Formula One legend Niki Lauda dies at 70

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Niki Lauda, a life in the fast lane

Racing driver Niki Lauda, three-time Formula One champion, has passed away surrounded by family. His death has triggered an outpouring of praise for a man whose comeback from a horrific crash inspired F1 fans worldwide.

Austrian-born Niki Lauda, one of the greatest Formula One (F1) drivers of all time, has died at the age of 70, his family announced on Tuesday.  

"His unique successes as a sportsman and entrepreneur are and remain unforgettable. His tireless drive, his straightforwardness and his courage remain an example and standard for us all," a family statement read. 

"Away from the public gaze he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather. We will miss him very much."

Lauda struggled with health problems ever since his 1976 crash. The racing driver crashed his Ferrari car at Germany's Nürburgring Nordschleife race and remained trapped in the cockpit for 55 seconds, suffering burns and inhaling toxic fumes. 

As well as his distinctive facial scarring, Lauda's crash caused a number of long-term health issues, prompting two kidney transplants in 1997 and 2005. Last summer, Lauda developed a lung infection and was then forced to undergo an emergency lung transplant. He was hospitalized again in January this year with the flu. 

"It had been clear for some time that we would not be able to bring him back onto the 'race track'," said Walter Klepetko, the doctor who preformed the lung transplant last year. "There was no cause of death. It was a long process, and the patient departed at the end." 

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Buying his way in

Niki Lauda's goal from a young age was to become a Formula One driver. In 1971 he took out a loan to buy his way into the March team. Three seasons later he accepted an offer from Enzo Ferrari to join the "Scuderia". He got his first of 25 career F1 wins in the 1974 Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuito Permanente del Jarama near Madrid.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

First F1 drivers' title

In 1975, his second year at Ferrari, Lauda rewarded the team's faith in him by winning Ferrari their first drivers' title since John Surtees had done so in 1964. The Austrian took the checkered flag in five of the season's 14 races, including the French Grand Prix at Le Castellet, where he is seen with his British rival James Hunt (left).

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Fiery crash on the Nürburgring

Two thirds of the way through the next season, Lauda was top of the drivers' standings with five wins and two second-place finishes going into the 10th race, the German Grand Prix – but everything changed on August 1, 1976. On the Nürburgring, Lauda's Ferrari crashed and went up in flames. Other drivers pulled him out of the burning wreckage. He survived, but was left scarred for life.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

'My life is more important than the title'

Lauda missed just two races before making his comeback to finish fourth at Monza. He had a narrow lead over Hunt in the standings going into the final race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix. After just two laps on a track made slick by the pouring rain, Lauda parked his Ferrari. "My life is more important than the title," he said. Hunt finished third to win the drivers' title.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

A second championship

His withdrawal from the race at Fuji didn't make him a lot of friends at Ferrari, but he answered his critics in the the best way possible, winning three Grand Prix races and finishing on the podium a further seven times to win his second drivers' title. He would move to the Brabham team for the next season, where the red baseball cap first became part of Lauda's trademark.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Third and final championship

In 1979 Lauda retired from racing, saying he had better things to do than just "driving a car around in circles". However, in 1982 the Austrian was back in the driver's seat of an F1 car, this time at McLaren. Two years later he won his third and final drivers' title – by half a point over teammate Alain Prost (right). This is the narrowest margin of victory in the history of the F1 title.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Airline operator

After retiring from the F1 cockpit for good in 1985, Niki Lauda shifted his professional focus to Lauda Air, the airline he had founded after retiring the first time. In 1990 Lauda Air obtained the permits required to offer international, overseas flights.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Lauda Air crash in Thailand

In May of 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed north of Bangkok killing all 223 passengers and crew members on board. Lauda rushed to the scene of the crash and was filled with self-doubt: "If I crash a Formula One car into a guardrail and die, it's my fault. I chose to take that risk," Lauda later said in an interview. "In aviation I chose to take no risk; on the contrary."

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Return to F1

In 1992 Lauda returned to Formula One, becoming a consultant for the Scuderia – and had a major part in convincing Michael Schumacher (left) to join Ferrari. Midway through the 2001 season he became team principal at Jaguar, but his spell at the British team didn't last long – the two sides parted company at the end of the following campaign.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Final F1 post

In September 2012, Lauda was appointed non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team, although the announcement was overshadowed by the news that British driver Lewis Hamilton (left) would also join the team the following season. This ushered in what would be the most successful period of the Silver Arrows' history, with a Mercedes driver having won every title since 2014.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Two marriages, five children

Niki Lauda leaves behind two sons from his marriage with his first wife, Marlene, which ended in 1991. He later fathered a son from another woman, before marrying for a second time in 2008. The then-60-year-old Lauda became a father yet again one year later, when his second wife Birgit (left) gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy.

Niki Lauda: The guy in the red baseball cap

Passed away peacefully

The injuries sustained on the Nürburgring in 1976 would cause him health issues in later life. Twice he had kidney transplants, the first coming from his younger brother Florian in 1997, the second from Birgit, who would later become his wife – in 2015. In the summer of 2018 he underwent a lung transplant. On May 20, 2019, his family announced in a statement that he had passed away peacefully.

Outporing of praise

The world of motorsport paid tribute to Niki Lauda. His former teams, McLaren and Ferrari, sent condolances to the Lauda family. "Today is a sad day for F1. The big Ferrari family learns with deep sadness the news of the death of their friend Niki Lauda," the racing car giant said on Twitter. 

"Your passion, your fighting spirit, to never give up, your belief that you always meet twice in life, and even your patience with us youngsters," wrote F1 world champion Nico Roseberg

Formula One driver for McLaren, Carlos Sainz described Lauda as "one of the last proper heroes of our sport, a true gentleman, and a great human." 

Niki Lauda, pictured here five weeks after his crash, managed to finish second in 1976

The legend of Lauda 

The Austrian-born Lauda first snatched the F1 drivers' title with Ferrari in 1975. After surviving the Nürburgring crash, he managed to recover and get back into the competition in just 42 days, finishing second behind UK's James Hunt. The Austrian won the championship again for Ferrari in 1977 and retired at the end of the 1979 season. However, he came back to the paddock in 1984, joining McLaren, and in 1985 became the sole driver ever to win an F1 title after having returned from retirement.

A movie starring Daniel Brühl as Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt premiered in cinemas in 2013.

After his definitive retirement in 1985, Lauda made money as an entrepreneur, founding his own airline but later selling most of it to Ryanair. He also worked as a TV commentator and served as the non-executive chairman for the Mercedes' F1 team, of which he was a shareholder.

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