In the 1970s, he reversed the house of Enzo’s flagging fortunes through sheer force of will. Just don’t expect ‘The Rat’ to be sentimental about it…
Niki Lauda is a legend. There is no other word for it. This is the man who cheated death, was given the last rites and went on to win a second world title. This is the man who took a sabbatical, started an airline, then came back to win a third title. Legends really are made of this.
And in among all that he pulled out of a rainy, misty Japanese Grand Prix in 1976, allowing our very own James Hunt to become the blond bombshell national hero. All those who felt cheated by the Austrian’s victory over Hunt at Brands Hatch in July of that year got up at dawn to see things put right in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Throughout that year Lauda had threatened to rain on James’s parade, though he would always be respected for his comeback after the ghastly crash at the Nürburgring. Real fans worship real racers, whatever their country, colour or creed.
My first experience of Lauda up close was, I remind him, at Brands in 1978. My task that day was to record his British Grand Prix weekend for a radio programme. It was not an auspicious start. Standing in the Brabham transporter, we began with a question about the Alfa Romeo-engined BT46.
There was silence, his eyes fixed on my tape recorder: “I sink you haf ze pause button on,” he observed, his English not so refined at that time. “Maybe you like to start again.” Somewhat flustered, I began again and he spoke fluently and revealingly about life in Bernie Ecclestone’s team, working with John Watson, the car, and the forthcoming race.
For this one, I am armed with pen and paper. Lauda still appears at grands prix, red cap in place, the old ill-fitting T-shirt and sloppy jeans not compromised for his role as a pundit on Austrian TV. His interviews and pieces to camera are short, sharp and shrewd. And invariably outspoken, infused with not a little cynical humour.
He’s just stepped away from the camera after reporting on qualifying at Interlagos; it’s his turn to be interviewed. But he turns it on me.
“You watch at the first corner? You remember the old corner there, how it used to be?” He does not wait for a reply. “That was balls-out; totally balls-out. I always came to that corner thinking ‘this has to be flat’. Then I’d lift, try again, lift again, then next lap, hold my breath and take it flat: f**k, I’ve done it! You could make up time there going for pole, but if you didn’t have the perfect car it was frightening. Get it wrong and you were going to kill yourself; have the biggest crash of your life.” I remind him that he had one of those, but we’re not going over all that again. He observes that he’s pleased to hear that.
In his book Formula One: The Art and Technicalities of Grand Prix Driving Lauda described the old Curvas 1 and 2 at Interlagos as a Formula 1 car drifting flat out in fifth gear. Those were the days; but back to more contemporary matters.
The Austrian knows a great deal about racing – and winning – for Ferrari in particular. He is one of very few drivers to have got the best out of the Italian team. And he’s keen to shed some light on the Schumacher years, how they produced such spectacular results. How the scuderia will never repeat the feat, not with Räikkönen, nor with anyone else for that matter.
“What he did at Ferrari cannot happen again,” he asserts in that unique Lauda style. It is stated as fact, no messing about. Much of my time with Niki is conducted in this rapid-fire style, straight verbal punches delivered with conviction and often with that wolfish smile.
“It was possible for Schumacher because he came before all the gadgets, all the computers and clever technology. When he got there he had the chance to build a team around him, put in the human side and make it a team that worked for him. This became a team working for one driver, one car. Other teams, the cars are competing with each other, as usual. Ross Brawn was a big factor, joining him from Benetton, and Jean Todt coming in to run the team, making it less emotional, less Italian. Ferrari now is much less pasta and Chianti and more hard work and discipline.”
Slowing down a touch, he explains that in recent years a driver has signed for a team, become part of a big organisation and gone along with the staff handbook, the style manual. “Now a team is good, or bad, and a driver won’t change that,” he says, “but Schumacher was able in those days to make it all work for him and he was always number one in that team. Always.”
The staccato begins again, Lauda shooting his views in a volley of clipped vowels and consonants, some of which have been deleted. “Look, all that s**t with Alonso saying he was out in the cold at Renault. What he meant was that he wanted the whole team to focus on him and on his championship. But Renault is a big company, a pyramid of management, and it can’t happen that way, not like Schumacher with Ferrari.”
He knows about how companies operate, having started two airlines, and 21st century Formula 1 is very big business involving some huge global corporations.
“These big teams are structured like big companies, lots of managers, all of them with their own responsibilities. Now, a driver comes in, learns how to use these people and performs as best he can,” asserts Lauda. “This is how to win, to use the people to make it all work for you within the big structure.” He excelled at this himself, most notably at Ferrari where he manipulated the team around him.
Does he think all of this new technology has taken the edge off the drama? “No. In my time, OK, there were no computers, not much technology, but to win is just the same now. You have to be quick; you have to want it enough. Young kids like Sebastian Vettel, or Robert Kubica, can come in, go quick straight away, because they have so much technical support, so much is programmed into the car for them. But the computers can only help so far, they won’t win the world championship for you,” he says with a grin. “For sure, you cannot spin any more, but to discuss all that traction control stuff is useless. To win a championship is the same as it was: it’s tough.”
As a driver he had his own experience of radical new ideas, particularly at Brabham, where Gordon Murray was forever pushing boundaries. One of the South African engineer’s most controversial was the BT46B which featured a variable ride height and a large propeller at the rear which Brabham claimed was for cooling the engine, but which coincidentally acted as a fan to suck the car down onto the asphalt. Though the idea was not specifically illegal at the time, it was made clear to Murray after the car won at Anderstorp that the fan could be deemed to be a moveable aerodynamic device, and that it would be banned. The win stood, but Brabham did not field the car again.
Niki laughs, now: “When I first saw the fan car I was shocked, you know? When I first drove it, the thing understeered like s**t and the cornering speeds were so high; it was so quick. I was happy it was banned. If we’d all had fan cars we would have ended up killing each other. If you went off the road in that car you damaged that propeller in the fan, then you didn’t know next lap if you would fly or if you would be sucked onto the ground. F**k, that was bad. We won with the fan car in Sweden in 1978: there was big potential, but after that it was banned.”
So would Gordon Murray’s creativity have a place in modern Formula 1? “No. It’s a different thing today. The rules are so tight and it’s all about aerodynamics. He could not do those things now, like he did at Brabham, building stuff like that. You need 80 people now just to do the aerodynamics. We didn’t have 80 people in the team,” he laughs, “but he was a creative and clever man, of course, and he made good cars. He was a hippy, driven by his crazy ideas. Now it’s all in the aero, all in the wind tunnel.”
Away from the machinery he likes to talk about drivers, especially some of his team-mates. At McLaren, when he came out of retirement to win yet another world title, he was teamed with Alain Prost. He was wary of the studious Frenchman right from the start, uneasy about how to square up to him. At Ferrari and at Brabham Lauda had been the undisputed number one. Now he had a job on his hands, both in and out of the car.
“The little French frog,” says Lauda. “He was a hard nut to crack and he was nearly always quicker than me in qualifying. I hated it that he was faster in the same car. But I didn’t like those days when they turned the boost up in practice and then went back to normal power for the race. And it was in the ground effects era. I never liked those cars. I preferred a team-mate like [John] Watson. I knew I could beat him and I had not so much respect for him. I could fight to have the best things on my car, the best tyres, whatever. If Watson had stayed at Brabham, for sure I would have stayed. At McLaren, OK I got the championship in 1984, but there was always s**t with Prost, you know?”
He leans closer. Imagine the Austrian accent. “For sure, you need to beat your team-mate. You understand? So look, 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.”
Understood, Niki, but Wattie was a good guy, very quick on his day. “Yes, but look at Senna, look at Schumacher. They do anything to win. They push the team, all the time pushing,” he responds. “It’s the same with Alonso: he’s always pushing the team for himself. Watson was good, OK, and quick for sure, but you could get on top of him.”
Lauda won three world titles, two with Ferrari and one with McLaren, retiring twice to focus on his passion for aeroplanes. Even back in his Ferrari days he flew to Modena in his own aircraft, later buying himself a jet, one of the first grand prix drivers to do so. “They kept me waiting for ages on the runway when I said bad things about them [Ferrari], and when I told them in 1977 that I was leaving with two races left to run, they wouldn’t speak to me.”
After his first retirement, when he walked away saying he was tired of driving round in circles, he started Lauda Air, having always been one of the highest earners in the pitlane. Hard to believe now that Lauda borrowed money to subsidise his entry into grand prix racing with BRM. He took on a loan of one million Austrian schillings in 1972.
A successful charter carrier at first, the airline subsequently foundered. “Sure, I quit to do the airline. I knew I could not race forever so the ’planes were my passion and I worked hard at it. But it didn’t work how I wanted,” he explains.
“I think, OK, now I do something else; start out again.”
Talking to, or being talked at, by Herr Lauda is never dull. He has a prediction, however, for the immediate future of grand prix racing, an activity that still commands his attention from the sidelines.
“You will see these young guys come forward now,” he tells me. “For sure with all the technology on the cars they can be quick straight away. But without humans, the technology is of no use. Without human beings there is no point in the computers. I mean a young driver needs to know how to make best use of his technology, needs to be able to think. Use it right, and he’s going to be quick no matter how young he is. Use it wrong [and] nothing happens.”
This, they say, was one of Lauda’s greatest attributes. His ability to focus on the job in hand and shut out the rest of the world. He may not count among the great natural talents but his propensity for analysis, for examining every last tenth, made him a fearsome opponent, a man who appeared to have his own telemetry system inside his head. That and an ability to exploit situations, applying his exceptional brain to a problem and scything through what he regularly refers to as ‘all the bulls**t’ that goes with the racing.
“Sure, in the car you have to flick a switch, press a button and concentrate one hundred per cent. Same now as it was, the best are always totally focused; there’s no other way,” he says, and gets up to go. Back to the camera crew, flicking the switch to N Lauda, TV presenter.
Never one to skirt around the facts, he’s brought that style to the screens in Austria. Not for him repetitive gibbering, just plenty of opinion. The ratings are holding up and his place in the upper chamber of racing heroes is not in doubt.