One of the few Formula One racers who bought their way into the sport, Nicholas Andreas Lauda was born in 1949 in Vienna. His father was a paper manufacturer who had managed to amass a fortune for his family – a fortune which Nicholas never saw. His family shunned his desire to be a racing driver and refused to support him in an effort to bring him to his senses. But Niki was strong-willed. He skipped university and borrowed money from various Austrian banks in order to get himself in the races. He started his career in 1968 in a Mini and before long was attempting to race Formula Vee and Formula Three. His early racing career was somewhat dismal and he often crashed – which was a problem since it meant he was one car less and had few winnings with which to repay the money he had borrowed.
In 1972, Niki Lauda bought his way into Formula Two and Formula One with yet another loan. The Marches were unsuccessful and not only did they leave him virtually bankrupt, but they didn’t help his reputation as a driver either. With no other qualifications to turn to, Niki was forced to keep racing. So, the following year he managed to make a deal with BRM which put him in the driver’s seat once more. Before long his results started improving and his true worth as a driver became evident. BRM offered him a new contract but instead he chose to buy his way out his contract with money from Enzo Ferrari who had also offered him a contract.
The following year found Lauda racing for Ferrari. Within his first year he garnered the nickname ‘The Computer’ and though he was doing well, he still made some costly mistakes. However, his saving grace for the year came in the form of two different Formula One victories. Over the next few years he enjoyed numerous victories around the world. Then, in 1976 his car suddenly crashed and burst into flames. He suffered third degree burns on his head and wrists as well as numerous broken bones and scorched lungs. Doctors gave him up for dead and he was even read his last rites by a priest. Somehow, Niki Lauda not only recovered, but he returned to racing just six weeks later. He finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix – his first race since the accident – and his bandages were seeping blood by the end of the event. His comeback was hailed as the most courageous in sporting history. From that time forward, Niki always wore a red baseball cap to hide some of his facial disfigurements.
In 1978, after winning two championships, he proclaimed he was bored and he walked out on the sport to start his own airline. Though his airline did well he eventually found himself needing more money and so he returned to racing for this purpose. He signed a US$5 million contract with McLaren and won his final Grand Prix in 1985, after which he retired from the racing car cockpit for good. In 2008, American sports television network ESPN ranked him 22nd on their prestigious list of top drivers of all-time. Lauda will always be remembered for his startling recovery, his plucky attitude and his die-hard work ethic.