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NOTICE OF DEATH - NIKI LAUDA (1949 - 2019)

The British Racing Drivers’ Club joins the world of motor racing in mourning the loss of one of its outstanding personalities and greatest champions Andreas-Nikolaus ‘Niki’ Lauda who passed away yesterday at the age of 70 after a long battle with lung and kidney disease. A triple Formula 1 World Champion – with Ferrari in 1975 and 1977 and McLaren in 1984 – Niki Lauda’s extraordinary career included some remarkable comebacks, in 1976 from an almost fatal accident at the Nurburgring during the German Grand Prix, and from self-imposed retirement in 1982. Niki became an Honorary Member of the BRDC in 1975, the year of his first world championship success, and was awarded a Gold Star in 1984 after his third world title.

Born in Vienna, Niki Lauda’s early career in national races did not really hint at what lay ahead. After an unexceptional Formula 3 season in 1970, Niki scraped together enough financial support to join the March Formula 2 team alongside Swedish superstar Ronnie Peterson. Ronnie won the European Championship but Niki struggled, his best result being second to Ronnie in his heat and fourth in the final on the Rouen road circuit. He made his Formula 1 debut in his home Grand Prix at the Osterreichring in a third works March 711, retiring with handling problems. Undaunted Niki somehow found the funding for a full F1 season with March in 1972 only for each version of the 721 to be uncompetitive and unreliable even with Ronnie at the wheel. Niki’s best result was seventh in the South African Grand Prix, a place for which no points were awarded in those days. Fortunately the F2 March 722 was a much better proposition, enabling Niki to win the British Formula 2 Championship including victory in the opening round at Oulton Park, whilst he was fifth in the European series.

The following year saw a split with March and Niki talked his way into the BRM team which by 1973 was past its best. There were now flashes of what was to come as Niki took his Marlboro-liveried P160 to fifth place in the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, and made a lasting impression on the Silverstone spectators in the opening laps of the British Grand Prix by charging round in second and third places behind Ronnie Peterson and Jackie Stewart. Like most races that year, it ended in retirement but Niki had impressed enough to be placed ninth in the annual Autocourse ratings with the prescient comment ‘If Ferrari produce a competitive car for 1974 there is no doubt who will prove the team’s consistently quicker driver’. Joined at the Scuderia by his 1973 BRM team mate, and former Ferrari favourite, Clay Regazzoni, Niki’s determination and commitment working in conjunction with new team principal Luca de Montezemolo, brought Ferrari back to competitiveness, Niki winning the Spanish and Dutch GPs and finishing fourth in the World Championship.

In the early races of 1975, Niki had to make do with the previous year’s Ferrari 312B3. However, armed with the new 312T Niki won race after race, starting with the BRDC Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone (the last F1 race to be held on the ‘pre-Woodcote chicane’ version of the Grand Prix circuit) followed by the Grands Prix of Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France and the USA. It was only the inspired brilliance of James Hunt in the Hesketh 308 which marginally deprived Niki of victory in the Dutch Grand Prix. With his first world title secured, Niki locked horns with James Hunt, now at McLaren, for the 1976 championship. Victories in Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, Monaco and, controversially, in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, plus second place with broken ribs in the Spanish GP, gave him a commanding lead in the title race before the German Grand Prix, the last to be held on the Nurburgring Nordschleife.  Early in the German race Niki’s Ferrari crashed very heavily and instantly caught fire. The bravery of other drivers, in particular Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger, Arturo Merzario and the late Harald Ertl, enabled Niki to be released from the inferno, badly burned and with damaged lungs from smoke inhalation. In hospital he received the last rites but he recovered sufficiently, if far from completely, to be back on the grid for the Italian Grand Prix less than six weeks later to finish in an amazing and extraordinarily courageous fourth place. At Watkins Glen in the US GP East he finished third and the battle with James Hunt for the title went right down to the wire in the rain of Japan’s Mount Fuji where Niki retired and James famously took the title by one point.

Determined to show Enzo Ferrari that it was wrong to think of replacing him with Carlos Reutemann, Niki stayed with the Scuderia for 1977, won the South African, German and Dutch Grands Prix, finished second in six others, and won his second world championship. Having proved his point, Niki left Ferrari for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team whose Alfa Romeo-powered cars were quick but fragile. Niki won in Sweden with the notoriously clever BT46B ‘fan car’ and also at Monza after Mario Andretti and Gilles Villeneuve had been penalised for jumping the start. Fourth in the World Championship was his reward. The following year was beset by problems with the Brabham-Alfa, fourth at Monza being one of only two race finishes. Gordon Murray’s new creation, the Cosworth DFV-powered BT49 arrived in time for the Canadian Grand Prix and promised much, but during the first practice session Niki decided that he no longer enjoyed ‘driving round in circles’ and announced his retirement with immediate effect.

Just over two years later, Niki was enticed back into Formula 1 by Ron Dennis for four more seasons at the highest level. In 1982 with the Cosworth DFV-powered McLaren MP4B Niki won at Long Beach and Brands Hatch to finish fifth in the Championship behind team mate John Watson who took second. As the turbo era began, McLaren persevered with its Cosworth DFV engines but only twice did Niki finish on the podium in a season littered with retirements. He finished 10th in the Championship, again with John Watson ahead of him in sixth place. McLaren chose to replace Wattie with Alain Prost as it entered the turbo era with the Porsche-built TAG engine in 1984 but it was Niki who took the title by just half a point from Alain in a nail biting finale at Estoril in the Portuguese Grand Prix. He had won the South African, French, British, Austrian and Italian GPs and would win one more at Zandvoort, the highlight of an otherwise low key final season in 1985. In total Niki won 25 World Championship Grands Prix plus non-championship races at Silverstone in 1975 and Imola in 1979. He was on pole position on 24 occasions and also set fastest lap 24 times.

Between leaving Brabham and joining McLaren Niki built up one of Austria’s leading airlines, Lauda Air employing some 550 people with a turnover of £40 million. One of Lauda Air’s Boeing 767s crashed in Thailand in 1991 which deeply affected Niki and he eventually sold the airline to Austrian Airlines in 2000. He returned to Formula 1, initially as a consultant for Scuderia Ferrari before a less than satisfactory period with Jaguar Racing in 2001/2002. Subsequently as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes GP team Niki became an important part not only of the team but also of Formula 1 itself. His incisive mind and wit, coupled with his forthright comments on the Formula 1 world and its politics, will be much missed. The deaths of Charlie Whiting and now Niki Lauda in the space of just a few weeks have robbed Formula 1 of two of its most influential personalities. To his wife Birgit, sons Lukas and Mathias by his first marriage and twins Max and Mia by his second marriage, and to his grandchildren the BRDC extends its deepest sympathies on the loss of a great man who will forever be a motor racing legend.

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