Niki Lauda started his racing carrer by pawning his life for $69,000, the money enabling him to buy his way into Formula 1. Andreas Nikolaus "Niki" Lauda was born on February 22, 1949 in Vienna, and would establish during his lifetime a reputation as both aviator, entrepreneur and Formula One racing driver, racking up three F1 World Championships. He founded and ran two airlines and was manager of the Jaguar Formula One racing team for two years.
His father, a wealthy paper mill owner, was not about to finance what he regarded as a folly, so Lauda devised a scheme of sponsorship that started a trend. He went to a local bank in Austria and offered to carry its colors in return for sponsorship of $13,600 to race in Formula Two. For the following season, 1972, the same bank agreed to increase the sponsorship which put Niki into Formula One with March. But at the last minute the bank had second thoughts and withdrew.
Lauda was then in an extremely embarrassing position, he had already signed a contract with March on the strength of his bank sponsorship only to have the money evaporate. In desperation he tried another bank, the Raiffeisen-kasse, and offered it the same sponsorship deal. That banks management apparently thought he was joking, but offered to advance the $60,000 Niki needed on a straight loan basis to be repaid over three years.
The security was to be an insurance policy on Niki's Iife. He had to win. Niki Lauda started racing with a Mini Cooper when he was 18, competing in local hillclimbs. He had passed his examinations to enter university but he never went further with his education. He went racing instead, graduating through Formula Vee, McNamara Formula Three, Porsche 908 and then into Formula Two in 1971.
In 1972 his deal with March included Formula One and Formula Two and he won the John Player British F2 championship that season as some recompense for his lack of lustre in Formula One.
That was the year of the March X-car with its weight concentrated within the wheelbase and Lauda was given the doubtful honor of driving it. It spoiled his whole season. An interview with Lauda some 3 years later makes for interesting reading - Lauda was quoted as saying "Ronnie said the 721X was good first of all. He drove it at Brands Hatch and liked it and in Spain he tested it for the whole day. At the end Robin said I could do 10 or 20 laps in it and I spun immediately. Then I did another 20 laps and I felt as uncomfortable as I ever had in my life, so I told Robin (Herd, the March designer) I didn't think it was a good car. He told me I would be all right when I had the experience of Ronnie."
Lauda's season with March in 1972 had a troubled ending. He had been happy there and learned a lot working with Peterson, but, he was banking on a new contract with March for 1973 on revised terms so that it would pay him instead of him paying March. "Even down in South Africa with the little 2-litre sports car March said the contract was just a formality and we discussed how the car would be but when I came back to England in November, Max (Mosley , March's team manager) says I am very sorry we have no sponsorship and we can't run a car for you. This was for me a very bad moment because I still had $48,000 to pay back to the bank, and no drive at all." His best placing in season '72 had been seventh in South Africa and even if there had been vacancies the slim young Austrian would not have been a particularly attractive proposition.
March's 1972 F1 season was catastrophic and Lauda, in despair and deep debt, briefly contemplated suicide but finally took out yet another bank loan to buy his way into the BRM
team in 1973. Lauda was instantly quick but the team was in decline; his big break came when his BRM
team-mate Clay Regazzoni rejoined Ferrari in 1974 and team owner Enzo Ferrari asked him what he thought of Lauda. Regazzoni spoke favourably of Lauda, so Ferrari promptly went and signed him, paying Niki enough to clear his debts. The team's faith in the little-known Lauda was quickly rewarded by a second-place finish in his début race for the team, the season-opening Argentine Grand Prix. His first Grand Prix
(GP) victory – and the first for Ferrari since 1972 – followed only three races later in Spain. Although Lauda became the season's pacesetter, achieving six consecutive pole positions, a mixture of inexperience and mechanical unreliability meant Lauda won only one more race that year, the Dutch GP. He finished fourth in the Drivers' Championship and demonstrated immense commitment to testing and improving the car.
How did the last half of season '74 affect him when he saw the championship title slipping from his grasp? "Sure it wasn't easy because I was always ahead, I was always competitive but I had such troubles in all the bloody races so I always' had to start from zero. I could never make nine points or six and gradually build up. I was always there and then ... nothing.
The pressure on me was high because everything should have been growing gradually but I was up, down, up, down and I always had to push like hell to get back. Sure, I made mistakes as well ... " Lauda defended his slide out of the lead in Canada as a mistake that anybody would have made, arriving at a corner and finding it covered in earth. It was one of those freak things. But he took the German Grand Prix
accident squarely on the chin. "It was completely my fault, I should never have tried after two corners to have out-braked Scheckter at that point. I should have waited ..."
Those that watched Lauda working with the Ferrari team in the pits during practice would have understood that he regarded himself not merely as a cog in the total Ferrari Grand Prix
machine, but as a major stress-bearing component of the car. Lauda lived his racing to the point where he involved himself with every part of his car, not making himself some sort of mechanical robot but rather making his car a living extension of himself.
His Ferrari mechanic Ermano Cuoghi, when asked to describe the differences between teammate Clay Regazzoni and Lauda, said "Clay is a Latin and he acts like one, while Niki is more, well, German." We are not too sure what Lauda made of the comment, as Austrians don't normally like to be called Germans, but Cuoghis point was clear. Lauda had a total dedication to the task of success that could only be described as Germanic.
The Flat-12 Ferrari Engine And The 15 kW Advantage
The following year (1975) Niki Lauda had learned from the mistakes he openly admitted he made the year before. As he began piling up his points score there was a suggestion that the Flat-12 Ferrari engine had a 15 kW advantage over the Ford-Cosworth opposition and it was extra power, rather than driver ability, that was winning the races for Niki. He strongly resented these remarks, believing that the overall Ferrari package - the chassis, the engine and himself - were responsible for the wins and not simply a power advantage. At 26 and a non-Italian, Lauda inevitably came under pressure at Ferrari, but not inside the team itself.
This pressure had broken drivers before, but Lauda remained determined to withstand the demand of a fiercely patriotic public. He once told a reporter "The people in Italy are so emotional. When you win they celebrate it in a way which you can't have anywhere else, but if you lose they nearly kill you. There is nothing in between. In England if you win they celebrate you but if you don't win, OK, that's racing and maybe you do better next time. But in Italy it's only everything fantastic or nothing.
Enzo Ferrari once ran his race team from his office in Maranello and he expected his engineers, team managers and drivers to operate by remote control. That also changed for the 1975 season, the commendatore had Luca Montezemolo, the smooth and talented young team manager who studied law in the United States, manage the overall team operation from the pit lane instead of by disjointed telephone conversations. He asked Louis Stanley if he could drive a BRM
but the Bourne stable was already groaning at the seams with Regazzoni, Beltoise and Schuppan. Stanley did, however, offer Lauda the chance of a test drive at the Paul Ricard circuit and his performance there prompted "Big Lou" into letting Lauda and Schuppan fight for their position on the team.
No - I don't think I'm the best - I never think that
The idea was that Lauda would do the two South American races and Schuppan would race the car in South Africa. It gave Lauda the advantage of getting his foot in the door at BRM
and it was Schuppan who dropped out. This was a time when the BRM
team was much maligned, but Lauda was not so critical, knowing the car was not powerful enough to be competitive. His driving style was arguably as unique as his outlook on racing. When asked during the 1975 season who he thought was the best driver (the interviewer obviously thinking Lauda would nominate himself), Lauda instead replied "Nobody - Because if somebody thinks he is the best he is never going to develop himself and tomorrow he will be last. If you try to develop gradually, you keep on improving but if you think 'Oh, I'm so fantastic', the next moment you are finished. I would approach everybody in the same way. I would think that I am able to."
The 1975 F1 season started slowly for Lauda, but after nothing better than a fifth-place finish in the first four races he then won four out of the next five races in the new Ferrari 312T. His first World Championship was confirmed with a fifth win at the last race of the year, the United States GP. He also became the first and only driver to lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife in under 7 minutes, which was considered a huge feat. And the Nordschleife section of the Nürburgring was 2 miles longer than it is today.
The 1976 Season Seems A Formality...Until
Unlike 1975, Lauda dominated the start of the 1976 F1 season, winning four of the first six races and finishing second in the other two. By the time of his fifth win of the year at the British GP, he had more than double the points of his closest challengers Jody Scheckter
and James Hunt
, and a second consecutive World Championship appeared a formality. It would be a feat not achieved since Jack Brabham's
victories in 1959 and 1960. He also looked set to win the most races in a season, a record held by the late Jim Clark
since 1963. A week before the 1976 German Grand Prix
at the fearsome Nürburgring Nordschleife (even though he was the fastest driver on the circuit at that time), Lauda tried to boycott the circuit, largely due to the safety arrangements. Most of the other drivers voted against it and the race went ahead. On the second lap at the very fast left kink before Bergwerk, Lauda's Ferrari swerved off the track, due to a suspected rear suspension failure, hit an embankment and rolled back into the path of Brett Lunger's Surtees-Ford car.
Lauda's Ferrari burst into flames, but, unlike Lunger, he was trapped in the wreckage. Drivers Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl arrived at the scene a few moments later, but before they and Lunger were able to pull Lauda from his car, he suffered severe burns to his head and inhaled hot toxic gases that damaged his lungs and blood. Although Lauda was conscious and able to stand immediately after the accident, he later lapsed into a coma and a priest administered the last rites. Lauda suffered extensive scarring from the burns, which became possibly his most famous attribute in the eyes of the public. He only had enough reconstructive surgery to get his eyelids to work properly, but never felt a need to do any more. His right ear is mostly gone. Since the accident he has always worn a cap to cover the scars on his head. He has arranged for sponsors to use the cap for advertising.
With Lauda out of the contest, Ferrari boycotted the Austrian GP in protest at what they saw a preferential treatment shown towards McLaren driver James Hunt
at the Spanish and British GPs. Carlos Reutemann
was even taken on as a potential replacement. Lauda returned to race only six weeks (two races) later, finishing fourth in the Italian GP. In Lauda's absence, Hunt had reduced his lead in the World Championship standings. Following wins in the Canadian and United States GPs, Hunt stood only three points behind Lauda before the final race of the season, the Japanese GP. Lauda qualified third, one place behind Hunt, but on race day there was torrential rain and Lauda retired after 2 laps, stating that he felt it was unsafe to continue under these conditions.
Hunt led much of the race before a late puncture dropped him down the order. He recovered to 3rd, thus winning the title by a single point. In spite of this, Lauda's move is seen as one of the bravest examples in motor racing.Lauda's previously good relationship with Ferrari was severely affected by his decision to withdraw from the race, and he endured a difficult 1977 season, despite easily winning the championship through consistency rather than outright pace. Having announced his decision to quit Ferrari at season's end, Lauda left early due to the team's decision to run the then unknown Gilles Villeneuve in a third car at the Canadian Grand Prix.
Joining The Brabham Team
Having joined Brabham in 1978 for a $1 million salary, Lauda endured two unsuccessful seasons, notable mainly for his one race in the Brabham BT46B, a radical design known as the Fan Car: it won its first race and was then promptly banned. At the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix, Lauda informed Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone that he wished to retire immediately, as he had no more desire to "drive around in circles".
Lauda, who had founded a charter airline, returned to Austria to run the company full-time. Needing money to shore up his new business, in 1982 Lauda returned to racing, feeling that he still had a career in Formula One. After a successful test with McLaren, the only problem was in convincing then team sponsor Marlboro that he was still capable of winning.
Lauda proved he was still quite capable when, in his third race back, he won the Long Beach Grand Prix. Lauda won a third world championship in 1984 by half a point over teammate Alain Prost, due to only half points being awarded for the shortened 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. His Austrian Grand Prix
victory that year is the most recent time an Austrian has won his home Grand Prix.1985 was a poor season for Lauda, with thirteen retirements from the sixteen races. He did manage 4th at the 1985 San Marino Grand Prix, 5th at the 1985 German Grand Prix
, and a single race win at the 1985 Dutch Grand Prix. This proved to be his last Grand Prix
victory and also the last Formula One Grand Prix
held in the Netherlands. He retired for good at the end of that season.
Post F1 Retirement
Lauda returned to running his airline, Lauda Air, on his second Formula One retirement in 1985. During his time as airline manager, he was appointed consultant at Ferrari as part of an effort by Montezemolo to rejuvenate the team. Ousted from his airline by boardroom politics after a sale to majority partner Austrian Airlines in 1999, he managed the Jaguar Formula One racing team from 2001 to 2002. In late 2003, he started a new airline, Niki. Lauda holds a commercial pilot's license and from time to time acts as a captain on the flights of his airline. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993 and since 1996 has provided commentary on Grands Prix for Austrian and German television on RTL. He was, however, rapped for calling Robert Kubica a "polack" on air in May 2010 at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Niki Lauda has written five books: The Art and Science of Grand Prix
Driving (titled Formula 1: The Art and Technicalities of Grand Prix
Driving in some markets) (1975); My Years With Ferrari (1978); The New Formula One: A Turbo Age (1984); Meine Story (titled To Hell and Back in some markets) (1986); Das dritte Leben (1996). Lauda credits Austrian journalist Herbert Volker with editing the books. Lauda is sometimes known by the nickname "the rat" or "SuperRat" because of his prominent bucked teeth. He has been associated with both Parmalat and Viessmann, sponsoring his ever faithful 'cappy' from 1976 onwards, used to hide the severe burns he sustained in his 1976 accident. Lauda admitted in a 2009 interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit that an advertiser currently pays €1.2m for the space on his famous red cap. In 2008, American sports television network ESPN ranked him 22nd on their top drivers of all-time. In 2005 the Austrian post office issued a stamp honouring him.
Lauda had two sons with his first wife, Marlene: Mathias, a racing driver himself, and Lukas, his brother's manager. They divorced in 1991. He also has an illegitimate son, Christoph. In 2008 he married Birgit, who is 30 years younger then he and was formerly a stewardess for his airline. She had also donated a kidney to Lauda when the kidney he received in a transplant from his brother years earlier failed. In September 2009 Birgit gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.