Lewis Hamilton has paid an emotional tribute to his “buddy” Niki Lauda, who has been hailed as the bravest driver in Formula One history.
Nine months after a lung transplant and following complications from influenza he contracted while on holiday in Ibiza in January, Lauda died with his family at his bedside in Vienna on Monday. He was 70.
The grand prix roadshow will mourn the loss of its triple world champion, and the non-executive chairman of Hamilton’s Mercedes team, when it arrives in Monaco on Wednesday.
Alongside an image of the pair embracing, five-time world champion Hamilton wrote on Instagram: “My buddy, I am struggling to believe you are gone. I will miss our conversations, our laughs, the big hugs after winning races together.
“It’s truly been an honour working alongside you over these past 7 years. I wouldn’t have even been in this team if it wasn’t for you. God rest your soul. Thank you for being a bright light in my life.
“I’ll always be here for your family should they ever need me. Love you man. Your friend always, Lewis #oneofakind #gonetoosoon #youliveoninourhearts #restinpeace.”
Lauda has been a virtual ever-present in the F1 paddock for five decades. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who used to travel to races with his Austrian compatriot, described him as irreplaceable and said the death will leave a void in the sport.
Lauda won two championships for Ferrari and another for McLaren – but he will be remembered for surviving a fireball inferno while racing at the Nurburgring in 1976.
So devastating were Lauda’s injuries that he was read the last rites by a priest on his hospital bed. Yet just 40 days on from the near-fatal crash, Lauda returned to his Ferrari cockpit to contest the Italian Grand Prix. It is considered one of the greatest comebacks in sporting folklore.
“Niki had a degree of bravery that I had never seen the like of before,” Sir Jackie Stewart, 79, told Press Association Sport.
“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.
“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.”
Former F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, whose Brabham team Lauda joined from Ferrari in 1978, told BBC Sport the Austrian was “loved all over the world”.
Lauda was appointed non-executive chairman of Mercedes in 2012 and convinced Hamilton to sign for them from McLaren.
Hamilton has now won five titles, while Mercedes are this season on course to record an unprecedented sixth consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
Mercedes are poised to pay tribute to Lauda at this weekend’s race. On Tuesday, Wolff addressed the team’s staff at their Northamptonshire bases in Brackley and Brixworth, while McLaren held a one-minute silence in memory of Lauda at their Woking HQ.
Formula One is also set to honour him in Monte Carlo, with a series of tributes under consideration.
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.
In a statement, Lauda’s family said: “His unique successes as a sportsman and entrepreneur are and remain unforgettable.
“His tireless drive, his straightforwardness and his courage remain an example and standard for us all.
“Away from the public gaze, he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather. We will miss him very much.”