The indomitable Niki Lauda: 'I’ve never seen anyone with such iron will…'

Few drivers have a career that matches Niki Lauda’s for breadth. His time in F1 connects Graham Hill to Max Verstappen via Michael Schumacher – and he’s still there, pulling strings at Mercedes. But what makes him tick?

Niki Lauda Ferrari 1977 South African GP

The indomitable Niki Lauda

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Niki Lauda breaks every mould that has ever been made for a sports star. Or any normal human being, come to that. You will frequently read stories of how champions in any sport have struggled to cope post-retirement. Having experienced the buzz of competing and winning – not to mention the attention and adulation that comes with it – the withdrawal symptoms can be intolerable.

For Lauda, you get the impression that winning three world championships – and almost losing his life while doing it – is but a passing phase in a varied career driven by pragmatism, curiosity and a willingness to overcome challenges of all shapes and sizes.

He started as a wannabe racing driver with no money and not much apparent talent; bluffed his way into Formula 1; applied a cold, calculating logic to winning grands prix; retired; came back; stopped racing for good and remained close to F1 as a media pundit, advisor and, latterly, non-executive chairman with Mercedes-AMG F1.

Niki Lauda March 1973 South African GP

Austrian came into F1 with March and then BRM

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He once shared an infamous flat in Middlesex with Mike Hailwood; became team-mate to his hero, Ronnie Peterson; raced against Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt; spearheaded the revival of McLaren with Alain Prost in the 1980s; worked with Ferrari and experienced the managerial handcuffs of the Ford Motor Company while briefly trying to run the Jaguar F1 team.

Oh, and during that time, he started an airline. Two airlines, in fact. It would be a devastating experience during the existence of the first, Lauda Air, which would further define a value on life that helps make Andreas Nikolaus Lauda the most down-to-earth individual in the F1 paddock.

He is the ‘go-to’ voice if you need either a truly honest assessment (even to the detriment of his own team) or the straightforward verbal unravelling of what appears to be a complex political issue. The staccato delivery is frequently prefaced by the words: “It’s very simple…” And it usually is, Lauda’s withering opinion validated by his having been there and done it.

And yet Lauda is a man of mild contradictions. He came from an aristocratic background, but arrived penniless in the racing paddocks of Europe. He wore a gold signet ring on his left hand because he thought the family heirloom looked important and mature, but without realising it indicated he was married. Lauda was 22 and single.

Niki Lauda 1975 Ferrari Dutch GP 2

Ferrari move marked life-changing step

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He eventually threw the ring away “once I realised how stupid I was”. The absence of sentiment – another Lauda trait – was encouraged by a complete lack of support from senior members of his family.

Finance would be realised by the scary expedient of insuring his life against a bank loan. The scheme was as fragile as the March 721X Lauda and Peterson attempted to race in 1972, the transverse gearbox machine lacking downforce and just about everything else.

From the archive

Lauda quickly learned that heroes are not perfect when Peterson used his exceptional natural ability to drive around the problem without realising it and declared the car as perfectly OK. Lauda correctly thought it was rubbish – and said so. Such a forthright response didn’t repay any debts but it helped establish a reputation as a no-nonsense driver.

His signature on a Ferrari contract for 1974 marked a turning point away from financial worries and towards victories that would be the result of ruthless application – plus the sprinkling of good fortune required by even the most successful driver. He won his first title in 1975. But, 12 months later, his luck appeared to have run out – permanently.

The story of Lauda’s battle with James Hunt and his recovery from appalling burns at the Nürburgring have been so well documented that Hollywood director Ron Howard was prompted to make a movie. By focusing on the endless dramas of 1976, the storyline in Rush does not run as far as the 1977 South African GP, a victory Lauda considers one of his best, if not from a pure racing point of view, then for the conquering of a psychological mountain following the near-death experience just seven months earlier.

The relentless politicking associated with driving for Ferrari eventually took its toll, Enzo Ferrari being caught by surprise at a meeting in Maranello when Lauda said he did not want to stay any longer, issued a typically clipped ‘Goodbye’ and walked away.

By the time Lauda had reached Bologna Airport and his waiting jet, word was out. “You’ve got a delay of two hours,” said the air traffic controller, before adding with menace: “You left Ferrari, you bastard.” Thinking quickly – never a problem for Lauda – he gained immediate clearance by informing the controller that he was not deserting Italy since he was about to race for Alfa Romeo, the firm powering his new employer, Brabham.

Niki Lauda Brabham 1978 Swedish GP

Lauda took first retirement after a short stint at Brabham

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That relationship would be as up and down as the performance of the 12-cylinder motor. With two wins in 1978 and none likely the following year, Lauda quit halfway through first practice in Canada and flew immediately to Los Angeles to talk about aeroplanes and his new airline.

An accomplished pilot, Lauda had a licence to fly all of his aircraft as Lauda Air gained a fine reputation for order and efficiency, even if the contradictions continued as Captain Lauda habitually emerged from the cockpit wearing baggy jeans, sweatshirt and trademark red cap.

When he eventually purchased his first Boeing 777 for the Australia run, Lauda brought on board a fully trained chef, complete with white jacket and hat. He introduced a more practical policy by dividing the on-board lavatories into ‘male’ and ‘female’. “Very simple,” he explained. “Men’s aim is not so good and it cuts the cleaning bill.”

From the archive

With such a complex business challenge largely overcome, Lauda’s enquiring mind brought him to the Österreichring in 1981 and raised the question of whether or not he could cope with the latest F1 machinery. Lauda began his comeback in South Africa by leading a drivers’ strike over contractual terms imposed by the sport’s governing body; it was as though he had never been away.

Two years later, he was in a position to fight for the 1984 title with Alain Prost. Lauda won the championship by half a point – even though his younger McLaren team-mate was faster.

Steve Nichols was Lauda’s engineer: “I’ve never seen anyone with such iron will and determination. Niki tried everything he could and he won the championship simply because of that determination. He was Lauda the computer; he wasn’t terribly human. I don’t mean that as an insult or anything, but he was the cold, calculating computer type of driver.

At Estoril [the final round], he had a horrible qualifying and a horrible first lap – he was 11th or something. Slowly but surely, he was using the revs, the boost and the power to manage his race while looking after his tyres. Prost was out there winning the race, doing everything he had to do. Meanwhile Lauda was soldiering on and eventually made it to third and then to second, where he needed to be to win the championship.

1 Niki Lauda McLaren 1984 South African GP

Lauda was renowned for his calculating approach

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“That was typical Niki.”

Dave Ryan was McLaren’s chief mechanic in 1984: “Niki was different [from other drivers]. I had to teach him to come into the garage before he left the circuit and say ‘Goodnight’ to the guys. The best it got was: ‘Okay, I go. Thank you. Goodbye.’ He felt he was the driver and he didn’t appreciate the benefits of having a relationship with the garage. But he was very good. You could see it building up during his comeback because he was so methodical.

“It was so tight between Niki and Alain. Before the final race at Estoril they bought five gold watches between them and decided that whoever won the championship would have the watches and give them to selected people on the team. I wasn’t there because I’d had to fly back to New Zealand after my father died. So I didn’t get a watch. Niki said he had one for me but, to this day, every time I see him, he looks at his wrist and says: ‘Got the time?’ I still don’t have the watch!”

Ron Dennis: “Niki and Alain were at very different points in their respective careers, and that meant there wasn’t the need for them constantly to be outdoing the other. They were both extremely professional, extremely mature. That made my job easier because I knew that they understood and respected each other. They knew that they were each there to get the job done.

“Alain and Niki derived their speed in different ways. You could see that Alain was incredibly fast, extremely ambitious. Niki was perhaps more prudent, wiser through experience, and more patient.”

That deep well of experience came into play when he finally retired at the end of 1985. Lauda acted as consultant for Ferrari, a role that seemed to serve more useful purpose for visiting foreign countries in association with his airline rather than managing the drivers.

From the archive

A few years ago, I was asked by The Observer to contribute to Triumph and Tragedy, a series listing the highs and lows in the lives of various sports people. I chose Lauda, expecting ‘Triumph’ to be the 1977 championship following the Nürburgring; ‘Tragedy’ the accident itself.

“The first one: correct,” he confirmed. “The low point? In 1991, I was operating Boeing 767s, brand-new airplanes and one crashed coming out of Bangkok, killing everyone. When I was in motor racing, I had taken a decision to risk my life. But when you run an airline and more than 200 people want to go from A to B and they don’t arrive – that’s a different responsibility.”

Lauda flew immediately to the scene of devastation in a remote forest. Apart from being deeply shocked by the disaster, he was perturbed by the flight data recorder having being destroyed. From the little evidence gradually pulled together, Lauda knew something catastrophic had happened so quickly that the flight crew (both known personally to Lauda) did not have time to react. It became apparent that the failure of an O-ring had caused the reverse thrust to engage on the left-hand engine, stalling the wing and flipping the aircraft upside down at 28,000 feet.

Boeing would have none of it, insisting the plane could continue to be flown if such a thing happened. For eight months, Lauda and his airline shouldered the blame. A turning point came when he attended a mass burial in Bangkok for the last unidentified passengers.

“There were 23 bodies,” recalled Lauda. “All their friends and loved ones were there and no one could tell them why this had happened. This was a very difficult time for me. I decided to fly straight to Seattle and have this dealt with properly.”

Niki Lauda McLaren 1984 South African GP

Final title came with McLaren in ’84 with airline business also taking off

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Despite Boeing’s steadfast refusal, Lauda insisted on being allowed to fly the 767 simulator and engage reverse thrust in identical circumstances. When he failed several times to recover the aircraft, the reason for the crash was obvious.

“I asked Boeing to issue a statement,” said Lauda. “They said it would take another three months because of lawyers and bullshit like this. And all this time, 767s were still flying all around the world. I said: ‘Okay, tomorrow I will hold a press conference here and say we are going to take a 767, load it up like it was with my two pilots, deploy reverse thrust in the air and everything will be okay. I’ll be on board and you can show me that it works. Simple. I will ask you to do that for their sake of all the passengers.’ I went back to my hotel – and they were waiting for me when I got there. They issued the statement showing the manufacturer was at fault and not the operator of the airplane. Out of this came the knowledge that such a problem would never happen again.”

Niki Lauda: an extraordinary individual, in and out of a racing car.