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Niki Lauda in Pole Position Among World's Greatest Formula 1 Drivers

Niki Lauda died at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland on Monday, 20 May, surrounded by his family.  

He underwent a lung transplant last year but had remained gravely ill.

Lauda was a brilliant racing driver and during the mid to late 1970s he had a fearsome rivalry with Britain's James Hunt that was dramatised in the 2013 film Rush.

Daniel Brühl played Lauda as a dour and humourless perfectionist who contrasted sharply with Hunt's handsome playboy risk-taker (played by Chris Hemsworth).

Lauda had won his first Formula One drivers' world championship in 1975 and was desperate to retain it the following year despite a strong challenge from Hunt.

On 1 August 1976 at the Nurburgring circuit in Germany, Lauda was struggling in the German Grand Prix having had to change his tyres because of rain.

As he tried to make up time and catch Hunt, he lost control on the Bergwerk corner, hit the bank and was trapped in the cockpit as the Ferrari caught fire. He was dragged out of the flames by another driver, Arturo Merzario, but suffered horrendous burns and was critically ill for several days.

Miraculously Lauda recovered sufficiently to drive in the last grand prix of the season and was only just pipped by Hunt for the title.

He regained the title in 1977, retired in 1979 but was lured back three years later and won the championship again in 1984.

​After retiring from the track for good he started an airline, Lauda Air — which was eventually swallowed up by Austrian Airlines in 2000 — and had been non-executive chairman at Mercedes F1 since 2012.

The fumes he breathed in at Nurburgring on that day in 1976 damaged his lungs, leading to health problems which eventually cost him his life.

So, who else would join Niki Lauda on the starting grid if there was a grand prix of the all-time greats, both alive and dead?

Michael Schumacher

Statistically the German is the greatest driver ever.

Schumacher, now 50, won the Formula 1 championship an unprecedented seven times — including five in a row between 2000 and 2004.

​While he did not have the swagger or charisma of a James Hunt or an Ayrton Senna, he was not the perfect Germanic robot he was characterised by many critics of the sport.

After so many years driving the distinctive livery of Ferrari, he was known as the Red Baron but was also dubbed the "Regenkönig" (Rain King) because of his exceptional ability on wet circuits.

Schumacher came out of the sport unscathed but in December 2013 he suffered a serious brain injury during a skiing accident in the French Alps.

He remains unable to walk or stand but his family have remained fiercely protective of his privacy and it is not known if he can talk or eat without assistance.

Ayrton Senna

His death in 1994 turned Senna into a Formula 1 god, but even if he had lived he would have gone down in history as one of the sport's all-time greats.

Fellow F1 driver Martin Brundle said of him: "Senna is a genius. I define genius as just the right side of imbalance. He is so highly developed to the point that he's almost over the edge. It's a close call."

Ayrton Senna da Silva was born in Brazil in 1960 to a wealthy family and started racing karts at the age of 13.

​He made his debut in 1984 and the racing world sat up and took notice when he managed to get his car — from the lightly regarded Toleman team — into second place behind Alain Prost's McLaren in pouring rain in Monaco that season.

By 1988 he had joined McLaren and would stay there for six years, winning 35 races and three world championships.

In 1994 he switched to Williams and on 1 May, while leading the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, his car inexplicably left the track and hit a concrete wall at the Tamburello corner. He died a few hours later in hospital.

Tens of thousands of people turned out for his funeral in Sao Paulo.

Alain Prost

For many people Alain Prost was the villain to Ayrton Senna's hero. But that's unfair.

The pair were both fiercely competitive drivers who would not give an inch to the other.

In 1988 the McLaren-Honda car totally dominated Formula 1, winning 15 of the 16 races.

That year Senna won the championship, winning eight grand prix to his team mate Alain Prost's seven.

​Prost, who is now 64, first won the title in 1985 and won it again the following year.

When Senna came on the scene it set up a rivalry — some claimed it was a feud — which would dominate racing for the next decade.

In 1989 Prost regained the title but only by taking Senna out at the Suzuka chicane during the Japanese grand prix.

The following year Senna extracted revenge at Suzuka's first corner, winning his second championship by taking out Prost's Ferrari.

Prost would win the title again in 1993, before retiring, and when Senna died, he flew to Brazil to pay his tributes at the funeral.

In 2014 Prost played down the mutual enmity and wrote, in Autoweek magazine: "If we had to do it all again, I'd say to Ayrton 'Listen, we're the best. Between us, we can screw all the others!'."

Juan Fangio

Formula 1 cars looked very different in the 1950s but the principle was the same: be the fastest, and the danger even greater.

The first of the greats was undoubtedly Argentina's Juan Fangio.

His record of five championship titles stood unchallenged for half a century.

​Fangio was almost 40 when he competed in his first grand prix.

He won his first championship in 1951 in an Alfa Romeo but also drove for Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari.

Fangio retired in 1958, a year after he was kidnapped by Fidel Castro's guerrillas while in Havana for the Cuban Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton

In the modern era there is far less danger, and excitment, in Formula 1.

Britain's Lewis Hamilton, who is still only 34, threatens to dominate the modern era in the same way Schumacher did the 1990s and 2000s.

He won his first title in 2008 in a McLaren — becoming the youngest F1 champion in history.

​But McLaren's cars struggled to compete with Vettel's Red Bull and he eventually moved to Mercedes, regaining the championship in 2014 and retaining it the following year.

Nico Rosberg managed to pip him in 2016 but he bounced back and won two more titles in 2017 and 2018.

If he wins the championship this year he will be just one behind Schumacher.

But, apart from the dedicated petrolheads, Hamilton has never really endeared himself to British sports fans. He lives in tax exile in Switzerland and in December 2018 he courted controversy when he described Stevenage, the town where he was born, as a "slum".

Four Drivers at the Back of the Grid

Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Nelson Piquet and Sebastian Vettel all deserve an honourable mention and a place on the grid.

​Vettel won the title in four consecutive years between 2010 and 2013.

Hill — whose son Damon also won the championship — won the title in 1962 and 1968 and was killed at the controls of a light aircraft in 1975.

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