The French Grand Prix was no thriller, but Formula One’s weekend in southern France was perfectly representative of the 2019 season being bent to the will of the sport’s unstoppable force.
Formula One is in mourning after the death of iconic three-time world champion Niki Lauda.
Lauda, aged 70, died peacefully on Monday night (Tuesday morning AEST) surrounded by loved ones, according to a statement released by his family.
“His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable,” his family said. “His tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain a role model and a benchmark for all of us.”
Lauda’s long career in Formula One was well decorated, delivering 25 victories and three world titles, but the characterisation of the Austrian as an unstoppable force was best underlined by his remarkable fightback from what should have been fatal injuries suffered during the 1976 German Grand Prix.
Lauda, then driving for Ferrari in defence of his first world title in 1975, crashed at the infamous Nurburgring in wet-dry conditions, turning his 312T2 into a flaming heap. He was pulled from the wreckage by a marshal and four drivers, one of whom had crashed into the inferno, and sent to hospital in a coma and suffering third-degree burns and damage to his lungs from the toxic smoke.
Oggi è un giorno triste per la F1. La grande famiglia della Ferrari apprende con profonda tristezza la notizia della morte dell’amico Niki Lauda, tre volte campione del mondo, due con la Scuderia (1975-1977). Resterai per sempre nei cuori nostri e in quelli dei tifosi. #CiaoNiki pic.twitter.com/srQUUeDqLw
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) May 21, 2019
He was infamously administered the last rites, such was is bleak prognosis, but by what could only be described as an act of immense will, he recovered enough to get back into the car just six weeks later for the Italian Grand Prix, where he qualified fifth and finished fourth before a rapturous Ferrari home crowd.
The race is hailed as one of sport’s all-time great comeback stories, and though he professed to have conquered any lingering post-crash fear, he later admitted in his autobiography To Hell and Back, “That was a lie … At Monza, I was rigid with fear”.
Having missed only two rounds, he took the title fight with McLaren’s James Hunt down to the wire at the final race, but he withdrew from the race in torrential rain, allowing the Englishman to snatch the championship by a single point.
He won the crown back in 1977, but a switch to Brabham in 1978 and 1979 bore no fruit, and he retired before the end of his second season with the team to start his first airline, Lauda Air, which he later sold to Austrian Airlines.
McLaren tempted him back to Formula One in 1982, allowing him to win his third and final championship in a monumental duel with teammate Alain Prost, who he vanquished by half a point at the final race of the season, before giving up driving for good at the end of 1985.
All at McLaren are deeply saddened to learn that our friend, colleague and 1984 Formula 1 World Champion, Niki Lauda, has passed away. Niki will forever be in our hearts and enshrined in our history. #RIPNiki pic.twitter.com/Ndd9ZEfm6B
— McLaren (@McLarenF1) May 21, 2019
His post-racing career was as colourful as his time in the car. A pilot and businessman, he ran three airlines, one of which he also regularly flew for, but Formula One was never far away from his mind. He consulted for Ferrari in the early 1990s and briefly led the Jaguar team in the early 2000s before becoming the Mercedes F1 team’s non-executive director in 2012.
He subsequently acquired a ten per cent stake in the team and played a role luring Lewis Hamilton to the German marque with Ross Brawn ahead of the 2013 season, and Lauda was able to add to his tally of championships when Mercedes won double world titles in 2014. The team has controlled the sport ever since, winning all five drivers and constructors championships to date.
He became an engaging fixture in the paddock during his Mercedes tenure, but he became a notable absence from grands prix late in 2018 after undergoing a lung transplant, and he was held in hospital earlier this year suffering pneumonia.
Formula One has lost one of its favourite sons and an all-time great.
Vale Niki Lauda.
A champion. A legend. An inspiration.
We send our condolences to the family and friends of Niki Lauda, who died at the age of 70. pic.twitter.com/ys2FJrbnI4
— Motorsports On NBC (@MotorsportsNBC) May 21, 2019