Niki Lauda’s career will go down in history as not just one of the most remarkable in Formula 1 but in all of sports.
His is a tale of triumph and disaster, resilience and dedication, courage and determination the like of which will never be seen again. A move script story that was eventually immortalised on Hollywood celluloid.
Lauda was born into a prominent banking dynasty in 1949 but the young Austrian had no desire to follow in the family business and against his grandfather’s wishes he parlayed family wealth and a life insurance policy into a bank loan that he would use to finance his racing dreams.
It was a bold and desperate ploy which in later years he admitted should never have worked but it got him all the way to Formula 1. And after struggling with indifferent cars in 1972 he used his apparent sponsorship to bluff his way into the fading BRM team for 1973 where his striking speed caught the eye of the great Enzo Ferrari.
Lauda promptly bought his way out of his BRM drive and moved to Maranello, beginning one of the most successful relationships in Formula 1.
Ferrari, who hadn’t had a champion since John Surtees in 1964, was impressed by the skinny Austrian’s self-confidence and no nonsense work ethic and his calculating approach and brutal honesty earned him the nickname The Computer.
A pair of victories in Spain and the Netherlands arrived in 1974 before Lauda and Ferrari hit the jackpot in 1975 with World Championship success.
The following year he looked certain to repeat the success having taking five victories by midsummer but then came the defining moment of his career.
On lap two of the German Grand Prix at the desperately dangerous Nürburgring, a race Lauda had argued shouldn’t have gone ahead, the Austrian’s Ferrari inexplicably crashed and burst into flames.
Four brave drivers and a marshal plunged into the towering inferno and hauled Lauda out but by that stage he’d suffered first degree burns on his head and wrists. Several broken bones and had his lungs scorched from inhaling toxic fumes.
The situation was so dire that as Lauda lay in hospital he was administered the last rites by a priest.
But still the Austrian with sheer bloody minded determination fought on.
It defied all rational logic when, less than six weeks later and with blood still seeping from under the bandages on his head, he made a startling comeback at the Italian Grand Prix finishing fourth and somehow keeping his World Championship hopes alive.
The 1976 championship ended in a showdown between Lauda and McLaren’s James Hunt – his friend and great rival. In torrential conditions at Japan’s Fuji circuit Lauda decided it was too dangerous to race and pulled into the pits, handing the title to Hunt who declared his rival’s withdrawal an act of bravery.
Any suggestion that Lauda’s power had diminished however would be quickly dispelled the following season when he clinched the title with two races to go before promptly leaving Ferrari.
The following year he won twice for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team, including famously in the BT46 fan car. But after a disappointing start to the 1979 campaign the no nonsense Austrian walked away from the sport and straight into retirement midway through the Canadian Grand Prix weekend claiming he was tired of driving around in circles.
Using his business acumen Lauda used his time away from Formula 1 to start his own airline but three years later he’d be back on the grid after signing reportedly the most lucrative contract in history with McLaren.
The comeback would yield a deserved third World title with Lauda beating rapid young teammate Alain Prost to the 1984 title by the slimmest of margins – just half a point.
“He was the toughest guy to beat as far as I know. The toughest guy so this championship is the most important one for me” Lauda said afterwards.
A final victory followed in 1985 before he hung up his helmet for good, though in truth Lauda never really left the paddock.
In the years that followed he worked as an advisor for Ferrari, then as team principal for Jaguar as well as a TV commentator. But he found his greatest success out of the cockpit as Non-Executive Chairman of Mercedes where with team principal Toto Wolff, the talented Lewis Hamilton and others he formed part of a near unbeatable team adding yet more world titles to his impressive CV.
A much missed presence from the paddock this season following a lung transplant, Lauda’s return to Formula 1 had been eagerly anticipated.
The news that he now won’t return is desperately sad although like the scars he bore with such pride, humility and dignity, the marks he left in the record books and in the annals of motorsport history will never fade.