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As Niki Lauda dies aged 70, TOM LEONARD on the story behind Grand Prix legend's incredible recovery

On an Italian race track in 1976, the world witnessed one of the most courageous displays of resilience in sporting history.

Six weeks earlier at the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring, the Ferrari driven by the Austrian racer Niki Lauda had come round a sharp corner at 140mph and slammed into a barrier. It bounced back on to the track and burst into flames before two more cars smashed into it.

Lauda, then 27, was trapped inside the blazing car for nearly a minute before fellow drivers managed to pull him from the inferno.

Niki Lauda (Austria), James Hunt (Great Britain) chat at the Belgian Grand Prix, Zolder 5 June 1977

Much of his face had been burnt off and his lungs had been torched. As he lay in a coma, a priest gave him the last rites.

And yet just 40 days later, his terrible injuries still raw, the Austrian three-times Formula One champion was back behind the wheel, determined to retain his world title.

He finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, by the end of which his unhealed wounds had soaked his fireproof balaclava in blood.

Lauda, who died in Zurich on Monday aged 70, wouldn't talk about the ordeal — or the fear that he felt as he got back into a racing car — for decades.

'We were by his side for every minute of the last ten months,' his second wife Birgit, first wife Marlene and children Lukas, Matthias, Max and Mia said in a statement. 'We laughed, cried, hoped and suffered with him.'

They added: '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.'

Few would disagree.

The burning Ferrari of Austrian Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda after an accident on the 1st of August in 1976 at Nurburgring. Lauda escaped death in the last second, he was pulled out of the burning wreck by his Formula 1 rivals

Doctors refused to say how much of his later illnesses were a legacy of his terrible accident — but Lauda's body had been gradually falling apart. He had had two kidney transplants — in 1997 and 2005 — and last year had a lung transplant. In January, he spent ten days in hospital suffering from influenza and had reportedly been on a kidney dialysis machine.

Dr Walter Klepetko, who oversaw the lung transplant operation last year, said Lauda had been in poor shape for some time. 'Niki Lauda fought. He was a great man. But it had been clear for some time that we could not get him back on the 'racing track,' ' said the doctor.

The Nurburgring had a reputation as the most dangerous track on the circuit. It was narrow, bumpy and full of sections that were inaccessible to fire marshalls.

Niki Lauda and wife Birgit Lauda at Rush UK Premiere held at the Odeon Leicester Square in London

Lauda had complained about safety conditions, but other drivers rejected his call for a boycott.

On only the second lap, he skidded and spun out of control, petrol pouring from his damaged car igniting on the track. Other drivers stopped and eventually managed to haul Lauda out of his vehicle.

His face, scalp and right ear were severely burned, but the worst damage was to his lungs, which had been seared by 800c toxic fumes from the petrol and burning fibreglass.

He was taken by helicopter to hospital where he twice died and was resuscitated.

He spent several days in a coma and later admitted that it was 'touch and go' as doctors spent four days trying to save him. A lapsed Catholic, he later claimed his determination to survive was boosted by the arrival of a priest.

'When I was lying there dying, and I knew I was dying, the nurse asked if I wanted the last rites and, in spite of my beliefs, I said to myself, 'Now I'm really in the s*** and had better take any help that is available,' ' he said.

'The priest said, 'Goodbye, my friend.' This was wrong. I wanted someone to help me live in this world and not to pass into the next. All I got was really p****d off that the man was so insensitive to my problem. I thought, 'Now I really am going to stay alive.' '

He refused to have plastic surgery to reconstruct his right ear and also refused his wife's pleas that he retire. (Marlene Knaus, whom he had only recently married and who fainted when she first saw his injuries, never went to another of his races. They divorced in 1991 and have two sons, one of whom is a racing driver.)

Lauda underwent a rapid series of operations to replace his eyelids as well as remove smoke and debris from his lungs and face. Despite having open wounds, he declared himself fit to race at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.

Niki Lauda with his then wife Marlene in the Ferrari pits in 1976 - before his life changing accident

He recalled 'shaking with fear' as he changed into second gear on the first day of practice and thinking that, 'I can't drive'. However, his steely self-confidence had returned by the following day.

'I will never forget him putting his helmet on and he was suffering so much pain,' said former British champion Sir Jackie Stewart, who was commentating at the race. 'When he came out from driving at the end, I was there, and the blood was running down out of his helmet.'

Lauda had a close working relationship with five-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and was involved in helping to sign the British driver from McLaren for the 2013 season

Lauda came fourth but ended the season only a point behind the British driver James Hunt, that year's champion.

Lauda won the championship a second time in 1977 and then again in 1984, two years after coming out of retirement.

Lauda, who insisted he was unconcerned about his appearance, never had cosmetic surgery and, instead, hid his injuries under a cap. The financially astute driver put the headwear to good use, making a fortune from charging sponsors to wear their logo on its front.

The world of Formula One yesterday paid tribute. Champion Lewis Hamilton said Lauda, a mentor when they both worked for Mercedes, was a 'bright light in my life', adding that he was 'struggling to believe you are gone'.

'I will miss our conversations, our laughs, the big hugs after winning races together,' said Hamilton.

'It's very sad news. I've known Niki for a long time and he was just entering Grand Prix racing when I was retiring,' said Sir Jackie Stewart.

'He always had great integrity and was one of the smoothest, best drivers I've ever seen.'

Austrian Grand Prix racing car driver Niki Lauda watches on in the late 1970s. Lauda was badly burned in a crash during the 1976 season but returned to race shortly afterward

Racing champions Niki Lauda (left) and James Hunt (1947 - 1993) arguing about a crash between the two at Zolder race track, Belgium. The two would develop a great rivalry, as portrayed in the Hollywood film Rush

Lauda's former British teammate, John Watson — who cradled Lauda's head after he was rescued from his burning car — said his return to racing 'was the most courageous act of any sportsman I've ever seen in my life . . . his courage, his commitment, focus, determination and bloody-mindedness'.

Ex-British world champion Damon Hill said he 'looked at Niki and thought: 'I'll never be half the man he was.' '

And fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger said he had been a 'dear friend', adding: 'I will miss this generous, trailblazing hero with my whole heart.'

Lauda had always had to contend with a certain amount of physical adversity — thanks to his buck teeth and stern expression, he was cruelly nicknamed 'The Rat' in racing circles. Born into a wealthy Viennese industrial family that expected him to go into his father's paper-manufacturing business, Lauda rejected this safe and comfortable existence.

'I believe in living a life that involves a lot of risk,' he once said. 'If you don't take risks, you can't ever expect it to be a success. It would all be far too boring.'

He won his first race, driving a souped-up Mini, in 1968 without telling his parents he had bought a car — with money from his grandmother. After his father refused to help his racing ambitions, Lauda financed his career with loans.

He made his Formula One debut in 1971, joining Ferrari three years later. He soon won a string of races and began jockeying with Hunt for the title of champion.

A slightly built, taciturn and comparatively modest man in a sport of big egos, Lauda had a reputation for Teutonic seriousness but actually had a sharp sense of humour. However, he could also be notoriously brusque and waspish.

Niki Lauda attends the re-opening of The Hayward Gallery featuring the first major UK retrospective of the work of German photographer Andreas Gursky on January 24, 2018 in London, England

When Enzo Ferrari, founder of the eponymous company, asked Lauda what he thought of his machines, the Austrian shot back that the 'car was s***'.

Lauda won the 1975 championship for Ferrari, but only after stiff competition from his great rival, Hunt.

Lauda long outlived Hunt, who died in 1993 and whose fiery on-track relationship with him was the subject of Rush, a Hollywood film. (Lauda was played by the actor Daniel Bruhl, wearing prosthetic teeth.)

Lauda claimed the movie exaggerated their differences. While the suave and good-looking Hunt was a hard-partying playboy, Lauda insisted he wasn't entirely monk-like — although he never drank before a race.

On the track, however, they could not have been more different. Hunt took tremendous risks, while Lauda was a more cautious and analytical driver, who paid close attention to his car's mechanics and his own physical fitness.

He and Hunt were genuinely friends, and he would spend occasional evenings at Hunt's London home. Hunt, said Lauda, was one of the few drivers he liked, and the only one he envied.

Spanish-born actor Daniel Bruhl played the role of Lauda in the Hollywood film Rush, about the Niki Lauda and James Hunt rivalry

In 1979 the entrepreneurial Lauda, a keen pilot, started his own airline, Lauda Air, and piloted some of the planes himself, running the business full-time following his retirement. He married one of its flight attendants, second wife Birgit Wetzinger.

A shadow was cast over the business in 1991, when a Lauda Air Boeing 767 on a flight from Bangkok to Vienna crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 223 people on board, due to a mechanical fault.

Lauda said the disaster crushed him in a way that his own crash never did.

He never lost his talent for undiplomatic, no-nonsense behaviour. He dismissed the mountain of trophies he won as 'ugly and, for me, useless', swapping them with a local garage owner in return for free car washes and servicing for life.

And he could be merciless with anyone who remarked on his scars, adapting a famous put-down by Winston Churchill. 'If people try to annoy me with comments about my face, I just say: 'I had an accident. But you were born this way.'

On, and off the track, Lauda was irrepressible. 

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