It comes to us all, I suppose, but the notion of Niki Lauda celebrating his 60th birthday on February 22 seems just a touch difficult to believe. Three times World Champion, the Austrian ace – to use the apt title of his autobiography – has been To Hell and Back after very nearly burning to death at the wheel of his Ferrari in the 1976 German Grand Prix.
Lauda was a hugely popular personality among the sophisticated British race fans. Few who were present will forget how he was cheered to the echo after winning both the 1982 and ’84 British Grands Prix at Brands Hatch, each time at the wheel of a McLaren. Direct, to the point and almost painfully candid, Niki took an hour off on the morning of last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos to reflect on a racing career punctuated by moments of high achievement intermingled with the depths of despair.
At first glance, Lauda is an unlikely hero. He was always slight and on the slim side and his favourite dress is jeans and a Pringle sweater – even when the rest of us in the pitlane are perspiring uncomfortably. Curiously – and I have only noticed this recently after knowing the man almost 40 years – he prefaces all his responses with a sniff, almost as if he is clearing his mind, before launching into a monologue which comes across as a series of staccato barks.
“My grandfather said that no Lauda would ever be a racing driver”
Yet there is nothing pompous or contrived about this Austrian who grew up very much on the right side of the tracks in Vienna. His directness is leavened by a wry taste in ironic English humour, learned partly through his close friendship with James Hunt – who beat him to the ’76 World Championship by a single point – and partly from the irreverent atmosphere that prevailed in the March Formula 2 squad in 1971.
Niki had taken the bold step up into F2 at the start of the ’71 European Trophy season. At that time F2 represented a crucially significant stepping stone on a young driver’s optimistic journey towards a Formula 1 future, possibly even more so than today’s GP2 feeder series. Driving a factory-run March 712M, Lauda shaped up well against the likes of Ronnie Peterson and François Cevert. Certainly his sponsor, the Austrian bank Die Erst, seemed well satisfied with its modest sponsorship investment of about £8500.
Later in the year, he was champing at the bit as he tried to raise enough money to fund his graduation to F1 in ’72. Needless to say, March directors Max Mosley and Robin Herd were quick with a proposal that would involve Niki stumping up the equivalent of 150,000 euros for him to take in a full season of F1 and F2 alongside Peterson in the works March team.
“One of the bank directors gave me the all-clear to do an F1 deal,” says Niki, “so I signed a contract with Max and Robin. Then I came back to Vienna and the same director told me ‘a sum of money like this needs me to get the approval of the supervisory board.’ He came back after he’d done that and said ‘they say no.’
“My grandfather, Hans Lauda, was then a member of the supervisory board and he vetoed it. I told the director ‘you told me to go out and sign an F1 contract. Now you say you won’t sponsor me?’ I was furious.
Impressive BRM performances would gain Lauda a place at Ferrari
Grand Prix Photo
“I telephoned my grandfather and asked him if he could please f*** off interfering in my business. But he said he would not and that no Lauda would ever be a racing car driver. I never spoke another word to him for the remainder of his life. Now I was in a tricky situation. I had signed a contract and couldn’t pay what I had agreed, which was not the way I had been brought up. The way I saw it, I couldn’t let March down.”
Thinking on his feet in a manner that would become something of a byword for the Lauda approach, Niki successfully persuaded another bank, the Raiffeisenkasse, to take out an interest-free five-year loan in exchange for carrying its branding on his car and helmet.
“Then the manager asked what would happen if I killed myself,” says Lauda. “I thought ‘shit, I hadn’t thought of that.’ We clinched the deal by securing the money against an insurance policy on my life. But assuming I survived, there was still the loan to pay back.”
Niki successfully survived the 1972 season, although Robin Herd’s supposed wonder car, the March 721X with its lethargic inboard Alfa Romeo gearbox ahead of the rear axle line, was a complete dog. Lauda’s reputation, such as it was, was badly dented as he failed to scrape a single championship point (see feature on p49).
“I quickly realised that this bloody Alfa gearbox was just impossible to drive,” he says. “If you pushed it from fifth to fourth, sometimes you would get second or first. It was just pure luck if you got the right gear. The handling was no good either. There was just no margin between driving and sliding.”
At one point Herd actually suggested that perhaps if they poured some STP into the differential, it might help reduce the understeer. Niki admits, on reflection, that he wasn’t really certain if Robin was being serious or not: “I raced out, did two or three [more] laps and then came back to the pits where I told him his bloody car was still no good. He was very upset.”
“The bank manager did not speak English and Stanley did not German, so I controlled the conversation. I signed my contract”
That was the end of Niki’s relationship with March, and with no prospect of raising any more funding on the strength of his ’72 debacle. Now he had effectively to start again. Another bout of original thinking was needed.
“In November 1972 Max told me that there would be no drive for me next year, March was going bankrupt and there was no money left,” he says. Lauda immediately contacted Louis Stanley, the self-important husband of BRM’s part-owner Jean Stanley.
“I told him, sir, I would like to drive your racing car, blah, blah, blah,” says Niki. “He said, absolutely, and told me he would come to Vienna immediately in order to negotiate terms. But it was clear from the start that he needed me to bring money. Shit!”
Niki hit on an idea that involved taking Stanley to see the bank manager who had agreed his original loan. His idea was to persuade Stanley to agree to his ‘sponsorship’ coming later than scheduled, in the month of May.