By Dean Larson

Andreas Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda, legendary Formula One driver and three-time world champion, has passed away on Monday May 20, in Zürich, Switzerland. Lauda was 70 years old and undergoing dialysis treatment for kidney problems.

Lauda’s active racing career spanned more than a decade with 171 race starts and 54 podium finishes to his credit. Regarded as one of the greatest F1 drivers ever, Lauda was a three-time F1 World Driver’s Champion, winning in 1975, 1977 and 1984. But it was much more than podium finishes that made Lauda such a revered figure in racing. Tenacity, precision and a careful eye on safety would define Lauda’s years in the sport.

Born in Austria to a wealthy family, Lauda got his start in racing despite intense disapproval from his family. After Lauda’s initial effort in sports cars stalled, he took out loans to buy his way into Formula Two, and was quickly promoted to Formula One. But his first season brought unfortunate results, despite Lauda’s skill behind the wheel. He took out another loan in 1973, buying his way onto the BRM team.

Lauda’s career really took off in 1974 when he signed with the Ferrari team after a former teammate at BRM personally recommended him at Ferrari. Proving his worth, Lauda put together a successful season in ’74, leading up to a World Championship in 1975.

A defining chapter in Lauda’s career was the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. Even though he would more than likely win the race, Lauda had some very legitimate safety concerns surrounding the course setup. He felt that the crews didn’t have enough resources, vehicles and safety equipment to manage the large track, and he urged the other racers to boycott the race, but the majority voted to proceed as planned.

In the second lap of the race, Lauda’s Ferrari veered off the track and hit an embankment, before being struck by another car. The Ferrari burst into flames, and Lauda was trapped in the car and suffered severe burns to his head and lungs before he was pulled from the wreckage. He would lose most of his right ear, and have significant scaring on the right side of his head, forehead and eyelids. The once almost-certain champion of the ’76 season, would watch as his nearest rival, McLaren’s James Hunt, eroded Lauda’s lead to a close contest.

Mounting one of the most amazing recoveries in the sport, Lauda returned to racing just six weeks after his accident, after missing just two races. His head was still wrapped in bandages, and his eyes were not fully healed, but Lauda managed a fourth place finish at the Italian Grand Prix.

With Hunt trailing by just three points, the championship in ’76 would be decided at the Japanese Grand Prix. However heavy rain convinced Lauda that continuing the race was unsafe, and he retired after two laps, allowing Hunt to win by a single point.

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But the championship in ’76 would be only one chapter in Lauda’s F1 career. He easily captured a championship for Ferrari in 1977, but subsequently endured difficult seasons in ’78 and ’79 with Brabham-Alfa Romeo before retiring. Lauda stated that he had no more desire to “drive around in circles,” and chose to focus on his charter airline business, Lauda Air.

His retirement was short-lived, and Lauda signed an unprecedented $3 million deal with McLaren in 1982. Lauda was back in the winner’s circle at the Long Beach Grand Prix that year, and he also organized a successful drivers’ strike to improve drivers’ negotiating positions within the FIA Super License.

Lauda won his third championship in 1984 with McLaren, and retired for good in 1985 with 25 wins to his name. Still attached to the sport, Lauda was a common site at the track, and did consulting work with Ferrari’s F1 team in the 1990s, was team principal of Jaguar’s F1 team in the early 2000s and was non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team in 2012.

Lauda wrote five books between 1975 and 1996, and his F1 career, the 1976 season especially, was dramatized in the 2013 film Rush. Through his firm, Lauda Air, he remained a well-known personality in the aviation world.

Niki Lauda died on May 20, at the University Hospital of Zürich, where he was receiving treatment for kidney problems. A statement from Lauda’s family states that he went peacefully, surrounded by them.

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Photos:

MacKrys - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...

Martin Lee - Niki Lauda - Ferrari 312B3 approaches Druids Hill Bend at the 1974 Race of Champions, Brands Hatch, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kartingnord/25935375931

Bert Verhoeff / Anefo - http://proxy.handle.net/10648/ac6bbb10-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...

Lothar Spurzem - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...

Suyk, Koen / Anefo / neg. stroken, 1945-1989, 2.24.01.05, item number 929-3239 - http://proxy.handle.net/10648/aca1b8a0-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...

twm1340 - 1984 United States Grand Prix, Fair Park, Dallas, Texas, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...