Niki Lauda, the Austrian race-car driver who survived a near-fatal crash to win three Formula 1 world championships and went on to found his own airline, has died, German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported. He was 70.
Lauda died in his sleep on Monday surrounded by family, a family spokeswoman told DPA in a statement. He received a lung transplant last year, and was hospitalised with the flu in January, DPA reported.
Lauda became one of the best-known people in motor sport following his return to driving six weeks after being dragged from the fiery wreck of his Ferrari in a crash at Germany’s Nurburgring circuit in 1976. While badly scarred and left with permanent breathing problems, he went on to win two more driver’s titles to add to the one he had landed the year before the accident.
He later assumed consulting and managerial roles at the Jaguar, Ferrari and Mercedes F1 teams, serving as chairman of the latter, where he mentored drivers including four-time champion Lewis Hamilton. He was a sought-after television commentator known for unapologetic forthright views, recognisable in a trademark baseball cap that hid his burns.
Lauda was also an aviation entrepreneur who held a commercial pilot license and founded Lauda Air while still racing cars. He later sold the carrier to Austrian Airlines and formed Niki, a company he sold twice, the last time to Irish low-cost specialist Ryanair Holdings Plc after stepping in to rescue the business that had become embroiled in the collapse of Air Berlin.
The transactions solidified Lauda’s reputation as a clever deal-maker, and Niki itself was profitable in an industry awash with money-losing companies.
The low point in his aviation career came in 1991 with the crash of a Lauda Air Boeing 767 in Thailand. All 223 people on board were killed as the plane fell to the ground about 15 minutes after departing Bangkok for Vienna. A faulty engine thrust reverser was later found to have caused the accident.
Lauda, who was born on February 22, 1949, in Vienna, was a national hero in Austria, where the post office honoured him with a 2005 stamp issue. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993, reflecting his standing in F1 and the worldwide admiration he engendered in returning to racing just six weeks and two missed races after the 1976 crash. He lost out on the championship that year by just one point.
He had four sons and a daughter.
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