Niki Lauda, Formula One Legend and Aviation Entrepreneur, Dies at 70


As much as for any of his three championships, he is remembered for his comeback from a horrific crash in 1976

Niki Lauda, the three-time Formula One world champion from Austria who once returned to the track weeks after a fiery crash that scarred him for life, died on Monday night. He was 70.

His death was announced in a statement by his family, which didn’t specify a cause. But Mr. Lauda had been in poor health since last summer, when he received a lung transplant, and had also suffered kidney problems.

“His unique successes as a sportsman and entrepreneur are and remain unforgettable,” said the statement, released through the Austrian Press Agency. “His tireless drive, his straightforwardness and his courage remain an example and standard for us all.”

Mr. Lauda was one of Formula One’s most recognizable characters at a time when drivers took their lives in their hands every time they squeezed into a cockpit, a reality he knew better than most. As much as for any of his three championships—won in 1975, 1977 and 1984—he is remembered for his comeback from a horrific crash in 1976.

After a collision that punctured his fuel tank at the Nurburgring in Germany, Mr. Lauda was trapped in his burning Ferrari for nearly a minute. Foam from his helmet melted onto his scalp and face, and fumes scorched the inside of his lungs before three other drivers managed to extract him on the track. He would later need reconstructive surgery on his eyelids, but the scars on his scalp and ear would remain for the rest of his life.

More miraculous than his survival was his return to racing six weeks later in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. With his head wrapped in bandages, Mr. Lauda pushed through unspeakable pain to a fourth-place finish. By the time he removed his helmet, his protective balaclava was soaked in blood.

“Yes, I had pain, logically because of all the burns on my head, but nevertheless the most important thing was to get back into the car as quickly as possible,” Mr. Lauda told the British Broadcasting Corp. on the 40th anniversary of the race. “The longer you wait, the more problems come.”

Mr. Lauda was in a hurry because he was still locked in a battle for the world championship with Britain’s James Hunt, a rivalry that inspired the 2013 Ron Howard-directed film“Rush.” But before he could race, he had to convince Italian doctors that his Austrian medical clearance was legitimate.

“I got so upset,” he told Reuters when the film came out. “I said, ‘Listen, I am fighting my way here. I am fit; here is the proof from the doctors. I have eyesight and can hear; I can drive, I am fit.’ And those Italian idiots start all over again.”

Mr. Lauda lost that season’s championship to Mr. Hunt but struck back the following season to win the second of his three career titles. Only five men in the history of the sport have collected more.

“Today is a sad day for F1,” Ferrari tweeted Tuesday morning. “You will remain forever in our hearts and in those of the fans.”

Mr. Lauda was never supposed to be a driver at all. His family was violently opposed to his dreams of racing what were in those days high-powered death traps. Though he came from wealth, he defied their wishes by taking on huge personal debt to finance his early career: In 1972, he was more than $200,000 in the hole, according to his autobiography. Over the course of his 11-year career at Ferrari, Brabham and McLaren, he would make the money back many times over.

Mr. Lauda retired from racing for good in 1985 but remained involved for decades afterward while also turning himself into an airline entrepreneur. His companies included Lauda Air and Niki, which was eventually acquired by Air Berlin . More recently, he was a constant presence in the pits with the dominant Mercedes team, where he served as a feisty and vocal nonexecutive chairman while it won five straight championships with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.