula 1 World Champion Lauda won 25 Grands Prix for Ferrari, Brabham and McLaren during his glittering career. It started with 1974 Spanish Grand Prix and continued with wins in Netherlands, Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France, United States (1975), Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, Monaco, Britain (1976), South Africa, Germany, Netherlands (1977), Sweden, Italy (1978), US West, Britain (1982), South Africa, France, Britain, Austria, Italy (1984) and finally in Netherlands (1985).

Lauda won three world titles in 1975, 1977 and 1984 with Mercedes and Ferrari.

He retired initially in 1979 before coming out of retirement in 1982 after a big-money offer from McLaren, reportedly about $3 million a year. Lauda finished fifth his first year back and 10th in 1983, but came back to win five races and edge teammate Alain Prost for his third title in 1984. He retired for good the following year, saying he needed more time to devote to his airline business.

Life-altering 1976 crash in Nurburgring

Former Formula One driver Niki Lauda poses with his Lifetime award during the Laureus World Sports Awards 2016 in Berlin, Germany Niki Lauda won the Lifetime Achievement Award at 2016 Laureus Sports Awards. (Source: Reuters)

Enjoyed fierce rivalry with McLaren’s James Hunt – which featured in the Ron Howard-directed movie ‘Rush’ – Lauda appeared on course to defend his title in 1976 when he crashed at the Nurburgring during the German Grand Prix. Several drivers stopped to help pull him from the burning car, but the accident would scar him for life. The baseball cap Lauda almost always wore in public became a personal trademark.

“The main damage, I think to myself, was lung damage from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds,” he recalled nearly a decade later. “It was something like 800 degrees.”

Lauda fell into a coma for a time. He said that “for three or four days it was touch and go.”

“Then my lungs recovered and I got my skin grafts done, then basically there was nothing left,” he added. “I was really lucky in a way that I didn’t do any (other) damage to myself. So the real question was then will I be able to drive again, because certainly it was not easy to come back after a race like that.”

Lauda made his comeback just six weeks after the crash, finishing fourth at Monza in Italy after overcoming his initial fears.

He recalled “shaking with fear” as he changed into second gear on the first day of practice and thinking, “I can’t drive.”

The next day, Lauda said he “started very slowly trying to get all the feelings back, especially the confidence that I’m capable of driving these cars again.” The result, he said, boosted his confidence and after four or five races “I had basically overcome the problem of having an accident and everything went back to normal.”

Non-executive chairman at Mercedes

Niki Lauda was the non-executive chairman until he passed away.

In 2012 Lauda became the non-executive chairman at the Mercedes F1 team, and was a key figure at the multiple title-winning squad right up to his illness of last year.

He formed a close bond with driver Lewis Hamilton, who joined the team in 2013. He often backed Hamilton in public and provided advice and counsel to the British driver.

Lauda also intervened as a Mercedes mediator when Hamilton and his former teammate Nico Rosberg feuded, argued and traded barbs as they fought for the title between 2014-16.

Poor health

Lauda twice underwent kidney transplants, receiving an organ donated by his brother in 1997 and, when that stopped functioning well, a kidney donated by his girlfriend in 2005.

In August 2018, he underwent a lung transplant that the Vienna General Hospital said was made necessary by a “serious lung illness.”

Lauda is survived by his second wife, Birgit, and their twin children Max and Mia. He had two adult sons, Lukas and Mathias, from his first marriage.

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(With inputs from AP)

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