Niki Lauda, 1949–2019
The race car champ who got back on the track after a fiery crash
On Aug. 1, 1976, Niki Lauda was on the second lap of the German Grand Prix when his Ferrari smashed through a guardrail at 140 mph and exploded in flames. The reigning Formula 1 world champion was trapped inside the burning cockpit for 55 seconds before being pulled free. His arms and head were badly burned and his lungs scorched from inhaling burning plastic. In the hospital, a Catholic priest administered last rites to the Austrian driver; Lauda, who was conscious, was furious. “I wanted someone to help me live in this world and not to pass into the next,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Now I really am going to stay alive.’” Six weeks later, with fluid still seeping through his bandages, Lauda was back in a race car. He won the championship the following year and again in 1984.
Born to a wealthy Viennese family, the young Lauda “showed little interest in anything but cars,” said The Washington Post. By age 14 “he was barreling around a family estate in an old Volkswagen.” Rejecting his parents’ entreaties to join the family paper-manufacturing business, he entered his first F1 race in 1972, joining Team Ferrari two years later. He dominated the sport in 1975, winning five races and his first championship.
A licensed commercial pilot, the driver launched his own airline, Lauda Air, in 1979. He was devastated when one of his Boeing airliners crashed in Bangkok in 1991, killing 223 people, said The Guardian (U.K.). Lauda didn’t rest until he’d proved to the world—“and to the reluctant manufacturer”—that the tragedy had been caused by a mechanical failure. “If I race and kill myself, OK,” he said of the crash. “But these people just bought a ticket to fly safely from A to B.”