Vienna: Legendary Formula One driver Niki Lauda has died at the age of 70, his family said on Tuesday, triggering an outpouring of praise for a man whose track victories and comeback from a horrific crash enthralled race fans worldwide.
Niki died at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland on Monday night surrounded by his closest family members, a spokesperson said.
His death comes eight months after he underwent a lung transplant. An Austrian news report said Niki — who also had kidney transplants — was hospitalised for a dialysis earlier this month in Switzerland.
Walter Klepetko, who performed the lung transplant at Vienna’s general hospital last year, said there was no specific cause of death.“It was a long process, and the patient reached its end. Niki Lauda fought. He was a great man. But it has been clear for some time that we cannot bring him back to the ‘race track’”, he was quoted by the Austrian news agency APA as saying.
The family said in a statement that Niki died peacefully, highlighting his “unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur... his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage.
“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.”
Niki won the Formula One drivers’ world championship title three times, in 1975 and 1977 for Ferrari and in 1984 with McLaren, despite a terrible race crash in 1976.
“Everyone at Ferrari is deeply saddened at the news of the death of our dear friend Niki Lauda,” Ferrari said on its Twitter account.
Niki had been non-executive chairman at Mercedes F1 since 2012 and he was instrumental in bringing in British driver Lewis Hamilton to spark a run of success that has brought five consecutive world drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said Niki was “irreplaceable” and that the team had lost “a guiding light”.
A Very, very special man, says Herbert
Niki was born as Andreas Nikolaus on February 22, 1949, in Vienna into an upper middle-class family, who did not share his passion for cars.
In 1968, without telling his parents, Niki won his first race with a Mini Racer he had bought with his grandmother’s help.
During his driving career, Niki suffered horrific injuries on August 1, 1976 when, having already won five races that season, his vehicle burst into flames on the Nuerburgring in Germany.
He had severe burns to his face and hands, and inhaled toxic fumes which damaged his lungs.
Despite being given the last rites in hospital he made an almost miraculous recovery to race again just six weeks later still bandaged and in intense pain. He missed only two races that season but was unable to hold off the challenge of Britain’s James Hunt, who went on to claim his only world title.
Former F1 driver Johnny Herbert, describing Niki as “courageous, chatty, and extremely funny”, added on Twitter: “I am going to miss you being around the @F1 paddock but the legend of Niki Lauda will live on, because you were a very very special man.”