Niki Lauda will always be remembered, not only for his performance on the racetrack but also for his resilience in the face of utter tragedy. This Austrian superstar scraped his way to the top, chased his dreams with reckless abandon, and astonished people with his unbelievable comebacks. Lauda’s story is a total tearjerker and it will have you rooting for him every step of the way.
An Undeniable Passion
A career in racecar driving is volatile, risky, and above all, dangerous as heck. So when a young Niki Lauda decided his passion was racing, his Austrian parents were far from pleased. Rebellious from the very beginning, he defied his family’s wishes and pursued his dreams anyway. But little did he know, Lauda’s path would be far more perilous than he ever expected.
Lauda started small, speeding around in a little Mini. But soon, he began to expand his horizons, and like most racers in Central Europe, began driving in Formula Vee. Soon, he found himself behind the wheel of private Porsches and Chevrons. Everything was right one track, that is until his career came to a maddening standstill. You see, racecar driving cost a pretty penny and if he wanted to step up his game, Lauda needed to get his hands on some capital.
Forever the risk-taker, Lauda didn’t think twice about taking out a £30,000 bank loan to help fund his aspirations. With the money, Lauda bought his way into the world he’d been lusting after, and in 1971, he became a Formula Two driver. Unfortunately, decisions like this only fed the conflict between Lauda and his family, and the consequences were downright ugly.
When given the choice between racing or his family, Lauda had one sacrifice to make, and in the end, he abandoned his family entirely.
A Rising Star
In the wake of his personal tribulations, Lauda still struggled to make his mark. Although he bought his way into some middling racing teams, his career didn’t truly take off until he caught the eye of Enzo Ferrari. After placing third in the Monaco Grand Prix, Ferrari began to take note of this rising star, and by 1974, they signed him. Luckily for Lauda, this offer couldn’t have come at a better time. With his debts piling up, receiving an offer from Ferrari was like striking gold.
Niki Lauda didn’t let Ferrari down. In his debut race, he placed second, and not long after, he won the Spanish Grand Prix. Lauda was a serious competitor, but his most defining quality was definitely his resilience, which he proved with his performance at the 1975 German Grand Prix.
Everything started according to plan. Laud was flying, and in fact, he was the undeniable leader for the first nine laps…but on the 10th lap, disaster struck. A puncture to his left front tire derailed Lauda’s lead, and when he pulled into the pits, it looked like he’d never be able to recover. Still, he never gave up.
He pulled back into the race and still managed to snag third place—a huge achievement considering his devastating setback. However, this minor accident was nothing compared to the tragic German Grand Prix of 1976. Buckle up folks, things are about to get fiery.
The 1976 German Grand Prix Disaster
By the time the next German Grand Prix arrived, Lauda was the fastest driver around. However, when it came to the 23-kilometer racetrack, Lauda was terribly unhappy. In his opinion, the safety standards were nowhere near where they need to be—especially the fire safety standards. There weren’t enough fire marshals, equipment, or vehicles—and for Lauda—this was a huge red flag.
Scared for his safety, as well as his fellow drivers, Lauda tried to persuade everyone to boycott the race. Sadly, his peers outvoted him and the race went ahead. The consequences were absolutely devastating, and in the end, it was Lauda himself who paid the ultimate price. During the second lap, Lauda’s Ferrari veered off course and crashed into an embankment. However, when his vehicle caught fire—the true nightmare began.
Trapped inside his burning car, Lauda was roasting alive. His improperly fitted helmet had slid off after impact, exposing his face to the flames. His fellow drivers rushed to his aid, but by the time Arturo Merzario had pulled him from the wreckage, poor Lauda was in dire straits. Not only had he sustained terrible burns to his face, but he had also inhaled toxic fumes, damaging his lungs and blood.
Upon escaping, Lauda seemed like he’d pull through; he was both conscious and able to stand. But this relief was short-lived. Because of injuries, he later fell into a coma. With the odds stacked against Lauda, even a priest came to perform the last rites. But Lauda wasn’t a dead man yet. Against all odds, he survived.
Against All The Odds
Although he’d managed to evade death, Lauda’s injuries were extensive. He’d lost his eyelids, his eyebrows, most of his right ear, and the majority of his hair. Because of the intense scarring, Lauda would never look the same again. Still, his looks were the least of his worries. Although he opted for surgery to replace his eyelids, he didn’t have any other reconstructive surgery. He later said, “Cosmetic surgery—it’s boring and expensive, and the only thing it could do is give me another face.”
A mere six weeks after this traumatic event, Lauda was back in the game. In order to participate in the Italian Grand Prix, he had to modify his helmet because of his head injuries. And to top it all off, Lauda was terrified to get back behind the wheel. With his head wrapped in bloody bandages, he faced his fears and strapped himself in. Driving through the pain, he still managed to place fourth.
He Never Gave Up
Lauda never let the incident at the 1976 Germany Grande Prixe hamper his career or his outlook on life. However, as much as Lauda loved racing, he had other aspirations as well. The man was a multi-talented bundle of ambition. In the 70s, he founded his very own charter airline, dubbing it Lauda Air, and he took a break from the risky racing to focus on this new venture. Of course, his retirement didn’t last long, and in 1982, he burst back onto the scene with the promise of a whopping $3 million salary. Lauda’s comeback was a wild success, and in 1984, he won his third world championship.
Niki Lauda’s career is a testament to the human spirit. He never once doubted his passion or his love for racecar driving, and despite his many struggles, managed to prove himself as one of the greatest racecar drivers of all time: “Giving up is something a Lauda doesn’t do.”