A Race to the Sky: The Life of Niki Lauda

by Elisabeth Sereda May 21, 2019
Ace formula 1 driver Niki Lauda

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In January 2014, Niki Lauda walked into the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel to rehearse for his presentation at the next day’s Golden Globe Awards. “What a mess”, he muttered in German, looking at cables, wires, unmade tables with paper cups and candy wrappers: “I hope they clean this up.” Those of us speaking German laughed. It was vintage Niki. “And where is Chris?” he asked, referring to Chris Hemsworth, his co-presenter: “Why is he not here? So unprofessional. I am on time.” Niki Lauda was always on time.

In 2013 he was the subject of Ron Howard’s film Rush about his ascent to the highest rank of formula 1 racing and his rivalry with British champion Hunt, who was played by Hemsworth. Niki was played by Daniel Brühl. Both, Brühl and the film got Golden Globe nominations.

Lauda, born 1949 to a very wealthy Viennese family, became a racecar driver against his father’s wishes or consent. He won three world championships, in 1975, 1977 and 1984.

He entered my personal consciousness on August 1, 1976, when I was a little girl in Austria. It was a remarkable day in the history of my country. We woke up to the news that a big bridge in Vienna had crashed into the Danube, and in the early afternoon we watched another crash on black & white TV: world champion Niki Lauda’s F1 Ferrari 312T2 had spun out of control on the rainy Nürburgring and went up in flames as a nation and F1 fans all across the planet watched. No one thought he’d make it. But despite being burnt over 80% of his body, Niki Lauda not only made a remarkable recovery, but he also got back into the car and won the Grand Prix only a year later.

If this was the first sign of his incredible resilience, many others would follow. After he retired from racing - he famously said: “I am tired of driving in circles like an idiot” - he turned his hobby of flying into starting an airline in 1979. Hugely successful, Lauda Air proved to be another test in his life, when a Boeing 767 crashed over Thailand in 1991 and 223 people lost their lives, due to a faulty thrust reverser for which Boeing took full responsibility.

In Austria, he was known for his acerbic wit and the fact that he never paid for a meal. A friend called him “the stingiest billionaire I have ever met.” He was also constantly asked for his opinion by media outlets on anything and everything, prompting the joke “Has Niki said anything yet? Do we know what Niki thinks? Because if Niki hasn’t said anything yet, it didn’t happen.”

He went through countless medical procedures over the years as a result of his crash, including not one but two kidney transplants, the first one given to him by his brother Florian, the other by his second wife, Birgit. He also had both lungs replaced last August. But he never wanted plastic surgery on his face, rebuilding his ears or a hair transplant: “I made my living with my right foot. Who cares what I look like?” he laughed.

Niki Lauda and Chris Hemsworth on stage at the 2014 Golden Globes

On stage at the 71st Golden Globes, January 10th, 2014, presenting with Chris Hemsworth.

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While promoting Rush in the US with Daniel Brühl, the two of them ended up in a live show with a rather unprepared young host. She had done zero research and had no clue who the man was the star of the movie showed up with. Towards the end of the interview, she finally turned to him and asked: “And what’s your connection to the film?” Niki took off his red baseball cap, exposing his burnt head and quipped: “I’m the one who organized the BBQ.” This dark sense of humor and the refusal to feel sorry for himself at even the most harrowing phases of his life made him a legend.

He loved Hollywood, had a cameo in the Roger Moore film Fire, Ice & Dynamite, did the voice for the German version of Cars and thoroughly enjoyed himself at the 2014 Golden Globes. After he made sure he was sitting at a good table and very thrilled that Michael Douglas, whom he knew, was close by.

In 2016 he won a Laureus World Sports Award. In his speech, he said: “I’ve seen a lot of people here winning and losing. So I’d like to dedicate this award to the losers.”

After a life of crashes, Niki Lauda died peacefully and surrounded by his family on May 20th at a clinic in Zurich. He was 70. He leaves two sons from his first marriage to Marlene and the 10-year-old twins Max and Mia from his second with Birgit. A state funeral is to be expected in Vienna.

Ron Howard tweeted: “The F1 world knows of his grit & intensely competitive spirit, but that matched w/his keen intelligence & wisdom made him a distinctly remarkable man. A force.”

Old friend and colleague Mario Andretti said: “My heart is heavy today, mourning the loss of a colleague and friend. Niki Lauda… a true-blue wonderful man.”

And Danie Brühl posted a heartfelt message on Instagram: “The bravest man I’ve ever met, not only because he was an F1 World Champion in the crazy 70s and had the most incredible comeback in sport’s history, but also because of how he treated people. Always honest, straight forward, blunt. Niki told you the truth to your face, no matter how uncomfortable. He was totally unpretentious and incredibly funny. I learned a lot from him and deeply admired him. I know how much you enjoyed flying. Race the sky in peace, immortal Champ, we’ll miss you. Machs gut, Niki.”