Forthright, fast and one of F1’s greatest characters: Niki Lauda remembered. Words Jack Phillips. Photography Motorsport Images.
Niki Lauda tribute
Niki Lauda, threetime Formula One World Champion and titan of the sport, died at the age of 70 on 20 May 2019. The Austrian, who spent two months in hospital following a lung transplant last year, passed away peacefully. His was a life that merged with fiction, as Ron Howard’s depiction of his rivalry and friendship with James Hunt hit Hollywood in Rush. But his real story was more than worthy of the silver screen.
In 1976 he survived a fiery crash at the Nürburgring that should have taken the life of the reigning World Champion and then championship leader, at a time when tragedy was still a common feature of F1. The fast work of fellow competitors – notably Guy Edwards, Arturo Merzario, Harald Ertl and Brett Lunger – fighting through the flames to remove him from the cockpit, together with the Austrian’s sheer will to live, ensured he was back in the seat of his Ferrari 312T2 within six weeks, his last rites still ringing out.
“I knew about the risks,” he said in an interview with The Telegraph in 2015. “They asked, did I want to continue? I always thought, yes, I do. I wanted to see if I could make a comeback. I was not surprised to have an accident, I saw people getting killed right in front of me.” Lauda had made his way to F1 alone, despite his family’s relative wealth. It was more than that, in fact, for he got there against the wishes of his family and even overcame the obstacles placed in his way by his grandfather, who was on a bank’s board and insisted it refused him a loan to pay for his racing. He had competed in club events and shown promise in sports cars.
When an invitation onto the starting grid of his home Grand Prix came his way in 1971, he was placed in front of the right people, but his uncompetitive March retired. A loan from a rival bank later and he was in F1 and F2 full-time with March, winning the 1972 British F2 title against names such as Ronnie Peterson, Jody Scheckter and, of course, James Hunt. He finished fifth in a fiercely contested European championship.
“There was a problem,” Lauda told German newspaper Handelsblatt in 2015. “Namely security on the loan. So I took out a life insurance policy for more than 2.5 million Schillings [around €200,000], so that in the event of my death the loan could be repaid. There I was in 1972, suddenly with this mountain of debt.”
But by 1974, having bluffed his way into a BRM drive for 1973 and won that year’s Nürburgring 24 Hours with Alpina, he was a fully paid-up driver at Ferrari and a Grand Prix winner by May. It was his impressive ’1973 Monaco Grand Prix performance that had caught Enzo’s eye, as Lauda’s third-placed BRM led Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari until the former’s gearbox gave up. Within 18 months of his first win at Jarama he was the 1975 F1 World Drivers’ Champion, dominating with five wins.
He’s most remembered, certainly outside F1, for what happened in Germany the following season. Championship leader, with five wins from nine, he raised doubts about the circuit’s safety and suitability for F1 cars before the race, only to be outvoted. His protestations looked only too prescient when his life was in the balance after he crashed exiting Bergwerk.
When F1, and of course Ferrari, went to Monza in Italy 40 days later, Lauda was insistent he was ready to return and to reclaim the seat that had so quickly and unceremoniously been offered to Carlos Reutemann. The Austrian finished a remarkable and rapturous fourth. “I had pain, logically because of all the burns on my head, but nevertheless the most important thing was to get back into the car as quickly as possible,” he told the BBC in 2016. “I tried out the Ferrari car and everything was okay, but I came to Monza on Friday and suddenly the whole crash overtook me. I panicked, I was afraid and couldn’t make it.
“I went back to the hotel, thought about what happened and then said to myself: ‘Come back on Saturday, take the pressure off, drive for yourself and don’t look at timing sheets and the other people.’ That is what I did.”
Even more remarkably, he went to the final round at Fuji leading the race for the title against Hunt. It was a mark of the man that he forwent his back-to-back world title when he pulled into the pits and out of the atrocious, dangerous conditions. He didn’t lose the championship there, he would often tell interviewers, but in the three races after the Nürburgring. His second World Championship eventually came a year later in 1977 as he won three races for Ferrari – one fewer than Mario Andretti and the same number as two other drivers – only to jump ship to Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham and then completely out of F1 to run his own airline, Lauda Air. Before that, though, he had also beaten his contemporaries in the identical cars of Procar, the big-prize- money E26 BMW M1-based series for Grand Prix drivers and stars of the future in 1979.
He famously remarked at the end of that season, during practice for the Canadian Grand Prix, that he was “fed up driving round in stupid circles”. And promptly went home. That proved true for a few years, at least, until Ron Dennis came calling for the 1982 season. Signing for a huge fee, $3m, Lauda two years later taught Alain Prost a lesson he would never forget and won the 1984 title by consistency – and by just half a point.
This time he really was done, walking away from the sport – as a driver at least – in 1985 to concentrate again on business in the skies. He later became a familiar sight and voice in the paddock, running the ill-fated Ford-owned Jaguar team and joining Mercedes a decade later. There he helped to shape it into the dominant prospect it is today – formidable, unrelenting, not unlike the man himself.
Toto Wolff, team principal of Mercedes, perhaps put it best among the countless tributes – some of which are collected here (right) – when he described Lauda as irreplaceable: “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 F1. He will be greatly missed as our voice of common sense.
“Our Mercedes team has also lost a guiding light. As a teammate 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.”
WHAT HE SAID
“You do things; you take the best tyres, you f**k people: it’s racing, you have to win. You have big rows, big arguments, you push. Anyone tells you different, they’re full of s**t.”
“A lot of people criticise Formula One as an unnecessary risk. But what would life be like if we only did what is necessary?” “You must always be faster and better than the others. The less you talk, the more time you have for the essential things.”
“I only had surgery to improve my eyesight. Cosmetic surgery? The only thing it could do is give me another face. I had the surgery so my eyes could function, and as long as everything functions I don’t care.”
“As a pragmatic Austrian, the whole sense of Ferrari drama was difficult for me to understand.”
“A driver’s brain works differently from normal people’s. As soon as I realised that I was alive and that I only had aesthetic damage I started to think about getting racing.” “Ferrari doesn’t yet own the colour red. I still have my red cap!”
“Who was Prost? I didn’t care. Fine. Sign him. Then we went to Rio and he was on pole, half a second quicker than me. F**k, he was fast.”
“We have a generation of drivers that, if they were not wearing their racing overalls, you would simply walk past some of them and not notice.”
WHAT THEY SAID
“Niki will 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 F1. You are quite simply irreplaceable, there will never be another like you. It was our honour to call you our chairman, and my privilege to call you a friend.”
“When you get a second life, literally, you can laugh all the way to the end. Niki Lauda’s second life lasted nearly 43 years… He was both a hero and a legend, a very rare occurrence. Goodbye Niki, you will be sadly missed.”
“Sad to hear the great Niki Lauda has seen his last chequered flag. What a man and driver, there hasn’t been anyone like him. His contribution to the sport and for us, the Brabham racing family, has been immense.”
“The term ‘hero’ is much abused but, for me, he was a true hero, not just because of what he did in a racing car before and after the accident in 1976, but also the way he took on Boeing after the Lauda Air crash. His searing honesty and humour made him a delight to know.”
“He was remarkable in every way. I looked at Niki and thought ‘I’ll never be half the man he is’. His career was stylised and characterised by his intelligent approach. He was thoughtful, intelligent, pragmatic and just got the job done.”