We were sitting in the McLaren ‘brand centre’, three of us, mid-season 2008, just chewing the fat one grand prix Saturday, qualifying still a couple of hours away. In walks living legend Niki Lauda, then a TV pundit rather than the Mercedes F1 boss he is today.
He’d been a team boss before – at Jaguar – but that hadn’t gone too well and now in his TV role he seemed even more trenchant and outspoken than ever and he had mischief in his eyes as he came over and sat with us.
“So, is Lewis going to win this championship?” he asked. We shrugged our platitudes, knowing that he wasn’t really canvassing our opinions, that this was inevitably just the opener for him to transmit his own thoughts.
“I tell you, seeing this Hollywood girl of his I wonder what he is doing,” he said in reference to Lewis’ partner of the time, Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. “Oh,” we feigned questioningly, “why so?”
“Well he flies all the way over there to see her and if he cannot, you know…, then he has to fly all the way back frustrated. I don’t know why he doesn’t just go out with a girl from the countryside that no one has ever heard of who doesn’t have a big career of her own…”
Niki then went on to describe some of the physical attributes of this imaginary rural beauty and the things she liked doing. “That way he doesn’t get frustrated and distracted and he can turn up here and think only about the racing. It’s logic, huh?” Big wide toothy grin etched on those scarred features. It was hard to argue with his logic, especially when you were choking on your food.
In walks Pedro de la Rosa, then a McLaren test driver but who a few years earlier had been a Lauda signing for the Jaguar F1 team – quite an expensive one at that, as he had to be bought out of a contract with the Prost team.
“Hey, Pedro!” summoned Lauda, “Come here.” Pedro looks cagey as he joins us, seeing from Lauda’s face that he’s up to no good. “I was just saying to these guys about how Lewis…” etc.
Pedro, like the rest of us, is just laughing and shaking his head. “Niki, what do you want me to say…”
“Well Pedro, who do you think is going to win this championship?”
“Oh, I don’t know Niki. You’re the world champion, you should know better than me who is good.”
“Well, I thought you were good once. But I was wrong!” Cue very big satisfied grin on the old warrior’s face.
“Yeah, OK guys, I’m out of here,” smiles Pedro as he walks off. “Good luck with him.”
Now that he’s boss of Mercedes F1 Niki can presumably tell Lewis his thoughts directly – about girlfriends or anything else and the mind boggles at how those conversations might go. But there does seem to be a genuine rapport between them and Lewis says it was the chat from Lauda in his hotel room after retiring his McLaren from the lead of the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix that finally made his mind up that he was joining Mercedes after all.
Coming into that weekend, he’d informed McLaren that he was staying put and had told friends the same thing, that he had looked at the Mercedes alternative but decided against it. But then something came to Lewis’ attention that weekend about a background situation regarding Ron Dennis that did not please Lewis one little bit, so he was already wavering.
Lauda then came calling at the hotel room, doubtless with that same toothy grin and mischievous eyes, and started talking to him about his own brand of logic. It probably didn’t involve Nicole or the imaginary country maiden this time around. But with Lauda you never know.