Niki Lauda, the subject of Hollywood’s latest take on motor racing, is a man who’s never minced his words. So his thoughts on F1 2011 proved typically refreshing
BY NIGEL ROEBUCK
Motor racing at the movies is much in vogue just now. Endless plaudits have come the way of Senna, of course, but two more in the pipeline will be feature films, rather than documentaries, one about the saga of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, the other to do with the 1976 Grand Prix season — in other words, James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
“These are serious people involved,” says Lauda. “Ron Howard is directing the movie, and Peter Morgan — who did the script for The Queen — is writing it. It was Morgan who had the idea to make a movie out of the ’76 season, and I’m supposed to tell them how it was. Of course I want it to be accurate, but the people doing it have great reputations, and I must say the attention they’re giving it is enormous…”
Assuredly Lauda will ‘tell them how it was’. I have known Niki for more years than either of us wishes to remember, and in all that time I don’t believe I have ever heard him utter the words ‘no comment’. The answer to your question may not always be the one you were anticipating, but it will be the truth, as Lauda sees it, and most probably unvarnished.
He was always that way. Read For The Record — emphatically one of my Desert Island Books — and you will know what I mean. You will also learn more about the real life of a Grand Prix driver than from any other book of my experience. It doesn’t matter that it speaks of an era very different from this one: essential truths never change. In Montreal, and then Silverstone, we talked through one or two of them.
“I don’t think,” says Lauda, “that I ever changed through my racing career. I always wanted to stay in my own personality, which was absolutely ‘feet on the ground’.”
No disputing that. Niki’s directness, if you’re unaccustomed to it, can be disconcerting. I remember a moment, not long after the Nurburgring accident in 1976, in which he suffered terrible burns, when he was asked by a remarkably insensitive American female journalist how difficult it had been to face the world again. “Maybe difficult for you,” he replied immediately, “but for me not at all — I can’t see me…”
Then there was the time, again in reference to that day at the ‘Ring, when someone suggested that as the red flag had been shown, and the German Grand Prix later restarted as a completely new event, in effect the first race had never happened. Lauda’s perspective was different: “Well, if it never happened,” he said, “what happened to my f****** ear?”
You could call it acute pragmatism, I suppose, laced with the black humour for which Niki has such relish. Were he a Formula 1 driver in 2011, his team would need a legion of PRs to keep an eye on him, but it wouldn’t be long before they ran up the white flag. In his role as TV commentator, Lauda continues to attend every Grand Prix, and his opinions are expressed as trenchantly as ever.
We began by talking about the ‘new’ F1, in which we have seen more overtaking in 2011 than in the dozen seasons which went before. As a concept — the sport is called motor racing, after all — this has been generally welcomed, but some of the means by which it has been achieved have not been met with universal approval. I have come across very few former drivers — and not too many current ones — with a good word for the controversial DRS (Drag Reduction System).
From the beginning Lauda expressed his distaste for it, and his view hasn’t softened. DRS, I suggested, seems to have found more favour with the PlayStation generation than with folk of a certain age like you and me…
He made a face. “Well, it’s not because we’re old and stupid! Why do you need this ridiculous wing to help you overtake? It’s the principle I hate — it manipulates everything, and the worst thing is that the FIA decides where and when the green light comes on, so people can overtake. Are we driving these cars — or are we computers who simply overtake when someone tells us we are allowed to? The principle is wrong.
“Why interfere in the basics of racing? For all sorts of reasons — tyre wear, driving effort, outbraking — people overtake, so why disturb this? The FIA should never have agreed to this bullshit. Now everyone comes to me and says, ‘Oh, look how much overtaking we have’; I say, ‘Listen, you would get maybe two or three fewer moves without this wing rubbish — now we have much more overtaking anyway, because of the tyre wear’. So what I say is, ‘Leave the sport alone — if you manipulate everything, it’s false, and to be false is no good’.
“What makes it even more ridiculous is that in practice and qualifying you’re allowed to use this DRS thing everywhere — but in the race you can only use it where the FIA decides. This is Formula 1, not touring cars or something…
“I hope it’s all finished by next year, because it’s making F1 a joke, but if these idiots want to keep it, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sure that if I asked all the drivers to tell me honestly what they thought, they would say, ‘Get rid of this rubbish!’ And they’re driving these cars — excuse me, Mr Todt, but you’re not driving them, so you should at least listen to the guys who are…”
Not keen, then, on balance. During preseason testing, I said, Fernando Alonso made the point that there’s a button you have to press for DRS, another for KERS and so on — and none has anything to do with fundamental driving skill.
“Correct. He’s absolutely right. They’re distracting, and they do things which have nothing to do with braking late and driving quick through a corner.”
DRS is Lauda’s pet hate, but he looks upon KERS rather more benignly. Yes, like the opening rear wing it provides an instant performance boost, but Niki, while doubting that Fl can ever be fundamentally ‘green’, makes the point that at least KERS goes into the future, into hybrid cars.
“The thing is, it’s something from the engine manufacturers — Mercedes, Renault, whatever — that can help justify their staying in F1. They can tell their shareholders that they’re developing systems which can help in road cars — there’s a link there. And in fact all the development Mercedes did on KERS has ended up — in a different way — in the S Class, so at least there’s some benefit and on that basis I agree with it.”
Lauda agrees, too, with the building of tyres of deliberately limited life. In a way though, I ventured, it could be argued that this was a manipulation, too.
“Yes, it’s true, but the tyres last year — the last year of Bridgestone — were so hard, like stone. I always hated tyres like that, which we had with Goodyear at one time, but of course making stone tyres is the easiest way for a manufacturer to compete in racing — because nothing will happen to them. They go on forever…
“So now there is the change to Pirelli, and of course they have to go through a learning curve. At some circuits it’s a bit like the old days of Bridgestone, and at others it’s the opposite — where you have three or four tyre changes in a race. I basically like the way it is this year: Pirelli’s ‘on-the-edge’ tyres have helped with the unpredictable aspect of racing which is so essential — overtaking, who knows how many pitstops, and so on. And I think that’s good — so long as we don’t go over three pitstops, and I admit I’m thinking from the point of view of television. If you have three, the public can still follow what’s happening — any more than that and it becomes so confusing that you lose track.”
When we talked in Canada the next engine for F1 was expected to be a four-cylinder turbo, and Lauda was contemptuous of it. “Biggest joke ever. Now everyone but Todt hates the idea — but why did the stupid teams agree to it in the first place? I mean, what were they thinking about? Why would you want to spend countless millions on development of something that no one will want to listen to? Why not leave the engines alone? The current engine now has KERS, after all — it’s the right compromise between a Ferrari and a Smart! But then Todt takes over at the FIA, and everything has to be different…”
Soon after our Montreal conversation it was agreed that the engine for 2014 would indeed be a 1.6-litre turbo, but now a V6. “Better than a four-cylinder,” shrugged Lauda at Silverstone, “but that’s about all you can say. I still don’t understand it — why spend a lot of money to change something that works so well?
“Formula 1 is ridiculous in so many ways. Best example: Bahrain. For how many months did we have this stupid discussion? They should have said to the Bahrainis, ‘If your problems are solved, next year welcome back’. Instead of that, there had to be this move to push it back into this year’s calendar. It was typical F1, with all this useless discussion for weeks and weeks — and then in the end it’s over and it’s nobody’s fault! No one in F1 ever admits something is their fault, and therefore they never learn. No one can understand how a big sport like this is successful — and yet so unprofessional…”
On to the drivers. “Vettel crashed in Friday practice in Turkey and Montreal, but apart from those two mistakes I think he’s driven incredibly well. Hamilton… well, he’s always there, because most of the time the guy takes chances like nobody believes, and sometimes he gets away with them. He’s such a racer that he makes these mistakes — what he did in Monte Carlo I thought made him look like a beginner, but if he gets his act together, if he stays within the limits… I have to say that for me Vettel is better: he is aggressive — he bites, there’s no question, but he does everything right.
“Something I find interesting: look at Vettel, and you see a normal grown-up kid — the way he looks, the way he behaves. For me Hamilton is the opposite: every day there’s a different hairstyle, a different beard, the earrings… I don’t want to criticise anybody — Hamilton’s Hamilton like Beckham’s Beckham, and honestly I don’t care about all that stuff — but I was always one who wanted to keep his feet on the ground. I took chances and risks, and won and lost, whatever, but I did not change my personality because I was suddenly famous.
“I’m not that type — I didn’t want to show off — and Vettel is the same, I think. He doesn’t change, he keeps on going, and he performs like hell. Hamilton performs like hell too — but he also has changes going on, and I hope he won’t get a conflict one day because — in my experience — if you stay as you are and you don’t pretend to be something else there’s no risk: good or bad, that’s what you are. If you suddenly divert and you like things that have more show, it’s OK as long as you can keep the two apart — this is the glamour world that I want to live in, and this is my racing. But I think he has to watch this parallel development. There are people who can handle it, no question, but for me it would be too much effort!
“Hamilton has the speed, for sure — but to be World Champion a second time I think he has to come back a bit in his aggression, and finish races. That’s what he did in Valencia — and what he didn’t do in Montreal. When you are an aggressive driver you go through gaps which are not there — but the most important thing is how many you get through, and how many you don’t. And this year he has sometimes been failing in his judgement as to whether the gap will open or not. Otherwise there’s nothing to complain about — I like the way he drives. His biggest problem at the moment is the car itself — it doesn’t show consistent El) performance, and that’s frustrating. People have said that his best season in Formula 1 was his first, and that’s probably true, but you have to take into account that the car was fantastic then, and now it isn’t…
“Alonso is the most experienced of the top guys, and the most complete driver in F1. For me Fernando is doing a perfect job. Having said that, he’s a very tough cookie which I like in a racing driver, but I hope it doesn’t lead him sometimes into being too tough — both on himself and the team. In Italy you have to be very careful not to lose.., the heart of the Italians — I never cared about that, but in the end the media there can have a lot of influence. I think maybe Fernando should ease up a bit as he gets older — which is hard because people are born as they are, but if he would do that, I think he would do himself a favour.
“When Schumacher went there, it was completely unexpected to have a German driving for Ferrari, and nobody liked it, but in the end — because of his performance — even the most stupid Italian found something in this German driver! Schumacher only made it there because he won so much.
“I have always been a big supporter of Michael’s comeback — because I did it, and I know what it’s all about. Last year we understood he needed time to get used to these different cars, plus the handicap of not being able to test and all the rest of it. I felt that this year was the last chance for the comeback to happen properly if it was going to — and this year is the same as last…
“I think that, generally speaking, his racing ego is still there — we’ve seen it several times, like the pass of Hamilton on the first lap at Monaco. But it doesn’t help when your ground speed is not enough, and that’s his real problem. Rosberg drives the same car, after all, but generally Schumacher just can’t get it going and time is running against him, as I know myself. I won the championship in 1984, which was something, so then the thing was to see if I could keep up with [Alain] Prost, my McLaren team-mate, in ’85. When I realised that I could not, I gave him a hard time at Zandvoort — and retired.
“I think every sportsman — if he wants to perform as well as Schumacher did in the past — has to be honest with himself. He has kept saying that he needs more time, blah, blah, blah, and he presents himself as the relaxed guy who’s really enjoying it — but inside he’s not relaxed at all, because no top racing driver enjoys being beaten. If he really were as relaxed as he claims to be, then Mercedes should tell him to retire!
“You don’t do Formula 1 for fun. In the end he has to ask himself, ‘Can I do it or not?’ I honestly don’t think it will work out for Michael now: when you want to go quicker, you try everything — and when you’ve tried everything and you still don’t make it, that’s it. I’m sure he’s still trying, but one day he will realise that he can’t make it, and then he will take a decision.”
I have often thought, I said, that after a season like he had last year, if he were not Michael Schumacher…
“…He would not be here, sure. In the race at Montreal he was sensational — mixed conditions, all his experience, these things happen — and then in Valencia he was not bad. Here at Silverstone he’s back to normal.”
And what of Rosberg? Recently, when asked to name his top three drivers, Hamilton chose Alonso, Vettel — and Nico. Niki wasn’t surprised.
“I fully agree with that. In the past no one could really judge Nico because of the competition he had within his team. I always rated him highly as one of the top guys, in the right car at the right time, and with Mercedes he proves this to me at every race — there are problems with the car and everyone knows that, but he makes fewer mistakes than Michael and his performance undermines Schumacher’s performance, there’s no doubt about that. Nico is doing a top, top job, no question…