Farewell to Niki Lauda,
Formula 1 champion and hero

Farewell to Niki Lauda, Formula 1 champion and hero 01

The passing of Niki Lauda on Monday 20 May only goes to underline everything that he achieved in life. He was a three-time Formula 1 world champion and an idol for an entire generation, to whom he gave a reborn Ferrari in the mid 1970s. He was a man who had a second life, following the fiery accident at the Nurburgring on 1 August 1976 that so nearly claimed him. Niki lived all his lives looking for change, alternating his career as a champion driver and airline executive. From one thing straight to the next. And from 2012 to now, he was non-executive director of the Mercedes Formula 1 team that is changing the history of the sport.

Lauda is movement. But to say simply that Niki Lauda is movement is actually a grave tautology. Because Lauda and motion are so inextricably linked. It would be a mistake to talk about only the Austrian’s driving career though: his 25 grand prix victories and three world championships – as well as the one that got away from him after the unforgettable fire at the Nurburgring. Not to mention the incredible story of what came after it, with his retirement at Fuji under monsoon-like conditions at the end of a truly dramatic 1976 season. That is just one face of the multi-faceted prism constituted by this true Renaissance man, who has now entered the pantheon of legends.

Niki decided to become a racing champion before he even had his driving licence. Up to that point, the story is a familiar one. But the background to it was unique. He came from a noble family of Viennese bankers, so Niki first asked for some financial help from his paternal grandfather to kick-start his career. “Money to go racing with?” came the outraged answer. “If a Lauda is going to be in the newspapers it should be in the financial pages!”

Farewell to Niki Lauda, Formula 1 champion and hero 02

But Niki, who was barely 20 at the time, didn’t flinch. He merely set in place an alternative plan rather than wasting more time: a no-nonsense approach that would serve him well for the rest of his personal and professional life. He went straight to a rival bank instead, Raffeisen, to cash in the life insurance policy that his grandfather had given him when he came of age. This unconventional ‘sponsorship’ plan allowed him to immediately climb the ladder in single-seaters. Formula 1 had just got a step closer.

But Niki’s obsession with movement meant that he was always looking towards the next horizon. In the mid-70s, at the height of his powers with Ferrari, he was gripped by the aviation bug. He soon became qualified as a pilot and in 1979 he suddenly left Formula 1. At the time he was driving for Brabham: the team he had chosen after his notorious divorce from Ferrari two years earlier, when he refused to drive the last two races because he was already mathematically world champion. As for Brabham, he suddenly left them in the middle of Friday free practice in Montreal, uttering the immortal phrase: “I’m tired of going round in circles.” 

Three days later and he was already on the Boeing 747 simulator in Seattle. Although few people would have imagined it then, that was when Lauda Air was being born. But it was a source of pain as well as pleasure. In 1982, also to plug a few financial holes that the business was leaking, he returned to the cockpit. And in 1984, with McLaren, he won a third world title. Once again he retired, and having sold Lauda Air to Austrian Airlines, he embarked on a new aviation project: Air Niki. That airline is still around now as part of Ryanair. 

Niki himself often took the pilot’s seat, inaugurating new routes between Austria, Italy, the Balearics and Cuba. There was enough going on with him to fill up three lifetimes. 

Yet Andreas Nikolaus Lauda, known as Niki to his friends and the world, felt that he could still do more. He was asked to run the sporting side of Ferrari by newly-arrived president Luca di Montezemolo at the end of 1991, then politely invited to leave by Jean Todt three or four years later. As the year 2000 approached, he performed same role for the new-born Jaguar Racing team (with, it’s fair to say, not a huge amount of luck). In 2012 he was back in the saddle once more: this time as non-executive director of Mercedes-AMG in Formula 1. Having just celebrated his 63rd birthday, Lauda embarked on what would become his final sporting adventure. By the end of 2014, Niki and the Anglo-German squad had celebrated their first drivers’ and manufacturers’ title together. But the story was only just beginning…

All the materials form part of the company's historical heritage which is now preserved in the Historical Archive of the Pirelli Foundation www.fondazionepirelli.org

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