Niki Lauda suffered horrific burns to his head in a 1976 crash during the German Grand Prix, losing most of his right ear and much of his hair, eyebrows and eyelids. There was no way to hide the scarring and Lauda barely tried, sporting a red baseball hat that he called “my protection for stupid people looking at me stupidly.”
He also had the perfect comeback for anyone who would give him a stupid look or fail to look him in the eye during conversations.
“I have an accident as an excuse to look ugly. Some people don’t have this excuse,” he told journalist Graham Bensinger in a 2017 interview.
It was that sort of defiance that propelled Lauda, who died Monday at age 70, to the top of the auto racing world even after the crash. Still wearing blood-soaked bandages just two races after the crash, Lauda finished fourth at the 1976 Italian Grand Prix. The next year, he would win the F1 drivers’ championship, the second of his career, with a third coming in 1984.
“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.”
The cause of death was not announced, but Lauda underwent a lung transplant in Vienna last year, his doctor told the Associated Press. He also twice underwent kidney transplants, in 1997 and 2005. According to the Associated Press, Lauda is survived by his second wife, Birgit, and their twin children Max and Mia. He had two adult sons, Lukas and Mathias, from his first marriage.
Lauda’s career, including the 1976 crash and his rivalry/friendship with British driver James Hunt, was documented in Ron Howard’s 2013 film “Rush.” Despite the crash, Lauda trailed Hunt by only three points entering the final race of the season in Japan, where heavy rain led to a dangerously wet track. And even though he still had a shot at the title, Lauda protested the unsafe conditions by retiring after one lap in that final race, with Hunt winning the season championship by a point.
“I was spokesman for the drivers then, and I stood up and said: ‘Are you guys f----- crazy? The rain has not stopped. It’s got worse. You cannot do this,’ ” Lauda told the Guardian in 2016. “But the guy insisted. For me it was ridiculous. Because of a stupid TV deal we had to go out there and risk our lives. No one could see anything. It was a disaster.
“So then I decided for myself that television was not a good enough reason for me to race. So I told [team owner] Ferrari beforehand I would do one lap, which I did, and then I stopped. I have no regrets. I would do the same again. But I have to say that without my accident, maybe, I would have had the reserves to do it.”
Lauda retired after the 1985 F1 campaign, devoting his time to the airline company he had started.
“The whole country and the motor sports world are mourning a really great Austrian,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wrote on Twitter.