Born in Vienna into a wealthy family, his paternal grandfather was the Viennese-born industrialist Hans Lauda, Lauda went on to become an excellent racing driver, despite his family's disapproval, winning three World Chamionship titles.
He starting out racing a Mini before switching to single seaters with Formula Vee. He aslo raced private Porsche and Chevron sports cars but with his career seemingly stalled, he took out a £30,000 bank loan in 1971, secured by a life insurance policy. He used the money to buy a drive with the fledgling March team as a Formula Two driver. Due to his family's disapproval he had an ongoing feud with them and eventually cut off any further contact.
He was quickly promoted to the F1 team but also continued to drive in F2 in 1972. Although the F2 cars were good March's 1972 F1 season was catastrophic. Perhaps the lowest point of the team's season came at the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport Park, where both March cars were disqualified within 3 laps of each other after just past 3/4 race distance.
Lauda took out another bank loan to buy his way into the BRM team in 1973. He was instantly quick, but the team was in decline. However his big break came when his BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni left to rejoin Ferrari in 1974 and team owner Enzo Ferrari asked him what he thought of Lauda. Regazzoni spoke so favourably of Lauda that Ferrari promptly signed him, paying him enough to clear his debts.
Ferrari years 1974-1977
Having spent the early 1970s in the F1 doldrums, Ferrari were resurgent in 1974 and their faith in the little-known Lauda was quickly rewarded by a second-place finish in his début race for the team, the season-opening Argentine Grand Prix. His first Grand Prix victory, and the first for Ferrari since 1972, followed only three races later in Spain. Although Lauda in his Ferrari 312 became the season's pacesetter, achieving six consecutive pole positions, a mixture of inexperience and mechanical unreliability meant Lauda won only one more race that year, the Dutch GP. He finished fourth in the Drivers' Championship.
The 1975 F1 season started slowly for Lauda, but after nothing better than a fifth-place finish in the first four races he then won four out of the next five races. His first World Championship was confirmed with a fifth win at the last race of the year, the United States GP.
Unlike 1975, Lauda dominated the start of the 1976 F1 season, winning four of the first six races and finishing second in the other two. By the time of his fifth win of the year at the British GP, he had more than double the points of his closest challenger Jody Scheckter and a second consecutive World Championship appeared a formality. It would be a feat not achieved since Jack Brabham's victories in 1959 and 1960. In the next race, however, the German GP at the long Nürburgring circuit, disaster struck. On the second lap of the race, Lauda's car swerved off the track, hit an embankment and rolled back into the path of Brett Lunger's Surtees-Ford car. Lauda suffered severe injuries, including horrific burns. Englishman Guy Edwards was later awarded a Queen's Gallantry Medal for his bravery shown during Lauda's rescue. Near death, he was administered the last rites by a priest. Despite this he made a miraculous return to the cockpit just six weeks after his accident and sensationally finished 4th at the Italian Grand Prix. In his enforced absence Englishman James Hunt had slashed his points lead, and heading into the final race of the year, the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway Lauda held a slim 3 point advantage over Hunt. In dangerously wet conditions Lauda retired after 2 laps, stating that he felt it was unsafe to continue under these conditions. Hunt led much of the race before a late puncture dropped him down the order. He recovered to 3rd, thus winning the title by a single point.
Lauda's previously good relationship with Ferrari was severely affected by his decision to withdraw from the race and he endured a difficult 1977 season, despite easily winning the championship through consistency rather than outright pace. Having announced his decision to quit Ferrari at season's end, Lauda left early due to the team's decision to run the then unknown Gilles Villeneuve in a third car at the Canadian Grand Prix.
Having joined Brabham in 1978, Lauda endured two unsuccessful seasons, notable mainly for his one race in a radical design which used fan-assisted aerodynamics. The vehicle won its only race and was then promptly banned. At the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix, Lauda informed Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone that he wished to retire immedieately, as he had no more desire to "drive around in circles".
Lauda, who had founded a charter airline, returned to Austria to run the company full-time. But in 1982 Lauda returned to racing, feeling that he still had a career in Formula One. After a successful test with McLaren, the only problem was in convincing then team sponsor Marlboro that he was still capable of winning. Lauda proved he was still quite capable when, in his third race back, he won the Long Beach Grand Prix. Lauda would win a third world championship in 1984 by one-half point over teammate Alain Prost.
He returned to running his airline, Lauda Air, on his retirement in 1985. Ousted by boardroom politics after a sale to majority partner Austrian Airlines in 1999, he managed the Jaguar Formula One racing team 2001-2002. In late 2003, he started a new airline, Niki. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993. As a driver, Lauda was renowned for his clear-headed approach to driving, minimising risk whilst maximising results and ruthless self-interest.
Lauda was considered one of the most accomplished test drivers in the sport, often working long hours refining his car's performance. Lauda wrote four books; The Art and Science of Grand Prix Driving (1975), My Years With Ferrari (1977), The New Formula One: A Turbo Age (1984) and Meine Story (1986). Lauda credited Austrian journalist Herbert Volker with editing the books. Lauda was sometimes known by the rather uncomplimentary nickname "the Rat".
Most recently he served as a non-executive chairman for the Formula 1 Mercedes team, and was instrumental in bringing in Lewis Hamilton. However, ill health followed him into his later years and he underwent a lung transplant in August 2018.
Lauda died in his sleep on 20 May 2019 in a Swiss clinic, where he had dialysis treatment for his kidney problems, following a period of ill health, at the age of 70.
"His unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur are and will remain unforgettable, his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain a role model and a benchmark for all of us," his family's statement said.