Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda, the Austrian Formula One racing legend whose rivalry with British driver James Hunt during the 1970s inspired the Ron Howard film “Rush,” died Monday from undisclosed causes. He was 70.
“His unique successes as a sportsman and entrepreneur are and remain unforgettable,’” Lauda’s family said in a statement. “His tireless drive, his straightforwardness and his courage remain an example and standard for us all. Away from the public gaze he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather. We will miss him very much.”
Born in 1949, Lauda entered a racing career despite the disapproval of his family. His determination to succeed as a racer was such that in 1971, finding his career stalled, Lauda took out a £30,000 bank loan to buy his way into a team. His big break came three years later when he was invited to join the Ferrari team, kicking off a decade-long run as one of the greatest racers in F1.
A three-time Formula One World Drivers’ champion, Lauda won championships in 1975, 1977 and 1984 — the first two for Ferrari, and his final title for McLaren. His success was even more remarkable because he won his second and third titles after he was nearly killed in a crash during the 1976 German Grand Prix. He sustained severe burns to his head and significant lung and blood damage from inhaling toxic fumes, but returned to racing just six weeks later.
In popular culture he’s best known for his longtime F1 rivalry with his friend, James Hunt, from 1973 to 1979. Their rivalry was chronicled in “Rush,” starring Daniel Brühl as Lauda, and Chris Hemsworth as Hunt. The film focused on the 1976 season and Lauda’s crash.
Lauda briefly retired from racing in 1979, returning in 1982 to continued success. He retired for good in 1985 and went into aviation, founding Lauda Air, a Vienna-based short-range airline. It was acquired by Austrian Airlines in 2000, and continued operations until 2013.
Lauda also returned to Formula One in a managerial position in 1993, remaining with the organization until 2002.
Lauda was married twice: to Marlene Knaus from 1976-1991, and to Birgit Wetzinger from 2008 until his death. With Knaus he had two sons, including FIA World Endurance racer Mathias Lauda, and with Wetzinger he had a son and daughter.