Whatever happened to Niki Lauda, the sharp-tongued rival of James Hunt in the famous 1976 Formula 1 duel depicted in the movie “Rush”? The rematch in the next season – after the movie ends – was no contest; Lauda piled up so many points that he was able to tell Enzo Ferrari to go to Hell and quit the team with two races remaining on the 1977 calendar – and still win the driver’s championship. (Hunt finished a miserable fifth; he retired from racing in mid-1979.)
But Lauda’s decision to quit the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, and essentially concede the title to Hunt, earned Lauda no respect then – in fact, it turned Enzo and the Ferrari team forever against him. (They thought Lauda, despite having lost his upper eyelids in his fiery Nurburgring crash, should have kept going even though he couldn’t see; especially since the skies cleared later in the race.) In turn, Lauda hated Carlos Reutemann, who was hired to replace him when Enzo Ferrari believed Lauda was going to die from his crash injuries. When Ferrari brought in the then-unknown Gilles Villenueve to run the final two 1977 races in a third car, Lauda stormed out.
The movie’s final scenes allude to Lauda’s fascination with aircraft. And that’s where his career took him – with a few twists and turns in motorsports along the way – eventually. But the airline industry would prove no less dangerous to Lauda, who earned his commercial pilot’s license, as his death-defying exploits in Formula 1.
Formula 1 major domo Bernie Ecclestone, then operator of the Brabham team, hired Lauda for 1978 and 1979, but the relationship never worked out. The team’s car, although it won its first race, was clearly illegal – and it was withdrawn from further competition. Its replacement was never competitive, and Lauda eventually quit that team – and retired.
His plan was to start an airline. Again, without the backing of wealthy family members, Lauda had to find a way to finance the airline on his own. After a couple of years of real struggle, Lauda had to admit he needed more money. So, he accepted a lucrative offer to return to racing – ironically from the team of his old, then-retired rival Hunt: McLaren.
Lauda’s caustic personality was unchanged. He frequently clashed with his team. He despised his co-driver Alain Prost (as did most everyone else in racing, to be fair). He was always at odds with organizers, officials and track owners. He led a driver’s strike in protest of dangerous safety conditions. But he won races. And he piled up points. And in 1984, he won his third Driver’s Championship.
But by 1985, he was ready to quit again.
By now he had enough money to get Lauda Air off the ground, literally.
It was initially a charter and cargo airline. And Lauda himself often was at the controls.
For awhile Lauda was quite successful, and he expanded into new classes of service, added international routes, and bought the latest Boeing jets. It was all great fun.
Then, on May 26, 1991, Lauda Air flight 004 crashed shortly after takeoff in Bangkok, Thailand, killing all 223 people abroad. The Boeing 767 that went down was one that Lauda himself had at times flown. He was devastated – particularly because the fault for the crash could not initially be pinpointed (something that, knowing Lauda’s mechanical curiosity, would have driven him mad). He didn’t know whether to blame himself, or the crew, or the craft. This was a time in his personal life when his marriage to the long-suffering and supportive Marlene finally broke apart.
Eventually it was proven that the accident was Boeing’s fault – a thruster involuntarily activated, causing the crash. While that relieved Lauda somewhat, he nevertheless became obsessed with safety. He rebuilt the airline and its reputation – but eventually let Austrian Airlines absorb it, starting in 1999. Its flight operations merged with AA in 2005. He also started another smaller airline called Niki.
Lauda, meanwhile, returned to racing. In 1991, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo was brought in to restore Ferrari’s greatness (it had been foundering since Enzo’s death in 1988), and he immediately hired Lauda as a consultant. A decade later, he took over running the Jaguar F1 team for a couple of years. He is currently non executive chairman of the Mercedes-Benz AMG F1 team.
Now 64, Lauda is again married, to a former Lauda Air stewardess, Birgit, who is 30 years younger than he is; she’s apparently pretty committed to the marriage, having donated a kidney to Lauda when he needed a transplant. In 2009, Birgit bore him twins – a son and daughter. He and Marlene had two sons, one of whom Mathias is also a racer. He had another son with a girl he never married.
Just this year, Austrian Airlines retired the Lauda Air name completely; what’s left of it is now called “Austrian myHoliday”.
I hated to see that last of Lauda Air disappear, especially its mascot which Lauda chose himself: Niki the Rat.
October 1, 2013