Born to a wealthy banker family in Vienna on February 22, 1949, Andreas Nikolaus Lauda has been interested in motoring from an early age. His parents, however, do not intend to support him, as they believe that this would have discredited them in the eyes of high society.
In 1968 Niki decides to abandon his university studies and, after borrowing money from a bank, he buys his first car to take part in motor racing. He then participated in the Formula Vee championship and then moved on to Formula 3. His career, however, now seems to be at a standstill, when, thanks to another large bank loan, also guaranteed by a life insurance policy, he succeeds to secure a place with the March team in Formula 2.
The Austrian made his Formula 2 debut in 1971 at the Jim Clark Trophy, which took place at the Hockenheimring, at the wheel of a March 712M Ford. By virtue that the star of the March team is the Swedish Ronnie Peterson, few in 1971 notice the Austrian.
Robin Herd, technical director of the March team, in an interview released in 1980 and published in the book Formula 2, forge of champions, recalls that when he was introduced to Lauda he thought that he did not look like a driver and consequently that couldn't be a quick one.
"We went to Thruxton for some tests. Lauda was the first to turn: I made him do about ten laps, asking him to squeeze the car as much as he could, because we had several modifications and we wanted to understand its strengths and weaknesses; then he sold his car to Ronnie Peterson. When Ronnie got into the car, Niki and I went behind the guardrail of a very fast curve of the track to better admire the behavior of the 712M. When he made the curve, Ronnie Peterson sent the rear of the March into a skid, making the edge of the guardrail. Lauda jumped back and, completely white in the face, said: Robin, in my life I will never be able to run like that. When we returned to the pits, I asked Niki how much Peterson had achieved in his best round. He replied: I did 1'14"0, so I think Ronnie's time is around one minute and twelve seconds. Instead, Peterson's best time was 1'14"3. At that moment I understood that Niki must have something special".
Nevertheless, the 1971 season will not be easy: Formula 2 is a difficult category, where young people in search of glory and Formula 1 champions who run out of the standings clash. The average number of participants exceeds forty drivers and just qualifying for the race is a challenge. Lauda, who is just twenty-two years old, shines on several occasions, so much so that Gabriela Noris, Autosprint correspondent and Formula 2 expert, writes very flattering comments about him and perhaps she is the first to say that Lauda could have become a sample.
At the Nürburgring, for example, in the Eifelrennen third round of the European Lauda is the author of a splendid race, finishing sixth behind Cevert, Fittipaldi, Reutemann, Westbury and Graham Hill, obtaining his first points (three to be exact, because Fittipaldi and Hill run out of the standings). In Rouen, in the sixth round of the championship, he finished second in the first heat behind Ronnie Peterson and also did honor in the final, finishing fourth behind the Swede, Quester and Hill. At the end of the championship, he finished in tenth place with seven points, also making his debut in Formula 1 at the Austrian Grand Prix, raced in Zeltweg.
In 1971, while he began to appear in Formula 1, he won the second race of the 2.0-liter European championship reserved for the sports-prototypes category on board a Chevron B19 at the Salzburgring, and in the same year he participated in the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring, sharing a BMW with Günther Huber 2800 CS, finishing in third place.
In 1972 Niki became, together with Ronnie Peterson, official driver of the STP March Formula 1 and Formula 2 team, announcing that he wanted to aim for the victory of the latter championship. Formula 2 has changed the regulations, the engines have grown in displacement from 1600 cm³ to 2000 cm³, and the single-seaters are also much more aggressive from an aesthetic point of view. But, unfortunately, even more fragile, since 1972 is considered a running-in year for everyone.
In the opening race of the European Lauda behaves very well, managing to finish second behind Dave Morgan, the surprise winner of the race with a Brabham BT35 of the previous year.
Lauda's golden moment continues at Oulton Park (non-championship race, which is valid for the John Player Special title and only counts the results of the English races), where he wins ahead of Birrell, and in the second round of the European Championship in Thruxton, where he arrives third behind Peterson and Cevert, taking nine points, given that the two are now acclaimed champions of the top flight.
After such a good start, Lauda takes the lead in the European Championship and, in the eyes of many, is the real favorite for the title. Instead, March makes the mistake of changing engines too often and is the victim of many breakdowns. The 721, then, is not very competitive and during the year the Surtees and the Lotus prove to be better. For Lauda all that remains is the consolation of another six points collected at Imola and the victory in the English JPS championship, ahead of Ronnie Peterson, while in the European championship he will finish fifth.
At the same time Lauda finished fourth in the 9 Hours of Kyalami together with Jody Scheckter, and disputed the entire 1972 Formula 1 championship, but the cars were not very competitive and the Austrian was unable to collect any points.
In 1973 he decided to enter into a complex contract to be able to race as a paying driver with B.R.M. His results constantly improve over the course of the season and in the Belgian Grand Prix he wins an excellent fifth place and his first points. He then stipulates a new contract, which would have linked him to the English team for another two years; in exchange, his debts with the team would be forgiven.
In October, however, Lauda's move to Ferrari for the following year was formalized and he managed to pay the penalties for the termination of the previous contract with his salary. In the period spent at B.R.M. he still managed to build a reputation as a regular driver and a good test driver.
The engagement is favoured by Clay Regazzoni, his companion at B.R.M. in 1973, who would return to the wheel of Ferrari in 1974. This fact, however, causes some controversy, primarily due to the exclusion of Arturo Merzario, as well as the fact that the Austrian, apart from the fact that in the Monaco Grand Prix, did not have any further important performances to his credit. Throughout the winter the two drivers will be busy several hours a day to fine-tune the new car of the Maranello team, which since the first tests proves to be difficult to drive, plagued by understeer and poorly fast, to the point that one day Lauda says to Enzo Ferrari through his son, Piero Lardi:
"This car is shit".
The Austrian tells Ferrari that the car is not good and has several problems, in particular with the suspension; the builder from Modena then asked him how much he could improve, and he replied five tenths. Ferrari then replies:
"If you don't succeed you are out of the team".
But the work with engineer Forghieri is nevertheless fruitful, leading to an improvement of eight tenths. Already at his debut in Argentina Lauda manages to get on the podium, reaching second position and receiving the praise of the former World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio, who predicts a bright future for him.
The relationship established with Regazzoni was initially very good, so much so that the Swiss driver helped the Austrian to understand how to tackle the Argentine circuit, unknown to him, Enzo Ferrari in an interview declares that the two drivers are esteemed and that Lauda has a surprising technical knowledge for a man of twenty-four, comparing him, for this, to Peter Collins.
After a retirement due to an engine failure in the early stages of the race in the next world round and a second place in the Race of Champions (non-championship race), Lauda wins his first career pole position in South Africa, but will again be forced into the race to abandon due to an alternator failure while fighting for the first position with Carlos Reutemann.
The Austrian driver manages to seize his first victory at the following Spanish Grand Prix, and will touch the triumph again in the Belgian Grand Prix, but a problem with the balance of the front wheels, which causes excessive vibrations of the car, prevents him from winning on Fittipaldi.
Lauda then takes another success against the Netherlands and, with the place of honor in France, will go to the top of the world championship, but in the following two races he will make mistakes of inexperience that will make him lose ground in the standings: in Great Britain he believes he has problems with suspensions, while instead it is the right rear tire that is deflating, and trying to finish the race it loses several positions, and then stops in the pits on the last lap where a further organizational error, with the display of a red flag and a group of people who obstructs his exit from the garage, prevents him from conquering the fifth position which will then be recognized at the table. On the other hand, at the German Grand Prix he leaves the track already at the start, in an attempt not to lose ground from Regazzoni who takes the lead and then goes on to win the race.
At the Italian Grand Prix Lauda absolutely wants to win in order to still have hopes of winning the title: he dominates the first part of the race, but it will be the engine that betrays him. At this point Ferrari focuses on Regazzoni, who in the meantime has risen to the top of the standings, and sporting director Luca Cordero di Montezemolo declares that Lauda should have followed the team orders, but anyway the Austrian continues to try to excel, but due to the retirements he will not be of help to Regazzoni, who in the last race loses the world championship in favor of Fittipaldi. However, already in his first season with Ferrari, Lauda proves to be consistently faster than his box mate, especially in practice, so much so that he equals Peterson's record of nine pole positions for the season the previous season.
In 1975, Niki's speed, combined with the competitiveness of the Ferrari 312 T, represent an almost invincible combination: the car made its debut on the third round of the season and, after an unsuccessful start to the championship, Lauda obtained five podiums in a row from the Monaco Grand Prix: four wins and a second place. Then he won another podium in Germany and in the Italian Grand Prix, in Monza, finishing third, he obtained the mathematical certainty of the world title. Subsequently he wins the last race scheduled in the United States, bringing seasonal successes to five and giving Ferrari its first success in the USA; like the previous year he scores nine pole positions.
The following season seems to be the natural evolution of the previous one, with a sequence of victories and placings that seem to leave little doubt about the final outcome of the championship: immediately two wins and a second place with the old 312 T, then starting from the Grand Prize of Spain, with the entry into force of the rule on the maximum height of cars that eliminates the voluminous air intakes of the engines, Ferrari puts the 312 T2 on track. Lauda is back from a domestic accident with the tractor, in which he fractured a rib, but with great willpower and the help of Dungl he managed to run and finish second; the race will then have a judicial aftermath, because James Hunt's McLaren, which wins, is just wider than allowed and is disqualified giving Lauda a victory, which will prove ephemeral, given that it will be returned to Hunt two months later by the court of appeal of the FIA.
Lauda resumed winning in Belgium and Monaco, then in Great Britain he triumphed again taking advantage of Hunt's disqualification, in this case because the race was interrupted at the beginning due to accidents and Hunt, who was involved, would not have been able to restart, if not was it that public protests lead the organizers to admit it anyway; two months later the FIA will approve Ferrari's complaint.
The results are such that Ferrari, before mid-season, charges Audetto, who is Ferrari's sporting director for the first time, to renew Lauda's contract; the latter, shortly before the German Grand Prix, makes an agreement for a figure that he considers adequate compared to his previous experiences in rallying with the Lancia, but Ferrari complains about Lauda's exaggeration and will address him as a Jew.
On August 1, 1976 at the German Grand Prix, on the dangerous Nürburgring circuit, Lauda will face the most serious accident of his career, which will leave him severely injured and his face disfigured for life. Niki arrived at this point of the season with a good margin of advantage over the closest rivals in the standings, but he still cannot count on Hunt's future disqualification, for the British Grand Prix, which would have given him an almost unbridgeable advantage.
The race started badly because, having just rained, Lauda opted for rain tires, however already during the first lap he loses several positions. The Austrian, like his colleagues, stops in the pits to change them and starts again trying to recover, but has a serious accident at the Bergwerk corner also due to the lack of grip provided by the tires. The idea that the accident could be due to the failure of a suspension will be rejected by Ferrari's sporting director, Daniele Audetto, who will view the braking tracks and find that there were only two, parallel and symmetrical, while in the event of a break of a suspension should be three, and again in the event of a brake failure, one should be more pronounced than the other.
Lauda, after losing control of his car, hits a rock on the side of the circuit, and ends his race in the middle of the track. The car catches fire due to the spill of petrol and the driver is trapped in the burning car, before some colleagues arrive, bravely trying to help him: among these Harald Ertl, Guy Edwards and Brett Lunger, but it will be above all due to the intervention of Arturo Merzario , who extracts it from the cockpit in flames, which Lauda will be able to save himself; in the hours immediately following, however, his conditions will remain very critical, not so much for the severe burns suffered, but for having inhaled the poisonous gasoline fumes that could have damaged the lungs and then the blood, with even lethal consequences.
Only on August 5th will he be declared out of danger by the doctors and three days later he will leave the Mannheim hospital, where he was initially hospitalized, to move back to that of Ludwigshafen, specialized in the treatment of major burns. On the day of the accident Enzo Ferrari looks for a replacement, and instructs Audetto to contact Emerson Fittipaldi, but the Brazilian declines with regret because he is tied to the contract with Copersucar, an industry in his country, so the focus is on Peterson, who has a contract with the March and that can be released by paying a penalty thanks to the intervention of Count Zanon di Valgiurata.
But Lauda in a few days has begun to recover and asks to avoid Peterson's arrival, so that in Maranello they go to Carlos Reutemann, freed by Bernie Ecclestone who wanted to have good relations with Ferrari, but who will only be available for the Italian Grand Prix, where three Ferrari single-seaters will be deployed.
While the Austrian is away from the tracks, Hunt is able to recover much of the disadvantage accumulated in the championship, proposing himself as the main opponent of the Ferrari driver: moreover, the Italian team unwittingly favours Hunt himself by not participating in the Austrian Grand Prix, for protest against the return to the English of the victory of the Spanish Grand Prix, and fielding only Regazzoni at the following Dutch Grand Prix.
Lauda, showing great courage, decides to return to the wheel after only forty-two days from the accident, at the Italian Grand Prix. On the Tuesday before the race, the Austrian tests the car on the Fiorano circuit: his conditions, however, are still precarious and it will be necessary to modify his helmet, removing part of the padding, to try to limit the blood loss that occurs with rubbing on face wounds not yet healed; the authorization of the medical commission will arrive on Friday morning, before the tests. After obtaining the fifth place in qualifying, Lauda, albeit battered by injuries, some even still bleeding, and by the fact that, due to the after-effects of the Nürburgring accident, his eyelids did not offer him a totally correct vision, he finished fourth in the race, collecting important points for the title fight.
The duel with Hunt will continue until the last race, the Japanese Grand Prix, on the Fuji circuit. The race is run in torrential rain, so much so that many riders including the two title contenders would have liked to postpone it, but the organizers' intention to kick off the race prevails.
Initially there would be an agreement, albeit not unanimous, guaranteed by Ecclestone according to which the start would be due to the television contracts, but after five laps the main drivers would have stopped, including Lauda and Hunt. Agreement that will not be respected: in fact, within a few laps, Larry Perkins and Carlos Pace, who race for Ecclestone's Brabham, and Fittipaldi give up.
Lauda, on the second lap, returns to the pits to retire: the track conditions, for the Austrian driver, are too dangerous to compete. Forghieri suggests that he blame an electrical problem, but Lauda prefers to take responsibility for the withdrawal. Hunt continues and gets the placement necessary to win the title, with only one point ahead of the Ferrari driver. Lauda's behavior will attract several criticisms from the Italian press and from Ferrari, which will compromise the relationship with the Modena manufacturer.
In 1977, Lauda still races in the Ferrari 312 T2 alongside Argentine Reutemann who was hired by Ferrari after the Nürburgring accident to replace Lauda, but he only races in Monza in 1976 and replaces Regazzoni in the coming season.
The season begins with a victory for Jody Scheckter driving the rookie Wolf, while Lauda is forced to retire due to mechanical problems, then at the next Brazilian Grand Prix, Lauda is not at ease and starts back in the grid finishing third in the race. while Reutemann wins thanks to a new rear wing mounted at the last moment. To the doubts that may arise about Lauda's chances of returning to the top, Hunt replies:
"Don't think Niki is finished".
In fact, in the following South African Grand Prix, Lauda took the lead on the seventh lap, with an overtaking against his English rival, and returned to victory. The season sees the emergence of many drivers and teams in particular the Lotus which, with the first ground effect car, allows Mario Andretti to obtain four seasonal affirmations, but the consistency of Lauda who climbs ten times on the podium, even if only two more times as winner but six times second, allow him to accumulate a considerable advantage in the general classification. Meanwhile, on August 29th, the day after his victory at the Dutch Grand Prix, the announcement that Lauda would terminate his relationship with Ferrari starting from the following October 30th caused a sensation.
At the next Italian Grand Prix, Lauda, with the tenth podium of the season, reaches the almost mathematical certainty of the second world title, missing a single point to close the speech in favor of him, which in fact he will get in the following Grand Prix.
A mathematically won world championship, and after the definitive break in relations with Ferrari, Lauda shows his intention not to participate in the last two races. The Italian team calls a young rookie from Formula Atlantic, who had debuted in Formula 1 at the British Grand Prix: Gilles Villeneuve, who runs the two remaining races of 1977 and will then definitively replace Lauda in Maranello for the 1978.
In Canada, Ferrari still entered three cars for Lauda, Reutmann and Villeneuve. However, the Austrian decides not to even carry out the tests, stating that he does not feel capable of winning, even if the team declares that, if Lauda was not satisfied with his car, he would have obtained the Villeneuve race for the race which, consequently, it would not have been used. Immediately after the Austrian leaves North America and returns to his homeland. For the Japan race, however, Lauda communicates his unavailability, caused by gastritis.
In 1978 Lauda will move to Brabham-Alfa Romeo, which offers avant-garde technical solutions. This season, however, there is little chance of success against the ground-effect Lotus 79, and Lauda collects only two wins. The first, in Sweden, is obtained with the car equipped with a fan for extracting the air from the bottom of the car, immediately banned by the sports authorities, while the second will arrive at the Italian Grand Prix, after the penalty of Andretti and Villeneuve for early departure.
In 1979, in order to exploit the ground effect, Alfa Romeo will build a new twelve-cylinder V engine, replacing the old boxer, to reduce the overall dimensions and leave space for the upturned wings in the sides of the new Brabham BT48. But while allowing Lauda to often be in the leading positions, the Brabham-Alfa cars will reveal many technical problems, often forcing the team's drivers to retire; Alfa Romeo's choice to field its own team during the season will only worsen the relationship with the English team, which will return to use the Cosworth DFV at the end of the year.
Lauda will be the author of a good performance at the Monaco Grand Prix, with an excellent start and keeping the third position for a long time, but his race will end with an accident caused by Didier Pironi's attempt to overtake him; the maximum he will be able to achieve will be only two points finishes.
Towards the end of the season, he won the Dino Ferrari Grand Prix, not valid for the championship, which takes place in Imola on the Sunday following the Italian Grand Prix, but during the practice of the next Canadian Grand Prix he decided to retire from Formula 1, without not even take part in the Grand Prix.
The satisfactions will come from the ProCar Championship, a single-make series in the first edition reserved for BMW M1s, which takes place on the weekend of some Grand Prix as a side race and in which several Formula 1 drivers participate. Lauda obtains the final victory in the championship by beating his young but already competitive teammate in Brabham, future champion Nelson Piquet.
After the sudden retirement from racing in 1979 he dedicated himself to the development of his own airline, Lauda Air, but on September 30, 1981, he announced his return to racing for the 1982 season, not immediately revealing with which team he would resume competitions, although his arrival at McLaren was likely, also because, in mid-September 1981, Lauda had tested a car of the British team at the English circuit of Donington Park. The formalization of the engagement will arrive in November.
In 1982 Lauda returned to competitions and was immediately protagonist, even if not on the track, in the drivers' strike at the first Grand Prix of the season, in South Africa, to challenge some clauses of the new regulation on the granting of the FIA Super license, made necessary to race in Formula 1.
After the successful conclusion of the dispute, which allows the holding of the Grand Prix, Didier Pironi, president of the GPDA drivers' association, underlines the role of Lauda as the driver's guide. The competitive comeback will take place, after the strike, at the wheel of the McLaren MP4/1B, the first Formula 1 with the carbon fiber chassis and powered by the classic eight-cylinder Cosworth DFV, immediately obtaining a fourth place.
"Wait four races to judge me".
Lauda exclaims on his return to racing, but already on his third participation he returns to victory: starting with the second time in qualifying in the United States-West Grand Prix, he will be able to overtake the author of the pole position, Andrea De Cesaris, on the fifteenth lap and then never leave the lead. He will then get third place in Belgium but will be disqualified because his car is a few kilos under the minimum regulatory weight.
The season will be quite balanced, with many different winners, but the turbo cars, especially Renault and Ferrari, in addition to being more powerful, are starting to have a reliability that allows them to finish the Grand Prix regularly, and this limits the possibilities of the drivers to driving old atmospheric powered cars.
Lauda did not achieve other striking results until his second victory of the season at the British Grand Prix, which makes him particularly satisfied for having preceded the new turbo cars at the finish line; he gets another podium at the Swiss Grand Prix, finishing fifth in the final championship standings.
In 1983 a good start allowed him, after two races, to lead the championship, something that had not happened since 1977. He obtained third place in the opening race in Brazil and accomplished a great feat, culminating in second place, at the Grand Prix of the USA-West: starting with teammate John Watson in the last positions, due to tire problems in practice, the two McLaren drivers will be the architects of an exceptional comeback that will lead them to finish the Grand Prix in the lead, obtaining a double win.
But outside of twisty circuits like the citizen of Long Beach, home of the North American venture, the naturally aspirated McLaren doesn't stand a great chance against the most powerful turbocharged cars. So, after a season without other high points, starting from the Dutch Grand Prix Lauda begins to bring the supercharged TAG Porsche TTE PO1 engine to the track, which already shows a good level of competitiveness at the last race in South Africa where it fights for the first victory to be stopped by a breakdown with a few laps to go.
In 1984 with the limitation of the tank of the cars to 220 liters and the prohibition of refuelling, many teams will go into crisis with race finals in which there is no gasoline, while the McLaren MP4/2 driven by Lauda and by the new teammate Alain Prost will be very competitive and without accusing consumption problems, the engines designed by Porsche and financed by the TAG, enjoy the experience that Porsche had in the World Sports Prototype Championship where these limitations were in force since 1982.
Lauda and Prost shared the victories in the first phase of the season, with the exclusion of the Belgian Grand Prix where they both retire, until the trip to North America; here there is a recovery of competitiveness of Piquet's Brabham who wins two races and then the daring Grand Prix in Dallas which begins with problems with the asphalt and ends with an interminable series of retirements, including that of the two McLarens.
Upon returning to Europe, the McLarens monopolize the season: Lauda obtained five consecutive podiums, three of which were victories and two second places behind Prost, in addition to the victory obtained at the Austrian Grand Prix. After this sequence, which ends with the victory at the Italian Grand Prix, the championship seems closed in favor of Lauda, but the last two races will be Prost's prerogative; Lauda at the last Grand Prix, held for the first time in Portugal, will have to win the world title, starting back on the starting grid, and recovering until reaching the second place in the race.
The third world title will be obtained at the final Grand Prix, raced in Portugal, after five seasonal affirmations, for only half a point, which is still today the lowest advantage ever obtained over the second classified (due to the halving of the score of the Monaco Grand Prix, finished before reaching seventyfive percent of the total planned distance).
During the season, Lauda will also be noted for his participation, on May 12, 1984, in a race-exhibition for the inauguration of the New Nürburgring, eight years after having escaped the accident on the old Nordschleife track; driving a Mercedes-Benz 190 E, the Austrian finished in second place a race against the best colleagues of the time, behind only the rising star Ayrton Senna.
The following season Lauda is the victim of a series of technical problems, although he is often able to fight for the victory, which prevent him from having a good ranking. At the Austrian Grand Prix he announces his retirement from competitions at the end of the season and tries to repeat the success of the previous year in the home race, but after dominating he is forced to retire here too. The redemption will be obtained in the next Dutch Grand Prix.
After retiring from active competitions, Lauda becomes a successful entrepreneur in the aviation field, founding three airlines over the years (Lauda Air, Niki and Laudamotion). Always tied in the Formula 1 environment, in 1993 he was recalled to Maranello by his former sporting director, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who in the meantime had become president of Ferrari, as a consultant in the management of the Scuderia Ferrari.
In 1994, in the aftermath of the tragic weekend in Imola which saw the disappearance of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna on the track, Lauda was among the supporters, together with Gerhard Berger, Martin Brundle and Michael Schumacher, of the reconstitution of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association disbanded twelve years earlier, in order to improve safety on the circuits for drivers and spectators. Between 2001 and 2002 he will be team principal for Jaguar Racing, and in September 2012 he will be appointed non-executive honorary president of Mercedes AMG Formula 1, in which he also holds a ten percent stake; in this capacity, in 2013 he was among the supporters of the arrival in the Anglo-German team of Lewis Hamilton, then winner of various world titles for Mercedes.
Lauda also works as a television commentator for the German broadcaster RTL from 1995 to 2017.
On August 2, 2018, Niki is hospitalized at the Allgemeines Krankenhaus in Vienna following complications due to a lung infection, undergoing a lung transplant: after having spent almost a year in hospital due to the difficult surgery and the subsequent dialysis to which he is subjected died in the night between May 20 and 21, 2019, due to kidney failure, in a clinic in Zurich; after the funeral, celebrated on May 29th in the Vienna Cathedral and as per his wishes, he is buried in the Heiligenstädter cemetery in Döbling, a district in the north-west of Vienna, where his mother was already resting, wearing the suit of his years in Ferrari.
At the first Formula 1 Grand Prix after his death, in Monte Carlo, the entire circus pays homage to Lauda by wearing a red cap throughout the weekend, like the one made iconic by the Austrian during his lifetime.