VIENNA: The great Austrian driver Niki Lauda, whose return from an almost fatal accident made him a global symbol of resilience and determination, died at the age of 70.
Lauda was so badly injured in the accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix that a priest gave him the last rites while lying in a coma.
His Ferrari had slammed against a barrier and then caught fire when he returned to the track, where an oncoming car hit again. When he was extracted from the wreck, his face, scalp and right ear were badly burned and his lungs burned.
Only six weeks later, his bandaged and raw burns, he was running again, vying to keep his Formula One world title. It remains one of the most memorable acts of courage and challenge in sport.
"It was the most terrifying weekend," he told Reuters in 2013, in a belated admission about how scared he was to run so soon after he cheated death. He finished fourth that day.
But he rarely indulged in this feeling, even long after a racing career in which he won three world titles, many like Ayrton Senna of Brazil or Jackie Stewart.
"It's over, I live today and I think about tomorrow, take the experience," he said in the same interview.
Lauda, who would later become the manager of a racing team and airline entrepreneur, applied that style with no frills to most things. When he had accumulated too many trophies that were mostly "ugly and useless for me", he handed them to his local garageman in exchange for a lifetime of free car washes https://www.reuters.com/article/us-motor – racing-prix-Lauda / niki-Lauda-exchanged-trophies-for-free-car washes-idUSKCN0PE0SN20150704.
DOGGED & # 39; RAT & # 39;
Apart from the reconstructive work on the eyes and eyelids, he opted against cosmetic surgery for burns that disfigured him. Instead he covered many of them with a baseball cap that became his trademark, charging sponsors to put their logo on it.
"Of course, people change their tits and their asses and everything else, in my case there might be something but I wouldn't do it, because that's a fact of life and that's it," he said.
Lauda also saw the lighter side. Even before he collapsed, his ass teeth earned him the nickname "The Rat", and he later recalled that his friend and rival James Hunt told him that he looked better after the accident – a scene depicted in Hollywood movie "Rush" on their rivalry in that season.
"Now if people try to annoy me with comments on my face, I'll just say:" I had an accident, but you were born that way, "he told the German newspaper Die Welt.
He also overcame internal injuries. After two kidney transplants in 1997 and 2009, he had a lung transplant in 2018, 42 years almost the day after the accident at the Nuerburgring in which he inhaled hot toxic gases.
Obstinacy was a hallmark of his life.
Born of a wealthy family from Vienna, he challenged his desire to pursue a racing career. Lauda's grandfather, who was part of the supervisory board of an Austrian bank, even blocked his company's sponsorship agreement with his nephew. The family rebel has taken out loans to finance his early years.
A NEW LOW
In 1979, after two years with the less competitive Brabham-Alfa Romeo team in which he failed to win a world title, he decided he was tired of driving and retiring from the sport.
That year he went back to beating on his own, founding his first airline, Lauda Air, which he would sell to Austrian Airlines three decades later, having taken the habit of surprising passengers by flying on their plane.
That career brought his big downing in 1991 when a Lauda Air plane crashed in Thailand, killing 223 people. In the end, Boeing's aircraft, rather than its airline, was found guilty.
"People always think that the worst period of my life must have been after the collapse of the German Grand Prix … But it wasn't," he told the Observer newspaper in 2006. "When you run an airline and more than 200 people want to go from A to B and don't come – this is a different responsibility ".
His love for aviation has lasted. Last year he bought another company he founded, Niki, after his new parent company Air Berlin went bankrupt. He renamed it Laudamotion and soon sold a stake to Ryanair, quickly recovering much of his investment.
As for aviation, he has not been able to turn his back on the races for a long time. Just two years after retiring from the sport, the McLaren team attracted him and won his third world title in 1984. Only five drivers won more titles.
His count was much higher. The year of his accident lost Hunt's world title by just one point after deciding that the last race of the rain-soaked season was too dangerous. He retired after only one lap.
"The rain didn't stop for two hours and this idiotic Japanese director came and said that the race started … for me this was the stupidest decision ever. I took a ride so that Ferrari gets the money is on, "he said.
However, he said he has no regrets.
"For me it was logical, I think I would do the same thing again today."
(Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle, editing by Darren Schuettler)
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