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Niki Lauda died on Monday at the age of 70.

The Austrian three-time Formula 1 World Champion was one of the key players in Formula One racing from the early 1970s. His celebrated battle for the 1976 World Championship with James Hunt played an important part in transforming the sport into the massive TV spectacle it would become.

And what a story that 1976 season was.

Lauda was fighting for the championship when he crashed at the dangerous old Nuerburgring in August. He was trapped in his flaming Ferrari and was only saved because fellow drivers Arturo Merzario, Harald Ertl, Brett Lunger and Guy Edwards battled to pull him from the wreckage.

Lauda had suffered terrible burns -- notably to his lungs -- and was not expected to live. He was even given the last rites, but he refused to die and fought back to return to F1 six weeks after the crash. He was bloodied, scarred and frightened, but he overcame his fears and continued his battle for the title.

Ferrari had not expected him to return and had signed Carlos Reutemann to replace him, and so the team had to run three cars for the rest of the season. Miraculously, Lauda finished fourth in his return at Monza. He continued to fight Hunt for the World Championship until the season finale in torrential rain at Mount Fuji in Japan, where Lauda made the courageous decision to retire because he believed conditions were too dangerous to continue. It is a story that was told in the 2013 movie "Rush," directed by Ron Howard.

Remarkable though it was, it was just one chapter in Lauda’s extraordinary life, which included two kidney transplants: the first from his brother Florian in 1997 and the second from his wife-to-be Birgit Wetzinger in 2005. Eight months ago he underwent a double lung transplant from which he was slowly recovering before kidney problems struck again.

Nicknamed “The Rat” because of his pragmatic attitude to life, Niki’s story was an inspiration to people all around the world, his fame transcending the sport and his scarred face being a constant reminder of the grit and determination that kept him alive.

"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 said in a statement announcing his death.

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