Racers with character

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Alan Henry writes in his excellent Niki Lauda interview this month how the Austrian’s two British Grand Prix wins at Brands Hatch in 1982 and ’84 were received with rapture by the crowds. Unforgettable, says AH – and he’s right. I was a little lad standing at Clearways on both occasions, and I well remember the shared pleasure we all felt watching Lauda win those races. Why the enthusiasm? Because we knew ‘The Rat’ was special. He still is. Which is why we have chosen to celebrate his 60th birthday this month with a cover story.

True British racing fans have no interest in jingoism. Unlike most other headline sports, nationality has never mattered when it comes to the affection drivers are held in. What counts is not where they were born, but their character, guts and talent. Lauda had the lot.

When lists of racing’s greats are drawn up, it’s interesting that these days Lauda sometimes misses the cut. Yet he was the Schumacher of the 1970s, helping to galvanise Ferrari from a shambles into champions. Niki would surely have won three titles on the trot if it hadn’t been for that defining accident at the ’Ring in ’76, and then to win another title
in his ‘second career’, against Alain Prost in equal cars, is unique. Lauda knew he was no longer the fastest, but he was intelligent enough to adapt, morphing into the wily points scorer who would snatch a win when he could.

The forthright views delivered in those famous clipped tones endeared him to us, but the steely couldn’t-give-a-shit attitude didn’t make him easy to live with. His relationship with McLaren’s Ron Dennis was anything but smooth, and that had been predictable. Here were two tough operators joining forces, but with their own selfish interests to protect – a classic combination.

Grand Prix racing still benefits from Lauda’s presence in the pitlane (via his role as German TV’s star pundit), and the same will be true of Dennis this year despite his decision to hand over the team principal reins to Martin Whitmarsh. Sometimes Ron can be a hard man to like, but supported by an unrivalled record of success, he deserves respect despite his flaws because racing is his life. He can’t walk away from this sport completely. It means too much to him.

Like Lauda, Dennis has character, but he is so much more complicated. I was fortunate enough to join him for dinner one year in Malaysia, and gained a fascinating insight into a highly principled, moralistic man battling with deep-set insecurities, trying to make logical sense from a chaotic world. The next day I saw him in the paddock and I thought he was going to blank me. But he caught my eye and snapped: “have you got a hangover?” “Yeah, I have a bit,” I replied sheepishly. “I haven’t,” he fired back with a triumphant grin, and was gone.

Competitive beyond the point of reason. Happy non-retirement, Ron.

We have an award winner in our ranks! Ed Foster, our giant of an office junior, has been voted Renault MSA Young Journalist of the Year, much to our delight (see p115). If you’ve been a regular reader over the past 18 months you might have noticed Ed’s name appearing in the magazine with greater frequency, while online he’s played a major role in making our website (www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk) a growing success story. He’s a great chap with a promising future. But don’t tell him I said that. He might ask for a pay rise…