By - Victor Kekereekun
Three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda and the only man to have won the drivers’ title for both Ferrari and McLaren passed away on in the early hours of May 21, less than a year after undergoing a lung transplant.
Lauda won his first F1 championship in 1975, and was on course to retain his title the following year until he suffered a horrific near-fatal crash at the German Grand Prix. A suspected suspension failure pitched his Ferrari into the barriers at the Bergwerk corner, and as his car was hit by others his helmet was torn off and he lay trapped in the cockpit as the car caught fire. His life was saved by fellow racers Brett Lunger, Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl, plus some brave marshals, as they rushed into the flames and extracted him.
As a result of this horrific occurrence, had severe burns to his head and face and suffered lung damage from inhaling toxic gases when his Ferrari burst into flames during the race.
The accident occurred a week after he had urged his fellow drivers to boycott the event over safety concerns at the track.
Of course the Austrian was one of the world’s greatest race drivers, with three world championships to back up such a claim. But he was so much more than that. Never was that more evident than the manner in which he returned (almost literally from the dead) to race again within five and a half weeks of the fiery crash at the deadly Old Nurburgring during the 1976 German Grand Prix.
Lauda made a successful return to F1 after his remarkable recovery – missing just two races before his comeback – and narrowly missed out on successive championships at the hands of British driver James Hunt.
The pair forged one of the fiercest rivalries in motorsport history and it inspired the award-winning 2013 film Rush, starring German actor Daniel Bruhl as Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as Hunt.
Lauda won his second championship in 1977 and his third in 1984, before retiring in 1985.
Every decade in formula one had one period-defining rivalry of mythical proportions. In the 1980s and the 1990s it was Ayrton Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, and in the 1970s (especially in 1976) Niki Lauda and James Hunt were at media spotlight. Although their rivalry was fueled by media all over the world more than by their egos and personal issues, it was undoubtedly present on the tracks, since racing meant life for both of them.
Lauda and Hunt were friends and they even shared a flat early in their career when they were driving in lower formula series.
Despite being friends before and after the race, on the grid, it was a completely different world. As both were promising drivers in competitive cars, they always battled fiercely for the podium, to the excitement of the crowd. As Formula One was gaining on popularity, somebody had to be in the hottest seats. So, as the most contrasting drivers and epitomes of hot-headed and calculated, Hunt and Lauda were chosen to be the headline makers. Their media-bred rivalry was at all time high in 1976, when both of them drove the best cars of the season.
Lauda had originally hung up his helmet six years prior to focus on his airline, Lauda Air, which he founded in 1979.
The Austrian owned the company until 2000, when it became part of Austrian Airlines, and ceased to exist in 2013, but he went on to take over Amira Air in 2016 and rename it to Lauda Motion.
Aside from his airline businesses, Lauda took on several management roles within F1 following his retirement, including becoming the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team in September 2012.
He took part in negotiations that saw Lewis Hamilton sign a three-year deal with Mercedes in 2013, and the Briton has since won four championships.
Lauda remained a consistent presence at F1 races in recent years but took time away from the sport after undergoing a successful lung transplant for a “serious lung illness” in Vienna in 2018.
He was married to Birgit Wetzinger, who was a flight attendant for his airline and donated a kidney to him when one he received from his brother in 1997 failed.
Lauda had five children – two sons with his first wife, Mathias and Lukas, another son, Christoph, and Ms Wetzinger gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, in 2009.
Tributes have begun to flood in from F1 stars past and present since news of his death broke. British racing driver Lewis Hamilton tweeted: “A legend has left us. Rest in peace Niki.”
McLaren said it was “deeply saddened” to learn of his death, adding that Lauda would “forever be in our hearts and enshrined in our history”.
Also, his family said the racer-turned-flight entrepreneur would “remain a role model and a benchmark for all of us”
And just like the scars he bore with such pride, humility and dignity, the marks he left in the record books will never fade.
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