Niki Lauda was a Formula One driver from Austria. He is the only driver in F1 history to have been champion for both Ferrari and McLaren, two of the sport’s most successful constructors. He won the World Drivers’ Championship three times, in 1975, 1977, and 1984. On February 22, 1949, he was born and on May 20, 2019, he died. Lauda was seriously injured in a crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, during which his car burst into flames and he came close to death after inhaling hot toxic fumes and suffering severe burns. He had emerged as Formula One’s star driver amid a 1975 title win and was leading the 1976 championship battle.
Despite his family’s opposition, Lauda became a racing driver. After beginning with a Mini. Lauda progressed through Formula Vee, as was customary in Central Europe, but quickly advanced to private Porsche and Chevron sports cars. With his career on hold, he borrowed 30,000 euros from a bank and secured it with a life insurance policy to join the young March Formula Two (F2) team in 1971. He had an ongoing disagreement with his family over his racing goals due to their disapproval, and he stopped communicating with them.
Lauda came into the limelight during his time with Ferrari, from 1974 to 1977. It was during that period he won two of his three world championship. They had come in 1975 and 1977. The Austrian could very well have added a third during that time had it not been for a gruesome crash in Germany during the 1976 season. As popularized in the Hollywood movie, Rush, Lauda had established a heated rivalry with British racer James Hunt.
Even though he was the fastest driver on the Nurburgring during the 1976 F1 season, Lauda urged his fellow drivers to boycott the event a week before the race, citing the 23-kilometer circuit’s safety precautions as a reason. Lauda was involved in an accident on August 1, 1976, during the second lap at the very fast left kink before Bergwerk, when his Ferrari went off the track, hit an embankment, burst into flames, and collided with Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford car. Lauda, unlike Lunger, was trapped in the rubble.
Drivers Arturo Merzario, Lunger, Guy Edwards, and Harald Ertl arrived on the scene shortly after, but Merzario sustained severe burns to his head and breathed hot toxic gases that damaged his lungs and blood before he could extricate Lauda from his car. The burns to his head left Lauda with serious scarring, including the loss of most of his right ear, hair on the right side of his head, eyebrows, and eyelids. He decided to limit his reconstructive surgery to replacing and repairing his eyelids. He usually wore a cap after the accident to hide the wounds on his head.
Due to just half points being granted for the shorter 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, Lauda won his third world title by half a point against teammate Alain Prost in 1984. His triumph in the Austrian Grand Prix that year remains the first time an Austrian has won in his native country. He had previously quit from the sport but returned with Ferrari’s bitter rivals, McLaren.
Niki Lauda had two marriages. In 1976, he married his first wife, Marlene Knaus. The couple was married till 1991. Marlene was a fashion icon, model, and former socialite. Mathias and Lukas were their two children. During his marriage to Marlene, Niki had a son with another lady named Christoph. Niki’s 15-year marriage to Marlene ended after the affair, and they divorced in 1991. Niki married again in 2008, this time to Birgit Wetzinger. Birgit, a 40-year-old former flight attendant, is 30 years Niki’s junior. Birgit gave birth to twins a year after their wedding: a boy named Max and a daughter named Mia.
Niki Lauda was an Austrian former Formula One racing champion who died in 2019 with a net worth of USD 200 million. Lauda received a USD 1 million annual wage when he joined with Brabham-Alfa Romeo in 1978. After adjusting for inflation, that equates to about USD 4 million today. He returned to racing in 1982 with McLaren after a brief hiatus. His McLaren contract paid USD 3 million per year, the equivalent of USD 12 million today.