Sir Jackie Stewart has led the tributes to Niki Lauda, the three-time Formula One world champion, describing him as the most courageous driver in the sport’s history.
The Austrian driver, widely regarded as one of the most successful figures in Formula One, passed away on Monday, nine months after receiving a lung transplant. He was 70.
Lauda won two titles with Ferrari in 1975 and 1977, before repeating the feat with McLaren in 1984.
But he was perhaps best known for the remarkable recovery he made after being badly burned in a crash in the 1976 German Grand Prix.
Lauda narrowly escaped death when his Ferrari crashed at the Nurburgring. Such was the severity of his injuries, he was given the last rites in hospital.
Against all expectations, he returned to racing just 40 days later, eventually finishing second in that year’s championship to James Hunt, his great rival.
Even after retiring from racing, Lauda continued to exert his influence on Formula One, eventually becoming non-executive chairman for Mercedes and convincing Lewis Hamilton to join its ranks..
Sir Jackie, himself a three-time Formula One world champion, said Lauda’s remarkable recovery from the 1976 crash demonstrated his character.
He explained: “Niki had a degree of bravery that I had never seen the like of before. After his tremendous accident, he was back just six weeks later. I remember seeing Niki put his helmet on, and his wounds were still absolutely obvious.
“I thought to myself that with all the vibrations you get in a Formula One car at Monza, one of the fastest tracks in the world, that this can’t be right.
“To be brave enough to put on the helmet was amazing, but then he went out and qualified fifth. When he returned to the garage, he took his helmet off and I could see he was bleeding. Yet, the very next day, he raced.”
The 79-year-old added: “He was such a brave man to get over that accident. He will not go down as just one of the best drivers of all time, but one of the most courageous, too. Niki Lauda will be remembered forever.”
Lauda’s close friend, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, Hamilton’s former Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, and Britain’s 2009 world champion Jenson Button were among a number of stars to acknowledge the Austrian’s death on social media.
So too, did Paul Di Resta, the Scot who drove in Formula One for Williams and Force India. He tweeted: “Very sad to hear the news this morning about Niki Lauda. He was a great character around the place we work. RIP #Legend.”
Mercedes said the passing of their “irreplaceable” chairman had left a “void” in the top flight of motor racing.
Toto Wolff, the team principal, said: “We haven’t just lost a hero who staged the most remarkable comeback ever seen, but also a man who brought precious clarity and candour to modern Formula One.”
The teams Lauda raced for also joined in the tributes, with McLaren describing him as a “giant of our sport” who will be “enshrined” in the company’s history. Ferrari said he would “remain forever in our hearts.”
Formula One is expected to honour Lauda at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, a race he won twice.