A driver was read his last rites after one of the worst wrecks in F1 history. He survived, going on to win 3 titles and becoming the most influential man in the sport. This is his story.
Niki Lauda was born to a wealthy Austrian family. But his love for racing - and their disapproval of the sport - led to a split. In 1971, 22-year-old Niki took out a $30,000 loan to buy his way onto a Formula 2 team.
Niki’s first year in Formula 1 was full of bad luck. In year 2 he joined a new team and finished 3rd at the Monaco Grand Prix, F1’s most prestigious race. There, he caught Enzo Ferrari’s eye.
Niki signed with Ferrari in 1974. He won 3 races that season, flashing his potential. Then he won 5 races in 1975, claiming his first F1 championship. But disaster struck in 1976.
Leading up to the German GP, Niki urged other drivers to boycott the race. The track lacked:
- Fire marshalls
- Safety vehicles
But the race went on.
Niki’s Ferrari skidded off the track, hit an embankment, and burst into flames. He was trapped in the car for 1 minute. 3 drivers got out of their cars and risked their lives to pull Niki from the burning vehicle. They saved his life.
Niki suffered severe burns to his head and face when his helmet slipped off during the accident. In the hospital, he was even read his last rites in fear he wasn’t going to make it. But 40 days later, Niki Lauda returned to the track.
Niki finished 4th at the Italian GP just 40 days after the accident. He said he was petrified the entire race. Incredibly, he finished the 1976 season in 2nd and went on to win the 1977 championship. And then Niki left Ferrari.
Niki raced for 2 more seasons before retiring for the first time. He returned in 1982 with McLaren, earning a then-record $3 million salary. Niki won his 3rd and final F1 title in 1983. He retired for good two years later, but his career was far from finished.
Niki became quite the entrepreneur, launching 2 aviation companies.
- Lauda Air (acquired by Austrian Airlines)
- Niki Airlines (acquired by Air Berlin)
He said running airlines was harder than winning F1 championships. So he returned to the sport.
After roles with both Ferrari and Jaguar, Niki joined Mercedes F1 as non-executive chairman. His first job? Negotiating a deal to sign a young rising star - Lewis Hamilton.
Niki and Lewis became very close. When Niki passed in 2019, Hamilton said: “Someone you are so fond of and someone that the world has lost but I have only the greatest memories with Niki.” Today Hamilton races for a record 8th title.
After the accident, Niki wore a hat in public for the rest of his life. But he made the most of it. Advertisers paid him $1 million per year to be featured on the hat.
Niki and Arturo Merzario, the driver who pulled Niki from the burning car, became lifelong friends.