The press called him “The Computer”. Nobody knew the line better than Niki Lauda. Racing drivers define their own racing lines on the track, deciding where they can risk more and brake less, where to slow down a bit more in order to, later, speed up a touch quicker. The optimum racing line runs between the boundaries of foolhardiness and precision, and Lauda skated across this as if on rails. Dig up 1970s footage of the three-time Formula One (F1) champion, and his Ferrari glides in and out of corners, looking too unfairly smooth for something that quick.
He knew the line, and, having taught himself how a race car is built, could communicate his needs and the car’s defects—in ever-outspoken fashion—to the engineers building his machines. This resulted in drivers in the same team feeling their machinery was inferior. Lauda knew when to go for it and, more importantly, when to back out. Where do we begin to talk about this legend, who died on 20 May, aged 70? There is the way he willed himself into motor sport, the enormity of his spectacular and fiery accident, and the greatest of all sporting comebacks. And then there’s the time he chose not to run.
The drivers called him “The Rat”. The Austrian was a scrawny buck-toothed chap, his plain features coming into sharper focus thanks to a rivalry with glamorous British driver James Hunt—a rivalry immortalized in Rush, a wonderful film directed by Ron Howard, where Daniel Brühl played Lauda and nailed his unmistakable accent. It is a film Lauda, who is painted as too much of a polar opposite to Hunt, described as “80% accurate”. Unlike Hunt, who embraced the hedonism the sport stood for, Lauda wasn’t driven by trappings—tired of the trophies littering his house, he gave them away to a local garage in exchange for free car washes.
Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born on 22 February 1949 in Vienna, to a family of bankers. His dedication to racing was met with disapproval from those holding the purse strings, and the family fortune was not made available to support him.Lauda borrowed money from Austrian banks to pay his way into racing. He bought a race seat in the March team—making his F1 debut with one of the weirdest-looking cars in history, the March 711—and he paid for this with a bank loan secured against his life insurance policy.
This seemed apropos. The 1970s were a preposterously gladiatorial era for Formula One, and driver fatalities were high when Lauda went from March to the BRM team, where he excelled, to Ferrari, where he famously told founder Enzo Ferrari that his car was “a piece of shit”. Lauda took a Ferrari to victory in 1975, bringing the Italian team their first championship title in over a decade.
The next year would prove trickier for the man who liked learning from his mistakes. In the 1976 German Grand Prix at the notorious Nürburgring, Lauda suffered a suspension failure and lost control of his Ferrari, crashing it into the barriers. The car was soon engulfed in flames, and Lauda was trapped in the blaze for nearly a minute with his helmet thrown off.
Before the event, Lauda had protested its staging. Despite being the fastest driver, he urged fellow drivers to boycott the race, citing administrative disarray, fire safety and a lack of safety vehicles. He was proven devastatingly correct, going into a coma after the crash, his lungs and blood affected by toxic gases and his head horribly burnt. He lost most of his right ear, eyebrows and eyelids, but driven by the hunger to return to the track, Lauda chose only to replace his eyelids—so that he could blink properly—and hurried back, appearing at the Italian Grand Prix only six weeks later. It was superheroic.
By the end of the 1976 season, he was back to his brilliant best and went into the final race of the year leading the championship battle by three points. The Japanese Grand Prix saw a deluge at the Fuji Speedway, and Lauda—unhappy with the decision to start the race in torrential conditions—decided to pull away into the pitlane and retire in the second lap. “My life is worth more than a title,” he said memorably, allowing his rival to pick up the championship, underscoring the emphatic decision that defines his legacy.
His scars covered by an iconic red baseball cap bearing a sponsor’s logo, Lauda became a fixture of modern Formula One, helping at Ferrari and then shaping the future of Mercedes. He spoke his mind, inspired drivers across generations, from Ayrton Senna to Lewis Hamilton, and is already being missed.
Arrivederci, Niki Lauda, and thank you for an astonishing life. Computers learn from their crashes. Rats learn how to survive. Champions teach us how to live.