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Lauda, Andreas Nikolaus (Niki)

Lauda's Flying Ferrari Courtesy Ferrari F1
Niki Lauda
was born on: 
Tue, 22/02/1949
at: 
Vienna, Austria
and died on: 
Sun, 19/05/2019
at: 
Zürich, Switzerland
Epitaph: 

Driven, even when not driving.

Obituary: 

Niki Lauda, three times Formula One World Champion, died after a period of illness relating to his respiratory system.

Lauda is perhaps most famous for his worst day: on 1 August 1976, Lauda, already a world champion, crashed at the Nürburgring, his car bursting into flames, and being trapped in the burning car for more than a minute. While marshals made their way to the scene, rival drivers Arturo Merzario along with Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl ran into the flames, furious because the car was full of fuel and the tank ruptured, and pulled the badly burned Lauda free. The external damage to Lauda's head has become a symbol of the pragmatic attitude of the man. But it was the internal injuries that caused emotional and physical damage beyond repair. Speaking of the accident and, even, his disfigurement in interviews over the next 40 years, Lauda was either matter of fact or, even, humorous about them. But when asked about the days in hospital after the accident, he was immediately transported back to a time of horror, when talking about how doctors "vacuumed" the particles of plastic, soot and other foreign material from his lungs. "They collapsed my lungs so I couldn't breath. There was panic," he said in one interview. "It was very painful," he said: his bravado deserting him, leaving only bravery.

The story of those days is well documented as is his return to racing only a few weeks later. That year, even after all that, and his retirement from the last round at Suzuka in conditions he said were too dangerous to run in, he was runner-up in the championship by one point. The following year he won.

While racing fans see that as Lauda's worst day, it is not the one he remembers as the ultimate low. That was 26 May 1991, the day when he received a phone call saying one of the Boeing 767-300s that he operated as Lauda Air had crashed, killing all passengers and crew, near the Thailand / Burma (now Myanmar) border. As he flew into the site, he found locals stealing valuables from luggage and, even the bodies lying scattered by the final impact. Lauda's fight with Boeing to admit and ultimately take responsibility for the design fault that brought down his aircraft and, as he nearly tearfully recounted years later, lost mothers, husbands, wives and kids for 233 people on board Lauda Air 004 shortly after take-off from Bangkok en route to Vienna. The fault was with the thrust reverser which turned itself on after take-off. The thrust reverser is that part of the jet which is flipped after a plane has landed to turn the jet into a giant device to aid braking instead of a device for pushing the aircraft forward. The pilots noted the warning, checked the manual which said that in such circumstances "no action required."

Although Lauda retired and then returned to racing, only to retire again, in his latter years his red cap, now bearing the name of a gaming machine company for which he became a brand ambassador, was atop the head of one of the two men who the German company put in charge of the Brawn team which they bought and promptly got rid of the architects of its 2009 underdog award as World Champions. Lauda was pivotal in persuading Lewis Hamilton to leave the the successful McLaren team; between him and Toto Woolf, recruited from the then successful Williams team. Mercedes initially brought in a retired Michael Schumacher who did not excel and started a rebuild around Hamilton. Lauda, renowned for colourful language and a refusal to play politics, became a vital part of the team, ironically as much as a shoulder to cry on (in private) as the one who would, sometimes using phrases that belied English as his second language and therefore open to a misinterpretation he would never have intended, tell someone off, even speak about them, in a highly critical and public manner.

Universally, he was loved in the paddock - and not only in teams he had driven for and not only by drivers who had driven for him: even those who would not be born for almost two decades after he had his crash were united in one thing: if you had a problem, Niki would always listen.

That, and the fact that he has spent years trying to dispel the tabloid notion that he and James Hunt disliked each other when they were, in fact, very close friends, so displaying a loyalty that few would expect of anyone, much less an icon, is, ironically, exactly why he deserves to be an icon - and is.

Bryan Edwards
Publication: 

 


 

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