Niki Lauda: racing hero and serial entrepreneur

Niki Lauda © Getty Images

Niki Lauda was a legend in Formula One racing and a pretty formidable dealmaker and entrepreneur, too. His life is a testimony to the power of the will and of single-mindedness. Jane Lewis reports.

It is hard to believe Niki Lauda is dead, says Jonathan McEvoy in the Daily Mail. He was “the motor-racing legend who for so long had simply refused to die”. Yet he has finally succumbed to the long-term effects of the horrific accident that “by all rights of reason should have killed him 43 years ago” when he swerved off the track at Nurburgring and “sat trapped inside his Ferrari as it burst into a fireball”.

Lauda – who was 70 when he died in his sleep eight months after lung-transplant surgery – survived in 1976 and, through sheer will power, returned to racing at the Italian Grand Prix a mere 40 days after his accident. It was “arguably the greatest comeback in the history of sport”. He went on to win two more world drivers’ championships, later becoming a sought-after TV commentator “known for his unapologetic views”, says Bloomberg. In Austria he was considered a national hero.

Far more than a boy-racer

Instantly recognisable in a trademark baseball cap that hid his burns, Lauda was a fixture of the Formula One establishment all his life, taking consulting and managerial roles with the Jaguar, Ferrari and Mercedes teams. He served as chairman of the latter, mentoring drivers including four-time champion Lewis Hamilton. What is less well-known, perhaps, is what a force this extraordinary man was in the aviation industry, too.

Over the course of a career spanning 40 years, Lauda started three different airlines – starting with Lauda Air in 1979. He later sold that at profit to Austrian Airlines and formed Niki – a budget carrier he managed to sell twice, “the last time to Ryanair”. These timely exits “solidified Lauda’s reputation as a clever dealmaker”, but he could run an outfit too. “In an industry awash with money-losing companies,” Lauda was notably profitable.

Far from being a just a boy-racer with a sideline, Lauda was a disruptive force – a calculating, tough entrepreneur who “left a lasting impression on the European aviation industry”, says skift.com. According to one senior executive who knew him, “he was always eager to found a new airline to show the big ones that a small company [can do] it much better”. A rare example of someone who excelled in two fields, Lauda’s own take on the matter was that while motor racing was more “dangerous”, running an airline was “the most difficult job in the world”. The low point in his career came in 1991 when a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand, killing 223 people.

An iron will

Born in Vienna in 1949, the son of a wealthy mill-owner, “Lauda struggled from the start to realise his racing dream”, which was triggered when he attended his first race as a teenager, says The Times. “He was disowned by his father when he told him he wanted to become a racing driver instead of joining the family business.” Without parental support, “Lauda borrowed heavily” and “hustled for drives”, eventually securing his first F1 berth for the March team in 1972. Back then, many were unimpressed. “Slim and small in stature, with protruding ‘rabbit teeth’”, Lauda seemed to lack the machismo of the archetypal racing driver, epitomised by his arch-rival, and, later, friend, James Hunt. “Nobody thought of him as a future world champion,” says his first boss at March, Max Mosley. Yet Lauda’s appearance belied “an iron will and singlemindedness” – and he built a reputation as a driver who could combine “consistent speed” with “an excellent working knowledge of mechanical engineering” and an analytical brain.

“I believe in living a life that involves a lot of risk,” Lauda once concluded. “If you don’t take risks, you can’t ever expect it to be a success. It would all be far too boring.”