Niki Lauda: The years of the Rat

Niki Lauda is nothing if not a fighter. As he reaches 60, he talks to Motor Sport about some of his biggest battles in racing and in business

BRANDS HATCH, ENGLAND - JULY 01: Austrian F1 racing driver Niki Lauda at Brands Hatch on July 01, 1974 in Brands Hatch England. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Niki Lauda came into F1 on a wing and a prayer (plus a bank loan) – but left a legend with three world titles to his name

Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

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.

Lauda BRM

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.

From the archive

“The bank manager did not speak any English and Stanley did not speak any German, so I could control the conversation. So, I signed my contract.

“As soon as I had signed my contract, I said that I wanted to drive the BRM P160 in the first race of the season, the Argentine GP. I did what I reckoned was the perfect job.”

Lauda settled in behind the wheel of the BRM P160 to excellent effect. The engine may not have been the greatest, but the car’s handling was impressive, responding well to Niki’s deft touch.

“In testing I would always be quicker than [Jean-Pierre] Beltoise and [Clay] Regazzoni. Even on the occasions when we swapped cars. Then at Monaco, I was running third, ahead of Jacky Ickx in the Ferrari, when the gearbox broke.”

Louis Stanley was impressed. “You must come to dinner with me tonight at the Hotel de Paris,” he told Niki and his then-girlfriend, the brewery heiress Mariella Reininghaus. So off they went. And Niki knew it was time to come clean over the question of his sponsorship.

“No matter,” said Stanley expansively. “If you can sign this three-year contract with BRM, you won’t have to pay.” Niki had no choice. He signed on the dotted line. The deal was he would be paid £30,000 a year.

At this time Lauda was sharing a tiny office with one of his cousins in Salzburg. “We had a secretary and I always used to tell her when I was going away for a race ‘if Ferrari calls, then let me know, wherever I might be.’

Lauda Ferrari

Ferrari tenure would bring immediate wins – and drivers’ titles in ’75 and ’77

Grand Prix Photo

“So I arrive back in Salzburg the morning after signing my BRM contract and the girl says ‘Ferrari called.’ I said ‘what are you talking about?’ She repeated ‘Ferrari called.’ I said ‘don’t joke around with me.’ But it was true.”

The following day Lauda telephoned Ferrari’s new liaison man Luca di Montezemolo, who told him he must come straight down to Maranello to meet Mr Ferrari. Lauda flew down and Luca met him at the airport.

Niki was duly shown into the Commendatore’s presence. “He said, ‘I saw you at Monaco driving ahead of our fabulous Ferrari. I want you to drive for us.’ So I told him I had just signed a contract with BRM the previous day.”

Ferrari looked him straight in the eye. “It doesn’t matter, we will fix it,” he said. “We just want you to sign for us.” Lauda, trusting in his own luck to come to his aid, duly complied.

By the end of 1973 Ferrari was on the road back and the legal action from Louis Stanley never materialised. As BRM began to be locked into a terminal decline there was no time left for them to worry about trivial issues such as tiresome Austrians who passed up the opportunity of driving their cars.

The first three years of Lauda’s tenure at Ferrari are well documented. He scored two GP wins with the emergent 312B3 during 1974, then five wins to secure his first World Championship in ’75 with the superb transverse gearbox 312T. He had a fine relationship with Enzo Ferrari for the first two-and-a-half years, but after his fiery crash at the Nürburgring in ’76, things went downhill fast.

“My relationship with Enzo Ferrari was certainly far from being a love affair,” twinkles Lauda. “In fact, the first time I drove the original B3 at Fiorano, I suppose I realised just what a good chassis the BRM had been, even though its engine lacked sufficient power.

“To be honest, the Ferrari was awful. I got out of it after maybe half a dozen laps and said to Piero [Lardi, Ferrari’s son] ‘tell him that the car is a piece of shit.’ Piero looked horrified. He told me ‘there’s no way I can do that.’ So I said ‘well, tell him it’s got terminal understeer, whatever you like, but if we don’t get on and fix it this will be a total waste of time.’”

Cleverly, Lauda had conferred with chief engineer Mauro Forghieri and together they worked out how much time could be trimmed from the B3’s lap time round Fiorano if the front roll-centre was modified. They reckoned half a second, but when Ferrari asked Niki what he thought, he told him three-tenths of a second. “Then I lapped half a second faster and was a hero,” he grins.

Niki Lauda McLaren

On the comeback trail with McLaren

Grand Prix Photo

Lauda’s relationship with Ferrari began to deteriorate as he recovered from his burns and internal scarring in the summer of 1976. When he was told that Ferrari had attempted to sign Emerson Fittipaldi during his absence in hospital he was clearly disappointed. But when he turned out for his glorious return in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza he was infuriated to find that Carlos Reutemann had not only been recruited to drive a third car, but had also been signed as his team-mate for 1977.

To say that this was the start of a prickly relationship would be a masterpiece of understatement. The two men did not get on and for Niki this state of affairs was exacerbated when he found himself relegated to a supporting role when it came to testing.

“I asked them what were the plans for a test at Paul Ricard,” he says, “but they just told me that Reutemann was doing all three days. Reutemann is in charge of testing. I was told that I could bed in brake pads at Fiorano, so I waved my contract in front of them and pointed out that I had priority for testing as the number one driver. I told them I was leaving to drive for McLaren, which I just made up. They told me to wait outside before asking me back in. OK, OK, they said, you can do the third day.

“So I turned up in the pits at Ricard, everybody talking Spanish, and sat around for two days. The mechanics hadn’t been told that I was running on the third day and I had to stop them packing up and they had to check with the factory to make sure it was OK.

From the archive

“I did a few laps on old tyres in a car with a worn-out engine, came in and made a few adjustments, fitted a set of fresh tyres and, bang, four-tenths faster than my friend. Then I pulled in and parked it. Test over.”

Although Lauda would win his second title with Ferrari in 1977 it was episodes such as this which wore him down. At Zandvoort he accepted an invitation from Bernie Ecclestone to drive for the Brabham-Alfa team.

“The next time I went to Maranello, there they were, all lined up to talk about a new contract; Ferrari, Piero, Forghieri, [Ermanno] della Casa [the accountant]. I just told them I had decided to leave. They all said ‘why?’ I told them that I had decided to join another team.

I said that I wasn’t prepared to discuss it. As I walked away from that meeting I felt I was flying. The world was beautiful again.”

He enjoyed his first season with Brabham which yielded a couple of Grand Prix victories, including one in the revolutionary Brabham BT46B ‘fan car’ in the Swedish race at Anderstorp. But by the middle of 1979, frustrated by the new Brabham-Alfa V12 and finding the challenge from his new young team-mate Nelson Piquet becoming stronger by the day, he decided to retire.

That he did it midway through practice at the Canadian GP in no way ruffled Ecclestone. “‘Just leave your helmet and overalls,’ he said. I asked why and he replied ‘because I’ve got to find a new driver.’” Within hours he had done a deal with the pleasant but little-known Ricardo Zunino.

For more than two years Lauda never gave F1 a second glance as he worked to build up his airline business Lauda Air. Then, out of the blue, he received an invitation from Ron Dennis to test one of the latest McLarens.

“So I said to Marlene [his then wife and the mother of his two sons], ‘right, how do you fancy going to London to do some shopping at Harrods?’ She looked at me suspiciously and said ‘OK.’ So we fly to London and check in at the Capitol Hotel. I say ‘OK, so here we are. You go shopping in Harrods and I’ve got some business to attend to.’ She continued to look suspicious.

“So I went up to Donington Park where McLaren were waiting with one of their cars.

I drove quite a few laps and, although I wasn’t what you’d call race fit, I knew this was simply a matter of preparation. I knew I could do it.

“Back to London and I told Marlene where I had been and what I’d been doing. ‘You stupid bastard,’ she told me. The next thing Frank Williams was on the phone. ‘Hello Niki, how are you? Enjoying yourself in England? How did your test go in the McLaren? Why don’t you come to the factory for a talk?’ I asked him how on earth he’d heard about it. He replied that it was his business to know everything.”

Lauda admits that Williams was a tempting prospect. One of the few regrets in his career was not having the opportunity of driving for the team. But it had been Ron Dennis’s idea to invite him to test an F1 car after two years’ absence from the cockpit. If he was going to make a comeback, it would be with McLaren.

It was a successful partnership. Niki accepted Dennis’s terms that he be on probation for three races. He duly won on his third outing in a McLaren, at Long Beach, which put a smile on both their faces. That said, he had a roller coaster of a personal relationship with the McLaren team, culminating in his half-point victory in the 1984 World Championship in the superb TAG turbo-engined machine. He quit at the end of the following season.

“If more than 200 people buy a ticket on my airline and don’t come back, that is totally unacceptable”

Ironically, it was long after Niki retired from the cockpit for good at the end of 1985 that he confronted what he admits was the worst moment of his life. By 1992 Lauda Air was thriving and running regular services from Europe to the Far East and Australia. But during that year one of his Boeing 767s, heading for Vienna after a scheduled stop in Bangkok with over 200 passengers on board, plunged from over 30,000ft into the Thai jungle.

Feeling personally responsible, Lauda flew to Thailand immediately to see for himself the consequences of the disaster. “You can’t imagine it,” he says crisply. “Yes, it was the worst day of my life because if I want to kill myself driving a racing car that’s entirely my business, but if more than 200 people buy a ticket on my airline and don’t come back, then that is totally unacceptable.”

Boeing, the plane’s maker, initially tried to pin the blame on Lauda Air, but like Enzo Ferrari when he tried to play Niki off against Carlos Reutemann, on this occasion it had come to the wrong shop. After several years of investigation Niki proved that a fault with the plane caused one of the thrust reversers on one engine to deploy in mid-flight, flipping the aircraft onto its back and into an irreversible dive.

Lesser men would have been intimidated into backing away from a confrontation with such a major company. But ‘the Rat’ was not to be intimidated and took it all the way. As indeed he had always contrived to do behind the wheel of a Grand Prix car. And pretty much everything else, come to that.