The former Formula One driver and three-time world champion Niki Lauda has died at the age of 70, his family has said. The Austrian died overnight on Monday, eight months after receiving a lung transplant.
“With deep sadness, we announce that our beloved Niki has peacefully passed away with his family on Monday,” the family said in a statement, according to the Austrian press agency. The statement paid tribute to “his unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur” and said “his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain. A role model and a benchmark for all of us, he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather away from the public, and he will be missed.”
Lauda, who won titles in 1975, 1977 and 1984, was hugely admired, respected and liked within F1 after a remarkable career during which he won two titles for Ferrari and one for McLaren and came back from an horrific accident that left him severely burned and injured in 1976. He competed in 171 races and won 25. He also actively pursued business interests including his own airline and went on to have senior roles in F1 management, most recently as non-executive chairman at the hugely successful Mercedes since 2012, where he helped bring Lewis Hamilton to the team.
Toto Wolff, team principal at Mercedes, paid an emotional tribute, stating: “First of all, on behalf of the team and all at Mercedes, I wish to send our deepest condolences to Birgit, Niki’s children, his family and close friends. Niki will always remain one of the greatest legends of our sport - he combined heroism, humanity and honesty inside and outside the cockpit.
“His passing leaves a void in Formula One. We haven’t just lost a hero who staged the most remarkable comeback ever seen, but also a man who brought precious clarity and candour to modern Formula One. He will be greatly missed as our voice of common sense.
“Our Mercedes team has also lost a guiding light. As a teammate over the past six and a half years, Niki was always brutally honest - and utterly loyal. It was a privilege to count him among our team and moving to witness just how much it meant to him to be part of the team’s success. Whenever he walked the floor in Brackley and Brixworth, or delivered one of his famous motivational speeches, he brought an energy that nobody else could replicate.
“Niki, you are quite simple irreplaceable, there will never be another like you. It was our honour to call you our chairman - and my privilege to call you my friend.”
Chase Carey, chairman and chief executive of the Formula One group, issued a statement: “It is with great sadness that we learned of the death of Niki Lauda. Formula 1 has lost not only one of the truly great exponents of the sport but also one of its heroes. His love of racing and the courage he demonstrated were simply extraordinary and he inspired so many fans. His passing is a great loss for the entire Formula 1 family and motorsport as a whole. All our thoughts go out to his family.”
As tributes began to flow, his former team McLaren said: “Niki will forever be in our hearts and enshrined in our history.” Jenson Button, the former world champion, said “a legend has left us” while prominent motorsports journalist Nick De Groot said Lauda’s status within the sport was “not just for what he achieved on the race track, but for what he overcame to get there”.
Scuderia Ferrari tweeted in Italian that the Ferrari family had learned “with deep sadness” of Lauda’s death. They added: “You will remain forever in our hearts and in those of the fans. CiaoNiki”.
F1’s 2016 world champion for Mercedes, Nico Rosberg tweeted: “Dear Niki. Thank you for everything that you did for me. I learned so much from you. Your passion, your fighting spirit, to never give up, you belief that you always meet twice in life, and even your patience with us youngsters.
“Myself and all of your 100 million fans around the world whom you also so strongly inspired to never give up in the hardest of times are thinking of you and your family and wish that you Rest in Peace.”
Lauda was an exceptional driver, brave and uncompromising but with fine judgement. He was born in 1949 and pursued a career in racing against the wishes of his family. A determination he would demonstrate again when he took out a personal bank loans to ensure he had a shot at F1. He made his debut in 1971 and seasons with March and BRM followed where he impressed enough for Enzo Ferrari to offer him a drive with the Scuderia in 1974. Ferrari were rewarded with a podium on his first race and a win three meetings later in Spain. The next year he took his first title for the team, their first for over a decade.
A year later, when in another strong position for the title, he had a major crash at the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. Trapped in his burning car, he was pulled from the wreckage but suffered severe burns and damage to his lungs. Despite doubts he would survive or indeed ever race again, Lauda’s determination to do so was extraordinary and just six weeks later he returned for the Italian Grand Prix, still bandaged and in pain after extensive surgery. With James Hunt resurgent Lauda could still have taken the title at the final round in Japan but opted to retire from the race convinced the torrential rain made it unsafe. Hunt, with whom he enjoyed both respect and friendship, took the championship.
Lauda went on to take the title a second time a year later but after two further seasons with Brabham retired in 1979, when he started his first airline business. He made a comeback for McLaren however in 1982 and went on to win the championship for them in 1984 after a hugely competitive fight with team-mate Alain Prost. The Austrian took the title at the last round by just half a point. He retired from F1 for a second and final time in 1985 and returned to pursuing his business interests.
He took a consulting managerial role at Ferrari in 1993 and was team principal of Jaguar between 2001 and 2002. He has been a fixture in the paddock since joining Mercedes however, always outspoken, entertaining and informed. He was as vital a component in F1 in the latter part of his life as he had been during his driving heyday.