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How Niki Lauda’s icy determination drove F1 hero to most courageous comeback in the history of sport

“GIVING up is something a Lauda doesn’t do.”

So said the irrepressible Niki Lauda, who has died at the age of 70 after an extraordinary life in the fast lane.

It couldn’t be a more apt phrase to sum up the Formula One champ.

The Austrian will always be known for the most courageous comeback in the history of sport. He was on the starting line 40 days after being given the last rites following a fireball crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

He had been trapped inside the burning wreckage of his car for more than a minute. Part of his ear was burnt off along with his eyelids and eyebrows. Toxic gas damaged his lungs and he slipped into a coma.


It was a miracle he survived at all, yet he was racing again in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza a few weeks later.

It was years down the line that he admitted that his nerves were shredded but he refused to let anyone see.

Lauda wrote in his autobiography, To Hell And Back: “I said then and later that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly.

“That was a lie. But it would have been foolish to play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza, I was rigid with fear.”

Lauda raced with bandages round his head. During the race his wounds reopened and his fireproof balaclava was soaked in blood. It had stuck to the dressings and Lauda had to rip it free after crossing the line in fourth.

Astonishingly, the heroic driver would go on to win another two world titles to add to the first he won with Ferrari in 1975.


As well as his remarkable return, Lauda was known for his great rivalry with the British McLaren driver James Hunt, a story told in 2013 movie Rush, directed by Ron Howard.

Following Lauda’s crash, Hunt took the championship by a single point. But Lauda would not be defeated — he made sure he got the title back the following year.
The drama of that F1 season is considered by many to have launched the sport’s global popularity.

Its twists and turns had something for everybody, with the clinical, brusque Austrian coming back against the odds to continue his duel with the handsome English playboy.


Away from the track, they were friends who never missed a chance to take the mickey out of each other.

In Japan, on race morning, when Hunt was in bed with a girlfriend, Lauda goosestepped into his room and declared: “Today, I vin the Vorld Championship.”

Lauda had great respect for Hunt, who died of a heart attack in 1993 aged 45.

He said: “We respected each other, because in the old days, to drive 300km an hour side by side towards a corner, if someone makes a mistake, one or both are killed. Hunt was someone you could rely on to be really precise.”

Together, the pair enjoyed all the perks of F1 fame, from the parties to the women.

Lauda once said: “I had a couple of nights out with James . . . or a lot of them. The only difference was I did it mostly on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, after the race, and he did it on Friday and Saturday, before the race.

“We’d go out drinking then try to find where the girls were. James was outstanding, let me tell you.”

In London, Lauda would often stay at Hunt’s flat after a night out. “But not together,” he joked. “There were four of us.”

After Hunt retired and found himself in difficulty, it was Lauda who stepped in to help. Lauda said: “I met him a couple of times in London and he was completely broke because he had invested his money wrong. I told him, ‘You can’t go on like this’. I lent him some money and told him to stop drinking and get going.”


After the accident, Lauda, who possessed a wicked sense of humour, would wear a baseball cap to conceal some of the scars, which he called his “protection for stupid people looking at me stupidly”.

He also said: “I have an accident as an excuse to look ugly. Some people don’t have this excuse.”

Lauda used to give his trophies away to his local garage because they were “useless”. He added: “I said, ‘If you give me a free car wash for the rest of my life, you can have all of them’, and that is what I did.”


Lauda’s route to F1 was one that required determination. He came from a grand Viennese family in the paper-manufacturing business who did not approve of his obsession with cars.

As a teenager he worked as an apprentice mechanic, spending his wages on cars. In 1968, without telling his parents, Lauda won his first race with a Mini he had bought with his grandmother’s help.

By the time he had risen through the ranks to Formula Three, he was heavily in debt.

His F1 debut came at the 1971 Austrian GP driving for March, but the team were uncompetitive.

Lauda borrowed more money and bought a seat at BRM in 1973, alongside Clay Regazzoni.

He so impressed the Swiss driver with his speed and meticulous level of detail that when Regazzoni joined Ferrari, Lauda was also signed.

He retired in 1979 to concentrate on his airline businesses including Lauda Air. But in 1982 he was tempted back by McLaren boss Ron Dennis and a £2.3million salary, the largest fee then seen in the sport. Lauda proved his worth, clinching a third title in 1984 by half a point. A year later, aged 36, he retired from racing for good.


His personal life was as fast-paced as his career, with two wives and five children by three women, one the result of an affair while Lauda was married to his first wife, Marlene Knaus. In 2004 he started dating air hostess Birgit Wetzinger, who was 30 years his junior.

They had only been together for eight months when Lauda needed a kidney transplant, and, in an extraordinary act of love, Birgit donated one of hers.

He had already had one kidney transplant in 1997, with an organ from his brother.

Lauda and Birgit married in 2008 and a year later she gave birth to their twins, Max and Mia.


In recent years, Lauda held temporary roles as a consultant at the Ferrari F1 team and in 2001 took charge of Jaguar for a short spell.

In September 2012, Lauda became a non-executive director of the Mercedes F1 team, convincing Britain’s Lewis Hamilton to jump ship from McLaren to replace Michael Schumacher. Mercedes also needed the three-time world champ Lauda’s sheer bloody-mindedness in countless meetings with former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

There were few people in F1 who would stand up to Ecclestone when it came to racing politics — but Lauda was one of them.

Mercedes has gone on to dominate the sport, winning both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles for the past five years and it is currently leading for a sixth. Lauda’s contribution to Mercedes’ success should not be underestimated.

He caused them a few PR problems with his straight-talking, calling out Hamilton and former team-mate Nico Rosberg whenever he felt the need, yet it was refreshingly honest.

Lauda said there would be “no bulls**t”, a phrase he would frequently drop into an interview, whether or not live on TV.


In July 2018, Lauda was diagnosed with a severe infection that needed a double lung transplant. While the op was a success, in January he caught pneumonia while on holiday in Ibiza and was taken back into hospital in Vienna.

Just last week, at the Spanish Grand Prix, team members were hopeful of his return before the end of the season.

But he died in his sleep on Monday night at the University Hospital of Zurich, Switzerland, plunging the sport into darkness ahead of this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Lauda was much, much more than a former F1 world champion.

He was the personification of heroism.

Niki Lauda shares some moments of befriending and competing against former Formula 1 rival, James Hunt
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