Published: Tue, May 21, 2019
Life&Culture | By Sue Mclaughlin

Formula One legend and former champion Niki Lauda dies at 70

Formula One legend and former champion Niki Lauda dies at 70

Formula 1 legend and racing titan Niki Lauda has died at the age of 70, his family has confirmed.

Lauda underwent an emergency lung transplant a year ago, and he was hospitalised again in January with the flu for about 10 days.

The Austrian three-time world champion died peacefully in his sleep on Monday surrounded by relatives, a family spokeswoman said in a statement.

Two title wins for Ferrari (1975 and 1977) were interrupted by the events of the 1976 season, dramatised and immortalised by the movie "Rush" which chronicled the tests and turns of Lauda's near-death experience at the Nürburgring, and his astonishing fight back that on-so almost saw him take the title against his friend and rival James Hunt. In 1976, he was badly burned when he crashed during the German Grand Prix, but he made an astonishingly fast return to racing just six weeks later.

Lauda was the only man to ever win the World title with the Ferrari and McLaren teams.

Lauda sold his shares in his airline to Austrian Airlines in 1999, but remained connected to Formula 1 through consultancy and executive roles with Ferrari and Jaguar.

Born in 1949 to an Austrian banking family, Lauda pursued a career in racing against his relatives' wishes.

Five further wins in 1975 made him the world champion, and he looked set to repeat that achievement in 1976 before suffering horrific injuries in a crash in Germany. He was pulled out of the wreckage by the fearless Arturo Merzario and Guy Edwards, saving his life, and Lauda, who had third-degree burns on his face, was racing again just six weeks later and just missed out on the title that year to James Hunt.

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He won his first career Formula 1 title in 1975 when he won five races.

His rivalry with British driver James Hunt, the 1976 champion for McLaren, was intense and became the subject of the acclaimed 2013 film "Rush".

He was trapped in the burning vehicle for nearly a minute before being pulled out by other drivers who stopped to rescue him, risking their lives as their own fireproof racing suits were scorched by the intense heat.

The crash came a week after Niki urged his fellow drivers to boycott the race, largely due to his safety concerns.

Incredibly, he won the title the year after, and again in 1984 for McLaren. He retired for good in 1985 to devote his time to his very successful aviation endeavour.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, he grew "Lauda Air" into an worldwide carrier with long-haul flights out of Austria across the globe before it was merged into Austrian Airlines in 2012. In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand after one of its engine thrust reversers accidentally deployed during a climb, killing all 213 passengers and 10 crew. In 2004, he went on to create the profitable low-priced carrier Niki, selling it to Germany's Air Berlin in 2011. He renamed it LaudaMotion, but then in another twist sold a majority stake in it to Ryanair two months later.

He underwent two kidney transplants, the second kidney donated in 2005 by his then-girlfriend Birgit Wetzinger, a former flight attendant for his airline whom he married in 2008.

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