Three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda produced the “most courageous act of any sportsman” in returning to racing so soon after a horrific crash, says former team-mate John Watson.Austrian Lauda, who won the drivers championship in 1975, 1977 and 1984, died aged 70 on Monday.
He almost died following a crash in the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. Despite suffering severe burns and inhaling hot toxic fumes, Lauda resumed racing 40 days later.
Briton Watson was a team-mate of Lauda at Brabham and McLaren in the 1970s and 1980s and was one of the first people to attend to him after the crash.
“Nobody 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,” Watson told the BBC.
“He’d suffered inhalation of toxic fumes from the burning fibreglass and we didn’t 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 speed of his recovery and what he was able to achieve.”
Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: “During that accident he died twice and was resuscitated.
“Recovering from that accident, he came to Monza [for the Italian Grand Prix], which I was doing commentary for. He shouldn’t have been there but wanted to get back to racing.
“I will never forget him putting his helmet on and he was suffering so much pain. When he came out from driving at the end I was there and the blood was running down out of his helmet.
“It’s very sad news. I’ve known Niki for a long time and he was just entering grand prix racing when I was retiring. We had a season together. He always had great integrity and was one the smoothest, best drivers I’ve ever seen.”
After the end of his racing career, Lauda became non-executive chairman of Mercedes, helping them win both the drivers’ and constructors’ title in each of the past five seasons.
Team principal Toto Wolff said: “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.
“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 1. 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 1. 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.”
Nico Rosberg, who won the world title in 2016 with Mercedes, tweeted: “Dear Niki. Thank you for everything that you did for me. I learned so much from you.
“Your passion, your fighting spirit, to never give up, you belief that you always meet twice in life, and even your patience with us youngsters.
“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.”