RIP the Formula 1 legend who refused to die

Driven: “A reliance on willpower and calculation rather than flying by the seat of his pants.”

Again and again, he cheated the grim reaper. But today, at 70, Niki Lauda has died. His life of indomitable willpower has been celebrated in films and books. What can we learn from his story?

At the time, Niki Lauda played down his condition. Later, he admitted he had been so terrified, he could hardly drive.

Just 40 days earlier, in August 1976, Lauda had suffered third-degree burns to his head and face that left him scarred for life. He inhaled toxic gases that damaged his lungs, and received the last rites in hospital.

He told one interviewer he was so badly burned that when his wife came to the hospital, she could only recognise his feet.

Despite this, he refused to have more than the minimum of plastic surgery – just enough to allow him to drive in the Italian Grand Prix six weeks later.

“I said that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly,” Lauda wrote in his autobiography To Hell And Back. “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.”

By the end of that Italian Grand Prix race, his unhealed wounds had soaked his fireproof balaclava in blood. When he tried to remove the balaclava, he found it was stuck to his bandages, and had to resort to ripping it off in one go.

Andrew Benson, the chief racing writer of the BBC, says, “It was one of the bravest acts in the history of sport.”

This morning, the former F1 driver and three-time world champion Niki Lauda is dead. The Austrian died last night, aged 70, eight months after receiving a lung transplant.

Lauda, who won titles in 1975, 1977 and 1984, was hugely admired, respected and liked within F1 after a remarkable career during which he won two titles for Ferrari and one for McLaren.

He competed in 171 races and won 25. He also actively pursued business interests, including his own airline, and went on to have senior roles in F1 management. Most recently, he was non-executive chairman at the hugely successful Mercedes since 2012, where he helped bring Lewis Hamilton to the team.

But, ultimately, the reason he became a legend is not for his driving, nor for his contribution to F1, but for his part in a story, one of the greatest of timeless narratives: the battle between sheer talent and incredible effort and courage.

It is a story distilled in the 2013 film Rush, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, about the duel that took place in the 1970s between two drivers: the glamorous swashbuckler from Britain, James Hunt, and the icily correct Austrian, Lauda.

Hunt is played with shampooed mane swishing and his shirt permanently open, swigging champagne and taking a cheeky puff of weed before climbing into the racing car. Meanwhile, the scowling Lauda, rat-faced and jealous, is played (accurately) as a man of iron-willed determination who notes how the undisciplined Brit might get sloppy and allow himself to be beaten.

In real life, Hunt, who died in 1993, abandoned the rigours of motor-racing soon after and turned to business and enjoying life. Lauda, disapproving of Hunt’s attitude, carried on with racing and the discipline, despite the terrible thing that had happened to him.

In his autobiography, Lauda outlines what he calls his ‘system’: a sublimation of emotion, so that all his energy could be channelled into dealing rationally with the problem in hand.

Gift or graft?

Do we buy into the binary choice between the gifted and the grafter? Mary vs. Martha, the prodigal son vs. the one who stayed at home, Keats vs. Hardy, Federer vs. Nadal, Best vs. Charlton, Hunt vs. Lauda?

Or do we reject it? Do we more honestly believe that behind all inspiration, there is always discipline, application, determination and bravery, even though it is sometimes hidden behind a glamorous facade?

You Decide

  1. Do you admire grit and determination more than natural talent?
  2. There is a theory that there are only seven basic stories in life. Do you think that might be true?


  1. Make a list of the five most talented people who ever lived (in your opinion). Take time to think about it!
  2. Do the first activity above — then add five people who were successful through hard work, discipline and persistence. Compare and contrast them with the first list.

Some People Say...

“The origin of genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Niki Lauda was one of the most successful F1 drivers of all time. He happens to have been the sole driver to champion two of the sport’s most successful constructors, McLaren and Ferrari. He won the F1 World Drivers’ Champion three times in his career. Since retiring, he founded and managed three airlines (Laudamotion, Lauda Air and Niki).
What do we not know?
What really caused the crash when Lauda lost control of the car, hitting the bank at the side of the track and ending up across the track, with his helmet — ripped off in the impact — missing. The car caught fire as fuel leaked out and Niki was trapped in the burning cockpit.

Word Watch

Last rites
The final prayers and blessings before death, performed by a priest.
Monza was the Italian Grand Prix that Lauda returned to after missing only two races, just six weeks after the accident, with his fresh burns still bandaged. He finished fourth despite being, by his own admission, absolutely petrified.
F1 is the common way of referring to Formula One. This is one of the premier forms of motor racing around the world, since its inaugural season in 1950. The word “formula” in the name refers to the set of rules to which all cars must conform.
Mary vs. Martha
This refers to a famous bible story where Jesus visits two sisters. Martha does all the housework, while Mary sits at his feet and listens to him. Later, legend has it that Mary was Mary Magdalene, the beautiful companion who was with Jesus when he was crucified.
Prodigal son vs. one who stayed home
A biblical story about a prodigal (extravagant and wasteful) son who leaves home, but returns after making some bad choices. His older brother, meanwhile, had stayed home and worked hard for their father.


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