The Niki Lauda I grew to know became comfortably accustomed to living within the crosshairs of death’s target. When he entered F1, a racing driver had a three in five chance of dying behind the wheel. In 1976, deep in the Green Hell of the Nurburgring, death tried its best.
Niki Lauda said, not here – not now.
I guess it was his body and not his heart that finally admitted that his lungs, still scarred from that near-fatal accident became too much for even Niki Lauda to battle any more.
Formula One legend Niki Lauda died Monday of complications from kidney problems, following a lung transplant last August. He was 70.
“With deep sadness, we announce that our beloved Niki has peacefully passed away with his family on Monday, May 20, 2019,” the statement read. “His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, 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.”
To millions of F1 fans, Niki was more than just a heartfelt statement. He was a lasting symbol determination, tenacity and heart. Every time Niki Lauda put on his balaclava, he meant nothing but business.
His took his first F1 World Championship with ease in 1975, but a determined Brit of rare stuff stymied his bid for a two-in-a-row ; Niki’s great friend James Hunt. To say their battle was epic is to do a disservice to both men. They both had to keep drawing up courage long after their contemporaries would have lost hope.
But, after his crash at the German Grand Prix, and the resultant carnage, Niki drew the shortest straw – and he had it covered.
Just 43 days after receiving last rites arrived at Monza, ready to defend his title at the Italian Grand Prix. Carried to his car, with his bleeding wounds covered in bandages, Lauda finished fourth. It was the most heroic return in sports history.
While he would ultimately lose his title by one point to his great pal James Hunt in ’76, he carried that grit left in his lungs from the accident through two additional World Championships, ownership in two airlines, and ultimately as a shareholder and team boss of the Mercedes AMG Formula One team since 2012, a shared their resultant multiple F1 Constructors Championships.
I was lucky enough to be in his company, record his racing life, hear his stories I promised I would never repeat, and share a beer or four.
This is what I can say.
Niki Lauda put his undeniable stamp on these decades with a life more improbable than fiction and more inspiring than possible. His bravery still transcends sports to become a metaphor for tenacity. Just as he could reach down inside a racing car to find those hidden seconds, he reached down inside his soul and summoned the strength of will not only for survival but to return and fight.
Who else on that grid in Germany that day would have had as much unwavering dedication to staying the course? Sterner stuff is rarely seen in life, rarer still in sports; Niki Lauda’s life will always define the word“indomitable.”
Please don’t despair. If I know Niki, he’s happily sharing a beer or four with James right now, back together for eternity.