Few would have counted on Austrian racing driver Niki Lauda making three score years and ten after his near fatal crash at the German Grand Prix in 1976. And yet three time Formula One (F1) motor racing champion Niki Lauda did make it to 70. However, in effect, his crash finally got him as he succumbed to the effects of his lung and burn injuries.
Lauda originally received terrible burns and serious lung injuries as the glorious but also very dangerous 14 mile long Nurburgring race track was then too long to provide adequate fire fighting and ambulence cover along its full length. However, Lauda’s health and nerve recovered enough for him to courageously race just one month later. And he continued to life a full life until his health eventually began to deteriorate until last year when he had a double lung transplant. It was Lauda’s failure to fully recover from that operation which finally ended his life.
Lauda has been venerated as one of the first of the “professor” drivers – those who have a scientific and analytical bent to make themselves and their cars faster with the help of engineering analysis. Beginning his F1 career in the early 1970s, he won his first championship driving for Ferrari in 1975. And in doing so changed the face of Grand Prix racing – and nearly of all competitive sport since – via the now dominant force of sport science.
Lauda nearly won the F1 championship in 1976, only losing out to his friend but also rival James Hunt – a battle which was famously depicted in the Ron Howard directed movie Rush (2013). Lauda lost because he declined to race in the rain sodden Japanese Grand Prix after calculating that it was too risky. However, given his obvious past bravery, no-one could call him a coward and in a way, it also showed up his morally courageous character in a different way. British fans were grateful for his decision as they watched Hunt clinch the championship in the very early morning via a then rare satellite television broadcast.
After winning again in 1977 – again for Ferrari – and after a stint at Brabham, Lauda retired from the sport in 1979 to start an airline, but was lured back in the early 1980s. He won for Mclaren in their MP4/2 car in 1984 in that by now very technical era in F1.
Lauda retired from motor racing in 1985 and concentrated his efforts on his airline Lauda Air – often piloting the aircraft. However, disaster struck in 1991 when one of his airline’s Boeing 767-300ER jets fell from the sky over Thailand to a fatal crash after one of its engine thrust reversers deployed by accident in flight.
Lauda later got Boeing to admit that the resulting dive was irrecoverable from following a faulty thrust reverser deployment due to faulty electronics after it originally tried to implicate, via its silence, the pilots in the failure to recover the jet. The case has uncomfortable echos in the recent fatal accidents of the Boeing 737 Max when faulty electronics was similarly implicated. Lauda later sold his airline to Austrian Airlines in 1999.
Rated for his technical and analytical skills, Lauda returned to F1 racing as a technical and managerial adviser, firstly to Ferrari, then at Jaguar, and then raising Mercedes up to dominance via the skills of Lewis Hamilton.
While it can be argued the technocrats like Niki Lauda have done damage to F1 racing (and to other sports) – given that now only the most financially endowed teams can afford the best of the technology, the best drivers/players and best of analysis giving them competitive advantage – no-one can deny his talent both on the road, and via his technical analysis.
As such, we at Seradata give this brave and tenacious man our salute, and our condolences to his family and friends.
Post Script: And for those that wonder what F1 motor racing has to do with space. Well, Reaction Engines Limited – the Oxfordshire based developer of air breathing rocket engines and their lightweight heat exchangers (of which this writer has a small shareholding) – is not only now supplying F1 teams with heat exchanger technology, it has also recruited some its Engineering leadership from F1 teams like Mclaren.