Lauda’s family said in a statement that the 70-year-old passed away peacefully surrounded by loved ones on Monday night (May 20) after a period of illness.
“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 read.
“His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain.”
Niki Lauda was one of Formula One’s favourite sons, but the famously cool and calculated driver nicknamed ‘The Computer’ would be better described as a force of nature than mere mortal.
Nothing could stop the plucky Austrian from finding a place at the pinnacle of motorsport.
Forsaking his wealthy parents by opting for a career in motor racing rather than the family business, Lauda relied on a series of loans and his own salesmanship to make it through the junior categories, and he paid to drive in his first Formula One seasons.
His graft threatened to bankrupt him until Ferrari, seeking its first championship in a decade, came knocking in 1974.
It took Lauda just one season to deliver on his promise, storming to his first championship in 1975, but it was his battle to defend the title in 1976 against McLaren rival James Hunt that defined his career and underlined the irrepressibility of his will.
Leading the title race going into the German Grand Prix at the infamous Nürburgring, Lauda suffered a monumental crash on the second lap. Smashing through some fencing, his Ferrari burst into flames and bounced back onto the track, where it was struck by two oncoming cars.
He was extricated from the flaming wreckage with third-degree burns and damaged lungs from inhaling the toxic smoke and transferred to hospital in a coma, where he was administered last rites.
But contrary to his bleak prognosis, Lauda stubbornly willed himself back to health, and just six weeks later he was in the car at the Italian Grand Prix. Bandaged, bleeding and in obvious pain, he qualified fifth and finished fourth in front of Ferrari’s rapturous Monza home crowd, completing one of sport’s most remarkable comebacks.
Hunt claimed the championship by a point, but Lauda won it back the following season, proving the crash cost him none of his speed.
After two years racing with Brabham he retired in 1979 to start Lauda Air, his first airline – he later started Niki, which he merged with Air Berlin in 2011, and Laudamotion, which still flies today – but by 1982 McLaren was able to lure him back to competition, and in 1984 he won his final championship in a titanic duel with teammate Alain Prost, beating the Frenchman by half a point. He retired from driving for good at the end of 1985.
But his motorsport career was far from over. After a consultancy role with Ferrari in the early 1990s and a brief stint running Jaguar in the early 2000s Lauda became a non-executive chairman with a 10 per cent share of the Mercedes F1 team in 2012. The German marque has dominated the sport since 2014, winning all five drivers and constructors titles since.
Lauda was as formidable a force on the track as a driver as much as he was off it in his later years. Always an energetic and engaging presence in the paddock, he’ll be sorely be missed by all in Formula One.