- Niki Lauda today. (Source: Sky Sports)

The story of Niki Lauda - Limits Tested

The human embodiment of willpower, strength and determination.

In life, you hear the phrase "Never give up" lots of times. To many people, its a motivating force to do even better than before, or to rise up from rock bottom and achieve victory. However in most case, that phrase is easier said than done. We all go through many challenges in life, and sometimes feel we couldn't overcome them. When someone tells you to "never give up" during your darkest moments, you may think that its impossible to rise up once again. But if you decide to, you will fly very high.

Take a look at Niki Lauda. We all know that he's been involved in a fiery crash that nearly ended his life in 1976, but came back from the ashes soon after. He owned an airline, and when one of his planes crashed over Thailand, he never succumbed to pressure and was determined to find out what had happened for the sake of the victims and their families. He truly is a man full of determination, willpower and motivation.

Early Life

Niki Lauda racing for Ferrari. (Source: Formula One)

Niki Lauda racing for Ferrari. (Source: Formula One)

Niki Luad was born on the 22nd of February 1949 in Vienna, Austria. He had a wealthy background, as his paternal grandfather, Hans Lauda, was the owner of a big business in Vienna.

Young Lauda decided to become a racing driver. At that time, racing was a high-risk, high-reward feat to partake in. Winners of many famous races such as Formula One receive lots of glory, fame, and respect, that is, if they make it out alive. Motorsport was very dangerous back then. The margin of error for most drivers were microscopic, and if a driver gets involved in a crash, it is very likely he will not make it out alive.

As a result, Lauda's family didn't support his aspirations to become a racing driver, as they had most likely heard about all the accidents that happened on the track and of course, they didn't want to lose their son. Despite opposition, he still pursued his dreams and applied as a racing driver in Formula Vee, a racing series where junior drivers would race in Volkswagen Beetle-based Formula One-esque racing cars.

Formula One

Niki Lauda. (Source: Formula One)

Niki Lauda. (Source: Formula One)

Lauda's racing career grew exponentially. He climbed up the ladder quickly from racing in Formula Vee to racing for private racing teams in Porsche and Chevron sports cars. He decided to climb even further, securing a 30,000 Euro bank loan and a life insurance policy in order to join the March Engineering Team to race in Formula Two in 1971. However, the process wouldn't go so smoothly, as Lauda had an ongoing feud with his family back home in Vienna due to their disapproval of his racing career.

Despite that, Lauda continued to race on. He was quickly promoted to the March Formula One team after his driving skills impressed March's team principal, Robin Herd. For a short while, Lauda raced for both March's Formula One and Formula Two teams in 1972. His Formula Two career went well, but his Formula One career was a disaster. During the 1972 season at the Canadian Grand Prix, both March cars were disqualified within three laps of each other after just past 3 quarters of the race, marking the entire team as DNF.

After that horrible season, Lauda secured another bank loan to enter the British Racing Motors Formula One team in 1973. He did well and impressed the team with his driving skills, but he joined at the worst time possible, as the team was in decline thanks to financial turmoil. Little did he know, his skills were being noticed. When his teammate Clay Regazzoni left BRM to rejoin Ferrari, Enzo Ferrari asked him what he thought of Lauda. As a result of Regazzoni's very favorable description of Lauda, he signed him into the team.

Ferrari

Niki Lauda in the Ferrari 312T. (Source: Wikipedia, Lothar Spurzem)

Niki Lauda in the Ferrari 312T. (Source: Wikipedia, Lothar Spurzem)

Ferrari had recently undergone a restructuring of their entire team, so doubts were pretty high. Enzo was worried if signing Lauda into the team was a good idea, as he was a relatively new, little-known driver. However, during his debut with Ferrari at the Argentine Grand Prix in the 1974 season, he won second place, proving to everyone what he could do behind the wheel. Two races later, he would win his first Grand Prix victory in Spain, along with Ferrari's first victory since 1972. He would win one more race after that, the Dutch Grand Prix. After the season was over, he secured fourth place in the Driver's Championship.

During the 1975 season, Lauda had a slow start, finishing fifth place in the first four races. However, after driving the brand new Ferrari 312T, he proceeded to win four out of the next five races, including the final race of the season, the United States Grand Prix. Other feats achieved by Lauda during the 1975 season were being the first driver to lap the challenging Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit in under seven minutes. It was a massive feat, considering the Nordschliefe wasa two miles longer than it is today.

Lauda would make a few rivals along his racing career, most notably, Hesketh and McLaren racing driver, James Hunt. During the 1976 season, he was a juggernaut, winning four out of the first six races and finishing second in two more. Lauda had accumulated more than double the amount of points to the second place racing driver, James Hunt and Jody Sheckter. He was also well on his way to achieving his second consecutive World Championship, a feat not achieved since Jack Brabham in 1959 and 1960.

The Crash

Niki Lauda's fiery crash at the Nordschliefe. (Source: DPA/PA Images)

Niki Lauda's fiery crash at the Nordschliefe. (Source: DPA/PA Images)

The 1976 German Grand Prix came about. However, Lauda was concerned about the track's conditions despite securing the fastest lap around the circuit. He urged the race to be boycotted a week prior, as the circuit's management did not have many resources to manage such a huge track, such as fire marshals, firefighting equipment, and safety vehicles. However, the vote didn't go through, as most drivers voted against the boycott.

On August 1 1976, during the second lap of the race at the kink before the Bergwerk turn, his Ferrari 312T lost control and swerved off the track, hitting an embankment and bursting into flames shortly after colliding. Brett Lunger's Surtees-Ford car hit the burning Ferrari shortly afterwards. Lauda was fighting for his life as he was trapped inside the burning car, unable to get out. Fortunately, driver Arturo Merzario was able to pull Lauda out of the flaming wreckage.

Lauda was in very critical condition. He suffered severe burns to his head, while his lungs slowly succumbed to inhaling hot and toxic gases. His blood was severely contaminated, and the right side of his face was exposed to the fire. He lapsed into a coma shortly after getting rescued. Lauda lost most of his right ear and all hair on the right side of his head as a result of exposure to fire.

Recovery and Return

Niki Lauda recovering after the crash. (Source: Medium)

Niki Lauda recovering after the crash. (Source: Medium)

Lauda went through reconstructive surgery to replace his eyelids in order for them to work properly. While he was recovering in hospital, Carlos Reutemann took his position. He missed two races, and attended a press conference at Monza, with his burns still clearly visible. However, he returned not long after the crash at the Italian Grand Prix, finishing fourth place despite not being fully recovered. Formula One journalist Nigel Roebuck recalls seeing Lauda in the pits, saying that there was a lot of blood as he slowly peeled the bandages off his scalp. He also wore a specially modified crash helmet so he would not be in too much discomfort.

Lauda vs Hunt

Niki Lauda and James Hunt. (Source: thepinterest.eu)

Niki Lauda and James Hunt. (Source: thepinterest.eu)

"We never could stand each other, and instead of taking pressure off me, they put on even more by bringing Carlos Reutemann into the team."

niki lauda

James Hunt soon won the championship title in 1976, beating Lauda by one point. The rivalry between Lauda and Hunt intensified. They were friends outside Formula One, but their rivalry was so intense, that either Lauda or Hunt would win most Formula One races. Lauda would win the Canadian and United States Grand Prix afterwards, but it was thanks to Hunt's win in the Japanese Grand Prix that landed Hunt his victory at the 1976 season. Lauda's capabilities were limited because of his sustained injuries, as his eyes were watering excessively thanks to his fire damaged tear ducts and eyelids, eventually forcing him to withdraw from the race. Hunt would also have his tires blistered after leading most of the race, and it was thanks to a pit stop he finished third, giving him an advantage of only one point ahead of Lauda.

Ferrari did not take Lauda's withdrawal in Japan lightly. His good relationship with Ferrari was severely affected thanks to his decision. He endured a difficult 1977 season, despite winning the championship. Lauda did not like his new teammate, Reutemann, who would soon outright replace him in the team. He did not like it one bit. He said that he felt betrayed, let down by Ferrari after hearing the news that Reutemann would replace him.

Lauda left Ferrari early in 1977 after he won the Driver's Championship at the United States Grand Prix because they decided that the Gilles Villeneuve would race in a third car in the following race, the Canadian Grand Prix.

Brabham

Niki Lauda in the Brabham BT46. (Source: Carmrades)

Niki Lauda in the Brabham BT46. (Source: Carmrades)

After leaving Ferrari, Lauda moved to Brabham shortly after in 1978. However, his first few seasons there were unsuccessful. Lauda would race in the Brabham BT46B, nicknamed, the Fan Car. It won its first race with Lauda behind the wheel at the Swedish Grand Prix. However, it would become the only race that the BT46B will ever win, as Brabham decided not to use it in Formula One thanks to how controversial it is. Many teams questioned the car's legality, along with the team's owner at the time, Bernie Ecclestone, as he had somehow managed to convince Formula One management to allow the BT46B to be raced despite not following regulations.

After the BT46B was binned, the BT46 Alfa Romeo flat-12 carried the torch. It was plagued with problems. Lauda was forced to retire the car in 9 out of 14 races thanks to mechanical issues. His best results, apart from his wins in Sweden and Italy thanks to Mario Andretti and Gilles Villeneuve getting penalized, were 2nd in Montreal and the UK, and a 3rd in the Netherlands.

In 1979, Alfa Romeo supplied Brabham with a V12 instead of a Flat-12, as it was too wide for the car. The team had their hopes up thanks to their new engines. However, once again, it was plagued with problems. Lauda's 1979 season was abysmal thanks to poor pace and constant retirements. However, he won one non-championship race with Brabham-Alfa, the 1979 Dino Ferrari Grand Prix. Lauda would also win three BMW M1 Procar championships in the same year.

Lauda would then finish 4th place in Monza and win the non-world championship Imola event, still racing for Brabham-Alfa. Brabham would soon end their partnership with Alfa Romeo and return to the familiar Cosworth V8 engine. In late September 1979, he would retire from Brabham immediately, as he had "no more desire to drive around in circles".

Lauda Air

Niki Lauda in front of a Lauda Air Boeing 777. (Source: QuiFinanza)

Niki Lauda in front of a Lauda Air Boeing 777. (Source: QuiFinanza)

After retiring from Formula One, Lauda decided to start his own airline, Lauda Air in April 1979. Using his fame, he managed to attract a lot of investors and passengers. Operations started in 1985, using BAE One-Eleven 500 aircraft leased from the Romanian airline TAROM. Initially, it operated as a charter and air taxi service, soon transitioning into a full-service airline in 1987. Three years later, in 1990, Lauda Air obtained their licence to fly internationally.

At first, Lauda Air only had a few European destinations, operated using narrow-body or single-aisle aircraft such as the BAE One-Eleven 500, the Bombardier CRJ100, the Fokker F27 and soon, the Boeing 737. Lauda Air would soon grow exponentially in the 1990s, flying long-haul flights to countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Americas and Australia using wide-body, long-range aircraft such as the Boeing 767 and 777. Niki Lauda was also a pilot for his airline, flying narrow-body and wide-body aircraft alike. He also ran Lauda Air Executive, a private jet rental service.

McLaren

Niki Lauda racing for McLaren. (Source: McLaren)

Niki Lauda racing for McLaren. (Source: McLaren)

Lauda returned to racing in Formula One in 1982 with McLaren. However, McLaren's sponsor, Marlboro, weren't convinced that Lauda still had the capabilities to win after retiring for so long. However, Lauda had proven to them that he still had it in him after winning the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Soon after, before the opening race of the season in the Kyalami race track in South Africa, Lauda organized a "driver's strike", in retaliation to a new Super Licence put in place which required drivers to commit themselves to present teams, potentially reducing a driver's negotiating power. Most drivers, except Teo Fabi, barricaded themselves in a banqueting suite at the Sunnyside Park Hotel until they won the day.

In 1983, McLaren was transitioning from Ford-Cosworth powered engines to TAG-Porsche powered engines. As a result, Lauda did not win a single race that season, with his best race being 2nd at the Long Beach Grand Prix behind his teammate, John Watson. One year later in 1984, Lauda won his thrid World Championship title by half a point over his teammate, Alain Prost. Initially, Lauda did not want Prost to become his teammate, as he was a faster driver overall. However, the two began to bond and Lauda later said that Prost was a big motivator for him. Lauda would then dominate the season alongside Prost in 1984, winning 12 out of 16 races.

His championship win came in Portugal, when he started in eleventh place with Prost qualified on the front row. However, Lauda would then make a comeback to second place thanks to his agile and smart driving. External circumstances also contributed to his second place win, as Nigel Mansell, who maintained second place for most of the race, was forced to retire early thanks to faulty brakes because Lotus refused to provide him with the brakes he wanted for his car as it was his final race with the team before moving to Williams.

1985 was a bad season for Lauda, retiring eleven times out of fourteen races he started. After an accident during practice where Lauda broke his wrist, he was unable to race at the Belgian Grand Prix and the European Grand Prix, with John Watson replacing him in both races. However, he did manage to win 4th place at the San Marino Grand Prix, 5th place at the German Grand Prix, and a win at the Dutch Grand Prix.

After that, Lauda would retire for good. His final race would be in the inaugural Australian Grand Prix, qualifying 16th.

An Even Bigger Crash

Niki Lauda standing right next to the wreckage of Flight 004. (Source: Reddit)

Niki Lauda standing right next to the wreckage of Flight 004. (Source: Reddit)

In 1991, one of his airplanes crashed. Lauda Air flight 004, a Boeing 767 named Mozart en route from Bangkok to Vienna via Hong Kong disintegrated in mid-air and crashed into the Thai mountains. All 223 people on board were killed in the accident. It was the deadliest aviation incident involving a Boeing 767, and the deadliest aviation accident in Thailand.

After hearing about the news, Niki Lauda immediately flew to Thailand to join the investigation, as he was the owner of the airline and had sufficient knowledge when it comes to aviation. However, many problems lied ahead for the investigation team. The mountainous terrain was rough and unforgiving, with parts of the aircraft scattered across it after breaking apart mid-air. Thai locals were also looting the crash site to resell parts of the plane as scrap metal. But Lauda was determined to find out the cause of the crash, as he kept the families of those on board in mind.

One piece of wreckage stood out. The aircraft's thrust reversers, or in simple terms, engine brakes were deployed in the crash site. However, Boeing officials say that it is impossible for it to turn on mid-flight and even if it did turn on, it would still be maneuverable. After finding the Cockpit Voice Recorder and listening to it, it revealed that the pilots were aware of one of the thrust reversers deploying mid-flight. The pilots just ignored it and carried on as the manual said that the aircraft could still be flown normally. The aircraft’s flight data recorder was destroyed, and the engine data compartment was already looted. So the official investigation concluded that the cause of the crash was unknown due to insufficient evidence.

Lauda's Contribution in Aviation Safety

Niki Lauda in the cockpit. (Source: Twitter, Kurt Hofmann)

Niki Lauda in the cockpit. (Source: Twitter, Kurt Hofmann)

Lauda was determined to find out the cause of the crash. He did not know why he crashed at the Nordschliefe in 1976, and he will not that happen again. Niki Lauda pressured Boeing to continue the investigation, as many doubts had plagued the investigation, and the final report wasn't good enough for him. The Boeing 767 manual says that even if the thrust reversers are on, the plane would still be controllable. Niki Lauda did not believe it, so he went to Boeing and conducted a test flight on the simulator for himself.

Lauda conducted the simulation beside the 767's chief engineer. He set the conditions to what the pilots faced at the time of the crash, and intentionally released the air brake on one engine. Instead of staying aloft, it instantly dropped to the ground. The conditions of the Boeing test took place in conditions way more friendlier than the ones faced by the pilots in the crash.

But another problem faced him. It is impossible for both the locks that control the thrust reversers to open at the same time. He would have to prove them wrong. After a lot of experiments, it concluded that the wires for the first and second valve were coiled in the same wire, and a short circuit triggered them both. A real life test was soon conducted by NASA, showing the same results on the simulator.

After the crash, new systems, wiring and locks were put in place inside the engines on not only the Boeing 767, but on all aircraft that were made after the investigation, saving millions of lives. Lauda Air continued to operate for 9 more years, before being bought by Austrian Airlines. It was thanks to Niki Lauda's determination that the skies are safer for us to fly today.

Niki Lauda Today

Niki Lauda today. (Source: Heightline)

Niki Lauda today. (Source: Heightline)

After his retirement from Formula One Lauda took several managerial roles. For a short while, he was a consultant at Ferrari. Halfway through the 2001 season, he became team principal of Jaguar's Formula One team. In 2012, he was appointed non-executive chairman of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team. He was involved in the signing of Lewis Hamilton to a three-year deal with Mercedes.

Niki Lauda would run a few more airlines. In 2003, he started the airline Niki. It operated for eight years before being merged into Air Berlin. In 2016, Lauda took over the charter airline Amira Air and renamed it into LaudaMotion. After Air Berlin went insolvent in 2017, LaudaMotoion took over the Niki brand. Lauda is still a pilot today, holding a commercial pilot's licence and from time to time acted as a captain on some flights of his airline.

He is currently married to Birgit Wetzinger, a flight attendant for Lauda Air. She donated a kidney to Lauda when the kidney he received in a transplant from his brother, in 1997, failed. Talk about true love. In September 2009 Birgit gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl: Max and Mia.

On August 2018, he had to undergo a lung transplant operation in Austria, which was successful. In early 2019, he contracted a flu infection and had to be admitted to hospital once again. Now, his condition has improved and is now out of the hospital.

Lauda's Legacy

The movie poster for Rush. (Source: IMDb)

The movie poster for Rush. (Source: IMDb)

Niki Lauda was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1963, and since 1966, provided commentary on Grand Prix races for Austrian and German audiences on RTL. Lauda has also written a few books. The Art and Science of Grand Prix Driving in 1975, My Years With Ferrari in 1978, The New Formula One: A Turbo Age in 1984, Meine Story in 1986 and Das dritte Leben in 1996. In 2005, the Austrain post office issued a stamp honoring him, and American sports television network ESPN ranked him 22nd on their top drivers of all-time in 2008.

His rivalry with James Hunt from 1973 to 1979 was dramatized in the 2013 film, Rush, with Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt. Lauda made a brief cameo appearance at the end of the film. At this point Lauda said of Hunt's death, "When I heard he'd died age 45 of a heart attack I wasn't surprised, I was just sad." He also said that Hunt was one of the very few he liked, a smaller number of people he respected and the only person he had envied.

The investigation of Lauda Air flight 004 was documented in an episode in the Canadian TV documentary series Mayday titled "Niki Lauda: Testing the Limits" where Niki Lauda was interviewed.

In Conclusion

Niki Lauda, (Source: Essentially Sports)

Niki Lauda, (Source: Essentially Sports)

Niki Lauda is currently regarded as one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time. It was thanks to his motivating spirit and determination that had landed him to where he is today. He kept on pursuing his dream despite opposition from his family. He kept on racing despite a horrible crash that had left him permanently disfigured, and it was his determination that had contributed to aviation safety, making the skies safer for millions.

Niki Lauda serves as an example for most of us to keep on looking forward in life, and to rise up once again every time we stumble.

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