'Role model and a benchmark': Formula One legend Niki Lauda dies

Formula One has been rocked by the death of legendary driver Niki Lauda, age 70.

His family confirmed the news on Tuesday, saying he had fallen asleep peacefully surrounded by his loved ones after a period of ill-health.

“His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain,” a family statement said.

“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 Austrian underwent a double lung transplant last August and was hospitalised with the flu in January.

He also had kidney transplants in 1997 and 2005.

Niki Lauda in 2014.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Niki Lauda in 2014. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ultimate survivor

Lauda was a three-time world champion, winning the F1 title for Ferrari in 1975 and 1977, and for McLaren in 1984.

He’ll be most remembered for his incredible comeback just weeks after a devastating crash at the German Grand Prix in 1976 that nearly claimed his life.

He suffered severe burns and spent time in a coma, losing most of his right ear, as well as the hair on the right side of his face.

His lungs also filled with toxic smoke, leading to his health problems later in life, after he crashed into a fence at the Nuerburgring track at a speed of 200km/h.

"The impact was so hard that the helmet was ripped off my head," he said of the crash.

At the hospital, a priest gave him the last rites, in light of his serious burns and damaged lung.

Niki Lauda in 1982. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)
Niki Lauda in 1982. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)

"But I did not want to die. I wanted to go on living," Lauda said four decades after the crash.

Lauda did not only go on living, he went on fighting.

Miraculously, he returned to the sport just two races later, finishing fourth at the Italian Grand Prix and winning the championship the next year.

"Coming back quickly was part of my strategy of not sitting at home and thinking about why this had happened to me," he said.

His comeback was immortalised in the movie ‘Rush’, which documented his battle with British driver James Hunt.

Lasting legacy

By the time the Austrian ended his racing career in 1985, he had competed in 171 Formula One races, winning 25 of them and standing on the podium 54 times.

Before retiring from the track, the racer launched Lauda Air in 1979.

In May 1991, one of his aircraft crashed after takeoff from Bangkok. All 223 passengers and crew members died.

"I was deeply shocked," Lauda said of the accident, admitting that he felt guilty until an investigation showed a technical problem caused the tragedy.

Niki Lauda in 1987. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)
Niki Lauda in 1987. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)

Lauda, known as a tough businessman, sold the airline in the 1990s.

In 2003, he founded another airline, Niki, which he sold to Air Berlin in 2011. He bought it back in January 2018 to run it under the Laudamotion brand, only to sell it quickly to Irish budget carrier Ryanair.

In later years, Lauda became an adviser for the Ferrari race team, before becoming non-executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 team in 2012.

Since then, Mercedes have dominated the hybrid era with three drivers' world titles with Lewis Hamilton and one from the now retired Nico Rosberg alongside four constructors' championships.

Lauda was also known to motorsport fans as a television commentator over 20 years.

Tributes pour in