One year ago today, motorsport lost one of its most beloved figures.
Niki Lauda’s death at the age of 70 triggered an outpouring of genuine grief, even from those who had never met him. He was so much more than a three-time Formula 1 world champion who carried the physical scars of a sport that had almost killed him 43 years earlier.
For a man known as The Computer during his driving career, it was his humanity that really made him special, with all the imperfections that implies. Famously blunt and honest to a brutal fault, he never shied away from his own flaws, which somehow only enhanced his aura as the most remarkable of men.
The anniversary of his passing will trigger a wave of further tributes, and it’s also marked by the publication of an excellent new biography written by one of motorsport’s finest writers, Maurice Hamilton, who first encountered him in 1971 when he was a near-unknown struggling to make his way in Formula 2.
Of course, the book covers in detail Lauda’s sporting rise in defiance of his autocratic grandfather; the world titles with Ferrari; 1976 and the horror of his blazing crash at the Nürburgring; his brave return to racing just 42 days later; his subsequent disillusionment with F1; and then on to his change-of-heart comeback in 1982 and unlikely third world crown in a McLaren. But perhaps it’s familiarity with a story that’s seared into the fabric of racing lore that makes the account of his post-racing driver life more riveting.
Lauda’s second and third careers, as the owner of an airline and then a return to F1 in team management, further reveal the best of his humanity.
HIS WORST SCARS
On 26 May 1991, Lauda Air Flight 004 plunged into the jungles of Thailand, with the loss of all 223 souls on board. Profoundly shaken, Lauda’s only priority was to the bereaved families.
Having first taken in the horrors of the crash site, he met them, grieved with them, attended funerals and promised an answer: why had this happened?
The dogged characteristics that had made him so formidable in a racing car kicked in as he pursued Boeing to come clean on why its 767 passenger jet had malfunctioned so catastrophically, not simply to clear his own name and to save his company but to keep his promise to those families.
His direct confrontation forced Boeing to publicly admit a flaw in its thrust reverser design and ensured the specifics of this disaster could never be repeated. You could argue it was Lauda’s finest achievement.