Arguably one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, Andreas Nikolaus "Niki" Lauda (February 22, 1949 May 20, 2019) was perhaps best known for the intense rivalry he had with James Hunt, and that close brush with death he had in Nürburgring that left him scarred for life but scoffed it off and continued racing just weeks after the crash.
Born to a family of wealthy paper manufacturing industrialists, Lauda took up a career in racing in spite of his grandfather viewing it as a recklessly pointless pursuit. Disowned by his folks for his preference for cars over following their trade, Niki was left to his own devices and went racing in Minis and Porsches, and had to buy his way through the ranks as a Formula Two driver, and through Clay Regazzoni (who vouched for Lauda in front of team boss Enzo Ferrari) eventually found his way in Scuderia Ferrari and was able to clear his debts. His stint at Ferrari culminated in what would go down in history as an intense rivalry between him and McLaren driver James Hunt.
And then came the incident in 1976 where he and Hunt raced in Nürburgring. He was initially against the idea of racing there, citing safety issues and urging fellow drivers to boycott the race; Lauda and the others went on anyway. The rest would change the Austrian forever — his Ferrari swerved off the track, hit an embankment, burst into flames, and made contact with Brett Lunger's Surtees-Ford car. Lauda was trapped as his fellow racers struggled to extricate him from the burning wreckage, inhaling toxic gases which damaged his lungs and blood and sustaining severe burns to his face and head. Just as when it was certain that he was going to die from his injuries, being administered the Last Rites and all, he somehow survived the ordeal and, against all medical advice, went on to win fourth place in the Italian GP, with wounds still fresh from the accident and in pain. Hunt took advantage of Lauda's absence to further reduce his deficit, and Ferrari hired Carlos Reutemann as Niki's replacement. In spite of his horrific injuries, Lauda limited the reconstructive surgery to his eyelids for them to work properly, choosing instead to wear his trademark baseball cap to cover his head scars and even went so far as to sell advertising space on his headpiece.
The final race of the 1976 season saw Lauda call it quits on the second lap of the Japanese GP, mostly out of fear for his own safety, exacerbated by his fire-damaged tear ducts and inability to blink — James Hunt went on to win the championship by a mere point ahead of his rival, his sole championship victory. Niki's withdrawal also left a sour note on Ferrari, and while he won next year's title, disagreements with the Prancing Horse caused him to leave the team in favour of Brabham, whose stint was all but unsuccessful. A disillusioned Lauda left racing for a while as his desire to "drive around in circles" wore off and went on to manage his airline company, Lauda Air, full-time, which in hindsight was kind of ironic considering how the Laudas wanted Niki to follow family tradition only for him to take up racing, but eventually became a businessman himself.
1982 saw him return to racing under Hunt's old team, McLaren, partly because he needed more capital to run his fledging airline business. Lauda and Didier Pironi led a drivers' strike during the South African GP, in protest of a superlicence ruling by FISA which tied drivers to a single team for three years. Two years later, Lauda scored his third and final World Championship trophy; he would later retire for good in 1985 and went on in management roles and as a colour commentator in German television, also acting as non-executive chairman of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, having been responsible for signing Lewis Hamilton into Mercedes.
He also founded and ran two more airlines: Niki, and Laudamotion, later renamed as simply Lauda and has since become a Ryanair subsidiary. As he bore a commercial pilot's licence, he even went hands-on with his business and occasionally acted as air captain, though his crew would carry an oxygen tank as a precautionary measure due to his lung condition. Such was his hands-on approach that right after the infamous Lauda Air 004 crash, of which he described as the worst period in his life, he personally took it upon himself to investigate the incident,note and found that there's little the pilots could do in an accidental thrust reverser deployment upon trying out the simulator for himself, in spite of Boeing's insistence that it is possible. His actions pressured the airplane manufacturer to provide compensation to the victims' relatives and revise their 767s with safety locks on the reversers.
Lauda's rivalry with James Hunt was dramatised in the 2013 sports film Rush, directed by Ron Howard. Besides making a cameo appearance in the latter, he previously had a brief cameo as a bystander in an episode of the German-Austrian TV series Heiteres Bezirksgericht, has appeared in a number of commercials promoting his airline, and played As Himself in a few films, two of them being the little-known made-for-TV Sci-Fi children's adventure movie Top Kids in 1987, where he appeared as a time traveller being transported into various moments in automotive history, and the 1990 Roger Moore sports movie Fire, Ice and Dynamite.
A Lawyer-Friendly Cameo of Lauda appeared in McLaren's Tooned as "Lautfinger", being depicted as James Hunt's arch-nemesis in a James Bond parody episode. While he himself could have been featured in a McLaren 50 episode, his employment as a non-executive chairman in the Mercedes F1 team contractually prevented him from making an appearance.
Lauda died in May 20, 2019 due to kidney complications following a lung transplant and a period of ill health.
Tropes associated with Lauda:
- Animal Motifs: He adopted the rat as his mascot thanks to his buck-toothed smile which earned him the nickname "The Rat".
- As Himself: He would often be in a guest role or a cameo appearance as typical of a high-profile sportsperson, though he (nominally) landed a top-billed role in the little-known sci-fi Made-for-TV Movie Top Kids.note
- Badass Driver: Particularly when he dominated the 1975 season, and his near-fatal crash and eventual comeback the following year.
- Bribing Your Way to Victory: He bought his way through Formula Two and later to BRM in 1973. While this may sound rather scummy, "pay drivers" who pay for their seats are actually very common in motorsport: it's an expensive business, and most of the drivers tend to be loaded due to sponsorships or other connections. Needless to say, Lauda did a lot, lot better than most pay drivers.
- Brutal Honesty: As what Daniel Brühl attested in his interview when he stayed in Vienna in order to converse with Lauda and do research on his character. He clearly wasn't hesitant to speak his mind and be frank about things, not to mention that he had no time for petty politicking and corporate pretence, having the balls to describe Ferrari's car at the time as a "piece of shit". Fortunately, his frank remarks were well-received despite the fact that said statement could have gotten him fired from the team.
- His outspoken nature was also one of the reasons why Boeing backed down and admitted fault for the Lauda Air 004 crash. Not to mention that it more or less helped with breaking the state monopoly of the day when he was trying to start his own airline.
- Cunning Linguist: Lauda was fluent in English and Italian in addition to his native Austrian German. Considering the nature of being an athlete (and an international celebrity for that matter) having to be in interviews with foreign media, along with the fact that he had to converse with his crew at Ferrari (besides Enzo himself) who may not understand English at all—Lauda took the effort of learning Italian just for that purpose.
- Determinator: As if the injuries he sustained in Nürburgring kept him from continuing on with his career. Not to mention that Lauda's determination and analytical approach to things was put to good use when he personally took the effort of probing the deadly Lauda Air 004 crash in 1991, pressuring Boeing into revising their 767 jet liner to have better safety measures and to provide compensation for the victims' families.
- Drives Like Crazy: He wouldn't be a three-time Formula One champion for nothing if it wasn't for his sheer pace, though he went for a more consistent approach in 1977.
- Facial Horror: His face got scarred for life after Nürburgring. Not that he'd mind the damage done to his appearance though. He since wore a cap to hide some of the scars from his head and even went so far as to sell advertising space in said headpiece.
- Foil: To James Hunt's more flamboyant, Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll lifestyle. Lauda was the analytical kind of racer in contrast to Hunt's more playboy persona.
- Friendly Rivalry: His rivalry with James Hunt was limited to the race track; outside of races they were good friends and looked up to each other.
- Man on Fire: His near-fatal ordeal in Nürburgring.
- Made of Iron / Normally, I Would Be Dead Now: His injuries sustained in Nürburgring were so severe that he was viewed as a lost cause in the hospital, having being given the Last Rites as he was certain to die by then. (Ferrari had also written him off as dead and actually said he was when offering Emerson Fittipaldi his seat!) But despite his lungs being mangled from the toxic fumes he went on to live forty-three years and scored two more championships before old age caught up on him in 2019.
- Never Bareheaded: Has been the case with him post-Nürburgring, mostly to hide the scars on his head, and to sell ad space for sponsors to grace his baseball cap. Though he has been seen taking them off on occasion.
- Non-Actor Vehicle: In Top Kids as a time traveling ex-Formula 1 driver.
- Product Placement: Lauda stated in a 2009 interview that one advertiser even tried to buy ad space on his cap for 1.2 million!
- Red Baron: He gained the nickname "The Computer" for his almost robotic, analytical approach to things, and would also be known as "The Rat" "King Rat" and "SuperRat" for his buck teeth. Lauda's rodent smile would later be adopted as part of official merchandise including a plush rat dressed in F1 garb by Steiff, and calling cards featuring a cartoon rat.
- Renaissance Man: Besides being a race car driver, he was also a licenced commercial pilot, and at times served as captain in some of his airline's flights. And as mentioned above in the Determinator example, he made it a point to provide closure to the Lauda Air crash victims' relatives by reproducing the crash scenario in a flight simulator, concluding that the thruster reversal problem was a glaring flaw in need of additional safety measures, i.e. there was no way for the poor pilots to have escaped such a hopeless yet preventable accident in such a small window of time. It helped that he himself was an accident victim and knew how it felt like to be in a similarly horrific incident, which isn't a walk in the park, so to speak.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Niki retired from the Japanese Grand Prix out of fear for his life, no thanks to the fact that he was unable to blink due to his injuries, and the weather was deemed too much of a risk for him to continue.