John Watson has hailed three-time Formula One world champion Niki Lauda as the “most courageous” man in sport, following his death aged 70.
The former racing driver “passed away peacefully”, his family said on Monday in a statement reported by the Austria Press Agency.
Watson, who was a team-mate of Lauda at Parmalat and McLaren in the 1970s and 1980s, was one of the first people to attend to the Austrian following a horrific crash at the Nurburgring in Germany in 1976.
Rest in peace Niki Lauda.
Forever carried in our hearts, forever immortalised in our history. The motorsport community today mourns the devastating loss of a true legend.
The thoughts of everyone at F1 are with his friends and family. pic.twitter.com/olmnjDaefo
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 21, 2019
Lauda narrowly escaped death when his Ferrari crashed, suffering severe burns and lung damage after inhaling toxic gases, but made a miraculous recovery, missing only two races, and finished second in the championship to James Hunt.
Watson says the manner of Lauda’s speedy recovery says everything about him.
Watson told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Somebody realised the actual damage to Niki, the real danger he was in was not from the superficial injuries that we could see but from the deeper injury which was that to his lung.
“He’d suffered inhalation of toxic fumes from the burning fibreglass.
“We didn’t actually at the time appreciate the severity of the injury that he’d suffered.
“It was only after two or three days that the story came out that it was the lung damage that was the injury putting his life in danger.
“What was really more remarkable was the way… at the speed of his recovery and what he was able to achieve.
“Forty days after that accident he was racing at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza and for me, it’s the most courageous act of any sportsman I’ve ever seen in my life.
RIP Niki 😔 pic.twitter.com/atc0iQanAN
— Jenson Button (@JensonButton) May 21, 2019
“His health and his condition – for those that saw him at Monza – it was just remarkable.”
Lauda was still involved in Formula One, as chairman of Mercedes, and his death has been mourned by team principal Toto Wolff.
Wolff said Lauda “combined heroism, humanity and honesty” and will be deeply missed.
“First of all, on behalf of the team and all at Mercedes, I wish to send our deepest condolences to Birgit, Niki’s children, his family and close friends,” he said in a statement.
“Niki will always remain one of the greatest legends of our sport – he combined heroism, humanity and honesty inside and outside the cockpit.
“His passing leaves a void in Formula One. 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.
“He will be greatly missed as our voice of common sense.
“Our Mercedes team has also lost a guiding light. As a team-mate over the past six and a half years, Niki was always brutally honest – and utterly loyal.
“It was a privilege to count him among our team and moving to witness just how much it meant to him to be part of the team’s success.
“Whenever he walked the floor in Brackley and Brixworth, or delivered one of his famous motivational speeches, he brought an energy that nobody else could replicate.
“Niki, you are quite simple irreplaceable, there will never be another like you.
“It was our honour to call you our Chairman – and my privilege to call you my friend.”
Former Formula One driver Martin Brundle has credited Lauda with enticing Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, where he has won four of the last five world titles.
Brundle told Sky Sports News: “He was a fighter and incredible individual, great company.
“A man, he was very much responsible for convincing Lewis Hamilton to go to Mercedes-Benz in this era.
“So many things have been going through my head this morning about how Niki reacted to Formula One and the gladiatorial way he went on to win three world championships.
“I don’t think he had the absolute speed of a Senna or a Schumacher, but he just got his head down, took on the best and beat them.”
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Lieber Niki. Danke fuer alles. Ich habe auch so viel von dir gelernt. Deine leidenschafft, deinen kampfgeist, und deine staerke dich so zu geben wie du bist und immer das zu sagen was du denkst. Ich und deine 100 millionen riesen fans denen du in deinem leben auch so viel ermutigung gegeben hast in schweren zeiten nicht aufzugeben denken ganz stark an dich und deine familie. Ruhe in Frieden. Nico Dear Niki. Thank you for everything that you did for me. I learned so much from you. Your passion, your fighting spirit, never give up, your belief that you always meet twice in life, and that you were always true to yourself and said what you truly thought. Myself and all of your 100 million fans around the world whom you also so strongly inspired to never give up in the hardest of times are thinking of you and your family and wish that you Rest in Peace. #formula1 #f1 #formel1 #nikilauda #lauda #mercedesamgf1
Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, described Lauda as a “remarkable individual”, praising his tactical skills on the race track.
“There’s so many stories about Niki Lauda,” Hill told Sky Sports News. “He was involved in the drivers’ strike in South Africa – he’s one of the few men who could sit down with Enzo Ferrari and Bernie Ecclestone and look them straight in the eye and they knew that he meant business.
“He was a remarkable individual in every way.
“I was certainly one person that looked at Niki and thought, ‘I’ll never be half the man he was’.
“His career was stylised and characterised by his intelligent approach.
“When he came up against Alain Prost, he knew he couldn’t beat him on speed so he beat him on tactics.
“He wasn’t Machiavellian at all. He was thoughtful, he was intelligent, he was pragmatic and he just got the job done.”