Niki Lauda, three-time Formula 1 world champion and one of the greatest drivers in Formula 1 history, died on Monday at the age of 70, his family has announced.
The legendary sportsman’s death comes months after he underwent lung transplant surgery. He had kidney transplants in 1997 and 2005, and was hospitalized for flu earlier in the year. He underwent dialysis at a clinic in Switzerland not long before his death.
“With deep sadness, we announce that our beloved Niki has peacefully passed away with his family on Monday,” reads a statement by his family. “His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain.”
“A role model and a benchmark for all of us, he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather away from the public, and he will be missed,” the statement concluded.
A later statement (via Deutsche Presse-Agentur) added: “We were at his side every minute over the past 10 months. We have laughed, cried, hoped and suffered with him but Niki finally lost his strength yesterday.”
His doctor Walter Klepetko told Austrian press agency APA: “It had been clear for some time that we would not be able to bring him back onto the ‘race track’. There was no cause of death. It was a long process, and the patient departed at the end.”
Niki won the Formula 1 driver’s championship in 1975. He also won in 1977 with Ferrari, and in 1984 with McLaren.
In 1976, Lauda was caught in a fiery crash during the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. He escaped with his life but suffered third-degree burns that left his face and head permanently scarred, and his right ear missing. He also inhaled toxic fumes that damaged his lungs.
He made a quick recovery and returned to racing about 40 days after what might easily have been a career-ending accident and finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix. Blood from his unhealed wounds soaked his bandages, and the bandages stuck to his balaclava. He had to rip off the balaclava and bandages after the race.
His quick recovery and return to the race track after a close brush with death raised his profile as an F1 driver. His remarkable bravery and resilience won him respect and admiration from fans and colleagues.
Lauda played down concerns about his health, saying it was the best decision he could make for his mental well-being.
“Lying in bed ruminating about the Ring would have finished me,” he insisted.
But he would later admit in his autobiography To Hell And Back that he’d been very scared.
“I said then and later that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly,” he wrote. “That was a lie. But it would have been foolish to play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza, I was rigid with fear.”
His rivalry with the British driver James Hunt would later provide inspiration for the movie Rush (2013).
Lauda was also a pilot and a businessman who founded and managed three airlines.