Three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda passed away three years ago today at the age of 70. He left fans with an abundance of memories, including one story that sticks out.
Following a period of poor health, three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda died in his sleep three years ago today at the University Hospital of Zürich. The 25-time Grand Prix winner, who had undergone a double lung transplant in 2018, had been undergoing dialysis treatment for kidney problems.
Lauda was a Formula 1 legend for a number of reasons, and he left fans with many great memories both from his driving career — on and off the track — and his future involvement in the sport.
That involvement had most recently included his role as non-executive chairman of Mercedes, of which he was a 10% owner.
One such memory sticks out and will forever remain a fan favorite.
Amid his heated world championship rivalry with James Hunt during the 1976 season, the rivalry on which Ron Howard’s award-winning 2013 film Rush is based, Lauda was involved in a devastating crash at the Nürburgring.
The Ferrari driver, who was the reigning world champion at the time, entered the race as the points leader by a significant amount with five wins in nine races and just one DNF; Hunt was in a third place tie with two wins, including one which initially went to Lauda in Spain as a result of a disqualification, as well as four DNFs and another disqualification.
Due to the inclement weather, Lauda attempted to organize a boycott of the race. But by one vote, the boycott failed, and the race went forward. Lauda competed, leading to the crash that changed his life. He was left with a badly burned face, among other life-threatening injuries.
Hunt went on to win that race, beginning his attempt to claw back at Lauda’s points lead.
But Lauda fought back. Against all odds, his injuries only left him sidelined for two races, and he returned six weeks later.
During his first press conference following his accident, he was disrespected by a reporter who asked what his wife would do, now that his face looked the way it did. And he didn’t forget it.
Lauda did not win before the season ended.
Following his Nürburgring victory, Hunt won three of the final six races of the season, including one of the two which Lauda missed. As a result, Hunt took the title by one point.
But Lauda’s story was far from over. He returned to the Scuderia for a fourth season in 1977, and in the season’s third race at Kyalami, he earned his first victory since he won at Brands Hatch the previous year, just one race before the crash.
In a story posted by Formula1.com Special Contributor David Tremayne the day after Lauda’s death, the aftermath of that victory was recalled.
It included an encounter with that same disrespectful reporter, whom Lauda thought he knew but couldn’t quite place at first.
After the reporter denied the suggestion that Lauda might know him, Lauda then remembered exactly who he was from only about six months prior.
In true Niki Lauda fashion, he let him know it.
“I remember. You’re the guy who asked me what my wife would do now that I was ugly.”
He raised his trophy and pointed it at him.
“Well, you can shove this up your ass.”
But it wasn’t just this moment that was the greatest story of Lauda’s illustrious career.
It was everything that led up to it — everything he battled through to get to that moment, the ultimate moment of conquering adversity and proving exactly what he thought of anybody who dared try to knock his resolve or disrespect him in any way.
Lauda only won two more races in 1977. In fact, he only competed in 11 of the remaining 14. But with three wins, plus six additional runner-up results, he earned his second world championship.
He did not compete in 1980 or 1981, but he went on to win his third title in 1984. The following year was his final year as a driver, and he won one race at Circuit Zandvoort to cap off an unforgettable 13-year career.