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The legacy of Niki Lauda

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The legacy of Niki Lauda

Niki Lauda never saw the limit as a death zone, but always as life-affirming. He would have been 75 years old on February 22nd. An appreciation.

Niki Lauda in a photo from 2018 – of course with the famous red cap.

Erwin Scheriau / Keystone

The famous red cap is still hanging there where the headphones for the entire team are kept in the pit lane in the corridor to the Mercedes garage. It’s as if Niki Lauda had never left Formula 1 after his death in May 2019 in Zurich University Hospital.

The unusual visual homage alone shows that Lauda was not only an outstanding racing driver, but also a very special type of person. Important not only for a team, but for top motorsport in general, as one of its most extreme and exciting characters. A charismatic with 1000 horsepower. This Thursday, February 22nd, the three-time world champion from Austria would have celebrated his 75th birthday.

Niki Lauda had the real Viennese insult

He outwardly disliked any kind of celebration, but deep down he still enjoyed it. When the 1976 fire accident at the Nürburgring, which had left such deep marks on his face, body and soul, came around, he invited his rescuer Arturo Merzario and companions like Bernie Ecclestone to a barbecue at the scene of the accident. Real Viennese insults, like the macabre prank he later played on an American television reporter on site. Lauda acted as if he had just found an ear, his ear. It was just a croissant from the hotel buffet.

Only someone who has never viewed the limit as a death zone, but always as life-affirming, can afford this mischief. Someone who has looked death deeply in the face. Both as a racing driver and as an airline boss, when he trudged through the jungle in 1991 after the crash of a Boeing 767 in Thailand in which 223 people died. While he was still fighting for his own life after his racing accident, in the other case he was motivated by the rehabilitation of his pilots. Both times he fought doggedly – ​​and was successful in the end.

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Niki Lauda was Formula 1 world champion, had a serious accident at the Nürburgring in 1976, fought back, became world champion two more times after his first triumph and finally became a successful aviation entrepreneur. The man with the red hat died in 2019; he would have been 75 years old on February 22, 2024. – A look back at his career. The picture shows him in Austria in 1975.

Rainer Schlegelmilch / Imago

Niki Lauda was a real hardliner, a child of his time. Convinced of your own values, ready to fight for them. But he was also a racing driver who was more sensitive and could be more thoughtful than his image allowed. Getting out of the Ferrari, shortly before his almost certain World Cup triumph in 1976, because the track in Fuji was too dangerous for him, showed a completely different kind of courage: “My life is more important to me than a world championship.” The harsh customs in the premier class never blinded him. And so he risked a conflict with the great Enzo Ferrari, and James Hunt won the title. What a Netflix story that would have been this season when Lauda was back in the cockpit, just 42 days after a priest had already given him the last rites. After all, the comeback story was suitable for the cinema epic “Rush”.

In reality, Hunt and Lauda were not just opponents. «James and I, we were both rebels. Because we had to find and go our own way,” said Lauda, ​​remembering his unlikely twin. Both were left alone by their wealthy parents with their desire to race, with their hardships and the risks. But they lived exactly the way they wanted to live, as people obsessed with their actions.

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Going your own way, no matter how rocky it is – something like that brings people together. Lauda admired Hunt, who was called “the Shunt” because of his many accidents, for his ironclad assertiveness that he repeatedly demonstrated. Hunt, on the other hand, appreciated “the Rat,” as he called Lauda because of his protruding teeth, because he never let up in his will to improve. In the world of sports, this duel is still one of the biggest stories.

In Italy, even 50 years after he got into a Ferrari for the first time, they still revere Lauda as “Niki Nazionale”. McLaren has dedicated a bronze statue to him, the figure shows the victory sign. He was world champion three times, in 1975 and 1977 with the Reds, in 1984 with the British and was only half a point ahead of his arch-enemy Alain Prost.

In Austria they still honor him more than Jochen Rindt, even though the German-born man was already a legend as posthumous world champion in 1970. But Lauda was just Lauda. He didn’t want to make excessive sentences; later, even as a professional grantler at RTL, he only said the bare minimum. As if he always had time to waste. He drove his last Grand Prix in Adelaide in 1985.

Was also a successful aviation entrepreneur: Niki Lauda.


He had breakfast in the paddock – at the expense of his opponent

Things had calmed down in private life in the new millennium, after the second marriage and the birth of twins. His second wife Birgit donated a kidney to him in 2005, and a lung transplant was necessary in 2018 – all late consequences of his racing accident. Health forced him to manage his energy better, and for the first time he invested it in a kind of private life that was to be more than just constant comings and goings. It was a late, comparatively short happiness.

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However, sentimentality was not his thing. Just take his view of friendships: “I can’t say what a friend is – I only know one thing: there are many at the top, few in the middle and none at the bottom. . .»

The Daimler board of directors chose such an uncompromising person as foreign minister in 2012. One of his first official acts? Getting rid of Michael Schumacher and hiring Lewis Hamilton after a night of convincing. This ushered in the most successful era that a Formula 1 racing team has ever experienced. However, Lauda insisted on having breakfast in the paddock with his bitter opponent and compatriot Helmut Marko from Red Bull on every racing Saturday – at the opponent’s expense, of course.

This was diplomatic work in his own way. Behind this was his conviction: “Racing drivers are not there to make others happy, but only to make themselves happy.” But Niki Lauda’s most important life wisdom was something else: “You must never lose the relaxedness to see car racing as a joy. Only if you get into the car with joy and let yourself be carried by the speed as if you were listening to good music, will you get better and better. That’s the great art.”

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