Three-times F1 World Champion who recovered from horrific accident

Born: 22 February 22, 1949;

Died: 20 May 20, 2019

NIKI Lauda, who has died aged 70, was a three-times Formula 1 World Champion who made an extraordinary comeback after an accident at the Nuirburgring in 1976, which turned his Ferrari into a blazing cauldron.

Lauda, who was given the last rites after the crash, somehow survived, to return to racing just weeks later, before going on to live a very full and varied life both in and out of a racing car's cockpit.

Born into a wealthy Viennese family, Lauda had to overcome family disapproval to follow his passion for racing cars. He began racing a mini, before moving up through Formula Vee (VW-based engines) to race Porsche and Chevron sports cars.

Here his career seemed to stall, until he took out a bank loan – which he covered with a life insurance policy – and bought his way into the March team, initially driving in Formula 2, in 1971, doing well and being promoted to the F1 team the following season.

However, the 1972 season was a disaster for March and Lauda, who was by now totally divorced from his disapproving family and took out a further bank loan to earn a seat at BRM. However, the great days of Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart were a distant memory and BRM were at the back of the grid. However, when Ferrari signed the team's lead driver, Swiss Clay Regazonni in 1974, the Swiss driver spoke so highly of Lauda, Ferrari signed him in a deal which was good enough to clear his debts.

Ferrari were rebuilding after some fallow seasons and Lauda was an immediate hit with the team, finishing second in Argentina in his debut race, then posting the first of an eventual 25 F1 victories in Spain less than a month later.

He finished fourth in the 1974 World Championship, but in 1975, after a slow start, a run of four wins in five races propelled him to the head of the Drivers' Championship and, when he finished third, behind Regazzoni in the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, his first world title was confirmed. His considerable driving talent was further confirmed when he became the first man to lap the original Nordschleife Nurbrugring in under seven minutes.

In spite of this feat, Lauda considered the German track to be inherently unsafe, and he unsuccessfully tried to persuade his fellow drivers to boycott the German GP. He went into that race in a seemingly unbeatable position in the World Championship standings – having double the points of his closest challengers, following five wins and two second places in seven races.

On the second lap of the race, Lauda's Ferrari was involved in a crash, which saw him badly burned. He also inhaled toxic gases, which scarred his lungs and while he was able to stand when extricated from the car, he lapsed into a coma and his life hung in the balance. His ongoing lung problems were only eased in 2018, when he underwent a successful lung transplant.

He recovered, however, and, after missing just two races, he returned to Ferrari. He had lost most of his right ear and was left permanently scarred around the eyes. Thereafter, he wore a cap to cover his scarring, but, ever the entrepreneur, he sold the cap for sponsorship, earning over $1 million in the process.

In his absence, James Hunt, a great personal friend, but an intense on-track rival, mounted a concerted effort to catch and overhaul Lauda's championship lead. It all came down to the final race – the Japanese Grand Prix.

Lauda, in intense pain from his damaged eyes, had difficulty seeing in a race run in torrential rain so, on safety grounds, he retired early, leaving Hunt to go on and pip him for the title.

That decision did not go down well with Ferrari and, although he won the 1977 World Championship, it was the end of his time with Ferrari. He quit to join Brabham, the parting eased by the $1 million per year salary the new team paid him.

With Brabham, he won the controversial 1978 Swedish GP in the later banned “fan car”, but in 1979, he opted for retirement, saying he was: “fed up driving round in circles.”

In retirement, he founded and ran Lauda Air, a Vienna-based charter air line, even on occasions piloting his own aircraft. However, in 1982, McLaren offered him $3 million per year to return to racing. He had previously driven for Team Principal Ron Dennis in Formula 2 and, on his return, he showed the break had not diluted his skill.

He proved a particularly effective test driver for McLaren and his off-track work bore fruit in 1984, with his third world title. McLaren were utterly dominant that season, Lauda and team mate Alain Prost winning 12 of the 16 World Championship races, including Lauda becoming the first and only Austrian to win his home GP. He hung up his crash helmet in 1985 and returned to running his airline.

He did not entirely divorce himself from motor racing, however. He had a spell as team manager for Jaguar F1, and a lengthy consulting role with Ferrari, before, in 2012, he returned in a more prominent position, as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, where he played a leading role in their recruitment of Lewis Hamilton.

He concentrated on his airline interests. He sold Lauda Air to Air Austria, then started a second airline – Niki. He also sold this business and started a third airline – Laudamotion, which he merged with Niki, after buying that business back.

His contribution to motor racing saw him inducted into the International Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1993, while he has also been a long-time commentator on F1 for Austrian and German TV. He has also written and published five books.

Lauda had two sons with first wife Marlene Knaus: Mathias, also a race driver, and Lukas. Lauda also had a son, Christoph, through an extra-marital relationship.

On August 25, 2008, he married Birgit Wetzinger, a flight attendant for his airline. In 2005, she had donated a kidney to Lauda when the kidney he received from his brother in 1997 failed. In September 2009, Birgit gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.