Niki Lauda passes away: All you need to know about the Austrian Formula One legend who defied death on the tracks

Three-time Formula One champion Niki Lauda passed away early on Tuesday, just nine months after undergoing a lung transplant. The 70-year-old won the Championship in 1975 and 1977 for Ferrari and in 1984 for McLaren.

The Austrian legend was widely revered for his remarkable recovery and return to racing after being badly burned in a crash in the 1976 German Grand Prix. Six months after the mishap in Nürburgring, he marked his return at the Italian Grand Prix. He narrowly lost the title to James Hunt that year, but won his second Ferrari crown the year after during his final season at the team.

 Niki Lauda passes away: All you need to know about the Austrian Formula One legend who defied death on the tracks

Niki Lauda (centre) celebrates his win for McLaren. File/ AFP

Born on 22 February 1949 in Vienna, Austria, to a wealthy family, Lauda developed an early interest in car racing and pursued his passion despite staunch opposition from his family. His fledgling career at Formula Vee and Formula Two was largely financed by bank loans, and although he made his Formula One debut in 1971 for March, his career received a major overhaul when Formula One giants Ferrari signed him in 1974.

Lauda raced to a second-place finish in his debut race for Ferrari in 1974 at the season-opening Argentine Grand Prix. Three races later, he won his first Grand Prix (GP) – and the first for Ferrari since 1972 – at the Spanish GP.

He achieved six pole positions in his debut season, but could win just one more race - the Dutch GP. He, however, did enough to finish fourth in the Drivers' Championship to let the world know of his immense potential.

Lauda came back stronger next year, enduring a slow start to eventually finish with Drivers Championship. His 1975 season began with fifth-place results in the first four races, but he won four of the next five driving the new Ferrari 312T.

His third-place finish at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza confirmed his maiden Championship as Ferrari clinched their first Constructors' Championship in 11 years. Lauda topped it with his fifth win at the last race of the year, the United States GP at Watkins Glen. He also became the first driver to lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife in under seven minutes, which was considered a huge feat as the Nordschleife section of the Nürburgring was two miles longer than it is today. Lauda famously gave away any trophies he won to his local garage in exchange for his car to be washed and serviced.

In 1976, facing tough competition from McLaren's James Hunt, he appeared on course to defend his title when he crashed at the Nürburgring during the German GP. Several drivers stopped to help pull him from the burning car, but the accident would scar him for life. The baseball cap Lauda almost always wore in public became a personal trademark.

"The main damage, I think to myself, was lung damage from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds," he recalled nearly a decade later. "It was something like 800 degrees."

Lauda fell into a coma for a time. He said that "for three or four days it was touch and go."

"Then my lungs recovered and I got my skin grafts done, then basically there was nothing left," he added. "I was really lucky in a way that I didn't do any (other) damage to myself. So the real question was then will I be able to drive again, because certainly, it was not easy to come back after a race like that."

Lauda made his comeback just six weeks after the crash, finishing fourth at Monza after overcoming his initial fears.

He recalled "shaking with fear" as he changed into second gear on the first day of practice and thinking, "I can't drive."

The next day, Lauda said he "started very slowly trying to get all the feelings back, especially the confidence that I'm capable of driving these cars again." The result, he said, boosted his confidence and after four or five races "I had basically overcome the problem of having an accident and everything went back to normal."

He won his second championship in 1977 before switching to Brabham and then retiring in 1979 to concentrate on setting up his airline, Lauda Air, declaring that he "didn't want to drive around in circles any more."

Lauda came out of retirement in 1982 after a big-money offer from McLaren, reportedly about $3 million a year.

He finished fifth his first year back and 10th in 1983, but came back to win five races and edge out teammate Alain Prost for his third title in 1984. He retired for good the following year, saying he needed more time to devote to his airline business.

Initially a charter airline, Lauda Air expanded in the 1980s to offer flights to Asia and Australia. In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand after one of its engine thrust reversers accidentally deployed during a climb, killing all 213 passengers and 10 crew.

Lauda occasionally took the controls of the airline's jets himself over the years. In 1997, longtime rival Austrian Airlines took a minority stake and in 2000, with the company making losses, he resigned as board chairman after an external audit criticised a lack of internal financial control over business conducted in foreign currency. Austrian Airlines later took full control.

Lauda founded a new airline, Niki, in 2003. Germany's Air Berlin took a minority stake and later full control of that airline, which Lauda bought back in early 2018 after it fell victim to its parent's financial woes.

He partnered with budget carrier Ryanair on Niki's successor, LaudaMotion.

On the Formula One circuit, Lauda later formed a close bond with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who joined the team in 2013. He often backed Hamilton in public and provided advice and counsel to the British driver.

Lauda also intervened as a Mercedes mediator when Hamilton and his former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg feuded, argued and traded barbs as they fought for the title between 2014-16

Lauda twice underwent kidney transplants, receiving an organ donated by his brother in 1997 and, when that stopped functioning well, a kidney donated by his girlfriend in 2005.

In August 2018, he underwent a lung transplant that the Vienna General Hospital said was made necessary by a "serious lung illness." It didn't give details.

Lauda is survived by his second wife, Birgit, and their twin children Max and Mia. He had two adult sons, Lukas and Mathias, from his first marriage. He passed away peacefully early on Tuesday (local time), aged 70.

(With inputs from AP)

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Updated Date: May 21, 2019 10:03:57 IST