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‘Bye Niki’: Austria says farewell to F1 icon Lauda

Three-time F1 world champion Niki Lauda came back from a horrific crash and later founded several airlines © AFP / JOE KLAMAR

Vienna, Austria, May 29 – Thousands of mourners, including motor racing world champion Lewis Hamilton, bid farewell to Formula One legend and Austrian national hero Niki Lauda at a ceremony in Vienna’s historic cathedral on Wednesday.

“We all loved and admired Niki. We admired his courage, his will, his strength, his love,” said Austrian-born actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger during the packed funeral mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Lauda, who died on May 20 at the age of 70, was a three-time world champion whose track victories and comeback from a horrific crash enthralled race fans worldwide.

He suffered horrific injuries on August 1, 1976 when, having already won five races that season, his vehicle burst into flames on the Nuerburgring in Germany.

He had severe burns to his face and hands, and inhaled toxic fumes that damaged his lungs.

Birgit Lauda (C), the widow of late Austrian former Formula One pilot Niki Lauda, and his son Lukas (R) place Niki Lauda’s racer helmet on his coffin © AFP / ALEX HALADA

“Goodbye, world champion! Thank you for everything,” Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen told the mourners, who in addition to Lauda’s family and hundreds of VIP guests, also included onlookers from all over Austria and further afield.

The guests included other Formula One heavyweights, such as Mercedes chief Toto Wolff and Valtteri Bottas, as well as French former F1 driver Alain Prost, Austrian former F1 driver Gerhard Berger, and former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who was removed from office by a no-confidence vote this week.

– Trademark red cap –

Thousands of mourners gathered in pouring rain outside the cathedral © AFP / JOE KLAMAR

Songs that were reportedly Lauda’s favourites — such as “Amazing Grace”, “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman and John Lennon’s “Imagine” — were played.

Many in the crowds both inside and outside the cathedral wore red caps similar to the ones that became Lauda’s trademark, which he used to cover the scars from his accident.

A Ferrari flag could also be seen. Lauda won the drivers’ world championship in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari and in 1984 with McLaren.

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Even after his retirement, Lauda remained a firm fixture on the racing circuit, most recently becoming non-executive chairman at Mercedes F1 in 2012. He was also instrumental in bringing in Hamilton.

After the mass, pallbearers carried the coffin outside, as bells rang out and thousands looked on.

The procession was accompanied by Lauda’s family, Hamilton, and former drivers such as Prost and German-born Nico Rosberg.

Earlier, the casket had arrived with a police motorcade.

And Lauda’s widow Birgit along with two of his sons placed his helmet on top of the coffin, which stood surrounded by flower wreaths and a portrait of Lauda sporting his famous red cap.

Mourners then slowly filed past to pay their respects, taking photos and laying flowers.

– ‘An example for Austria’ –

Lauda’s widow Birgit (2ndR) attended the funeral with his sons Mathias (R) and Lukas (3rdR) © AFP / JOE KLAMAR

It is the first time a sports star has received such an honour in the Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral, a distinction previously accorded only to dignitaries such as the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Franz Koenig, and the former crown prince of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, Otto von Habsburg.

“The whole world says today: Bye, Niki!” tabloid Oesterreich said on its front page.

Among the mourners queueing outside the cathedral, Roland, a 41-year-old technician from Vienna, hailed Lauda as “an example for Austria”.

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“Even though he faced very difficult circumstances, he never complained,” he told AFP.

Imre Varga, 63, who had come all the way from Hungary, said she used to watch Lauda on Austrian television, which people in the western part of her country had been able to receive in Communist times.

“During the era of the Iron Curtain, he was always a role model for us… He was unreachable, like a god, to us,” she said.

Factfile on Formula One legend Niki Lauda © AFP / Janis LATVELS

Lauda died at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland, nine months after undergoing a lung transplant.

The family has not yet said where Lauda will be buried, but they have reportedly turned down an offer from the city authorities for an honorary grave in Vienna’s sprawling Central Cemetery.

Lauda also underwent kidney transplants, where one of the kidneys was donated by his last wife, a former flight attendant with whom he had twins, a boy and a girl, in 2009.

Lauda also has three other sons from previous relationships.

Besides racing, Lauda’s second passion was aviation. He founded and then sold several airlines with his latest, Laudamotion, going to Ryanair in 2018.

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