Reflections with... Nigel Roebuck

The thoughts of chairman Lauda, why politically correct is incorrect

In a changing world there is always Niki Lauda, and thank the Lord for that. As Formula 1 ties itself in ever more convoluted knots, a chat with Lauda is always refreshing, not least for the reassurance that one is not alone in being dismayed by the showbiz path on which F1 appears increasingly set. A few minutes with Niki and his salty way with the English language, and the world makes sense again.

Three years ago I was appalled by the introduction of DRS, which seemed like the thin end of a wedge I didn’t care to contemplate. Others, though, appeared to think it an elixir: if overtaking were increased, did it really matter that it was achieved by artificial means?

I thought it did, and Lauda was of the same mind. “Why,” he said, “do you need this stupid wing solution to help you overtake? It’s the principle I hate – it manipulates everything, and even worse is that the FIA decides where and when on the track it operates. Are we driving these cars – or are we computers who overtake only when someone tells us we are allowed to? The principle is all wrong, and the FIA should never have agreed to this bullshit.

“Why interfere in the basics of racing? What I say is, ‘Leave the sport alone – if you manipulate everything, it’s false, and to be false is never good. This is Formula 1, not touring cars or something…”

At the time Lauda was working as a TV commentator and made a further observation, which perhaps has a greater resonance now, when audiences in many countries are in free fall. “This sport is as big as it is because of TV – but if you make it so complex that you have to explain, half an hour before a race starts, all these endless rules, fans will lose interest…”

Coming back to 2014, Lauda ponders the world’s lessening interest in F1. “It’s dropping, and there’s no point in pretending it’s not.

“Why is this? Because we’re living in a different world now, and the young people of today are not so focused any more. Of course there are still fans, but the broad public is drifting away because maybe they find the races too long, too boring… an hour and a half on TV… I’m just talking now, and maybe I’m wrong…

“And there’s something else we have to say, too: Formula 1 is not what it was. I don’t know how to say this properly, but… in the past we were gladiators – we could get hurt, we could get killed, and the whole image of Formula 1 was different. A lot of people watched it because they were waiting for an accident – it made them feel part of this ‘gladiator’ thing. But over the last 30 years the world has changed completely: everything is safe now, and thank God it is – but at the same time, making it safe has changed it, no question…”

When a barrier was damaged by Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari on the opening lap of the British Grand Prix, the race was red-flagged, and not restarted until the dented guardrail had been replaced (above). Lauda thought that ridiculous: the chances were zero, he said, of the same piece of Armco being struck again – and in the course of that hour of inactivity, how many people switched TV channels, and didn’t change back?

With Federer and Djokovic duking it out at Wimbledon, and Froome and Contador pounding the roads of Yorkshire, alternatives to a silent Silverstone were not in short supply. It is inescapable, though, that aversion to any kind of risk, however minimal, is a cornerstone of 21st century life, and it applies in motor racing, as in everything else, not least, let it be said, because of well justified fear of litigation.

Back in 1952, when John Derry’s DH110 jet fighter broke up at the Farnborough Air Show, not only the pilot and navigator lost their lives, but also many spectators. Yes, it’s a very long time ago, but I mention it for the fact that not a single claim was ever made, be it against the show organisers or de Havilland, and in the context of today – when ‘whiplash’ is apparently implicit in even minor road accidents – that seems scarcely believable.

However infinitesimal the likelihood, it’s undeniable that if someone had been injured or worse as a consequence of that barrier not being replaced, the financial fall-out for Silverstone could have been catastrophic.

Lauda accepts that we cannot turn back time, and reckons there is no need to waste too much of it wondering why fewer people are watching F1. “What I do think, though, is that we really have to be careful not to keep introducing more and more stupid and unnecessary rules – so that people do not understand any more what is going on. Look at this ‘penalty points’ system for the drivers – like you have with a normal driving licence in road cars. This is the biggest joke ever in F1, and we really have to watch things like this – it gets complicated, it gets boring, and people don’t like it. The FIA – and Bernie – need to understand that if we continue with all this stuff, we’re going to lose more fans.

“It’s all part of the ‘Nanny State’ thing” – Lauda’s grasp of colloquial English has always been sound – “and people hate that: it’s the opposite of the gladiatorial thing they used to love. And that leads me to something else – the problems that come from what the drivers say. A little note in a German newspaper mentions something Lewis [Hamilton] said, it gets all the way to Mercedes in Stuttgart, and then it’s ‘Why did Lewis say this?’

From my point of view, he didn’t say anything, but anyway…

“Actually, we discussed this subject one day, and we said, ‘Why don’t we do the opposite – let the drivers be free, and say to them, ‘Don’t worry, you can say whatever you want…’ But on the other hand, I don’t know how you are going to fix this in Stuttgart!

“Look at Monaco, when Nico went down the escape road in qualifying, and Lewis said it was deliberate, to stop him getting pole. We spent two weeks baby-sitting, telling everyone it’s peace, and blah, blah, blah… We should have told them to hit each other!”

A common complaint among racing fans – not to say journalists – is that today’s corporate involvement in F1, so much greater than it was, has resulted in obsessively tight control of the drivers, who tend to deal in safe platitudes, rather than risk saying something that might cause offence on high. This is why press conferences tend to put one to sleep.

When I talked to you in the ’70s and ’80s, I said to Niki, you would just say exactly what came into your head.

“Correct,” he laughed. “If someone from Ferrari said, ‘Why did you say that?’, I would reply, ‘It’s my opinion – f*** you…’

“In my time I could say whatever I wanted, but everything’s so controlled now. And we have to say that all these things are going in the same direction – which is that the excitement gets more and more reduced. It’s happened slowly, slowly, but it keeps on going – and in the long run fewer people are interested.

“Look at interviews with drivers these days – I’ve seen it with Vettel, and others: there is always someone from the team standing there, recording it. And so it starts: if a PR stands next to a driver with a microphone, the driver behaves. Maybe the world of today needs this, I don’t know…”

One major difference between Lauda’s era and today, I suggested, is that time was when Formula 1 was way less precious, when the drivers were not cocooned, the press contingent was smaller, and PRs were unknown. Back then interviewing a driver, team owner or whomever was simplicity itself. There was no need to organise it weeks in advance, through a third party: you simply spoke to the person concerned, and agreed a mutually acceptable time, invariably the same day. As a consequence, drivers and journalists tended to be much closer, and in many cases genuine friendships evolved.

“Absolutely,” said Lauda. “And because of that, you knew which journalists you could trust – you would say things to them which were off record, and know they wouldn’t let you down.

“Now, though, it’s different – because there are so many idiots around in the press these days, you have teams insisting that they can check the story before it is printed. Jesus, some people even want to know in advance what the questions will be! In the past we didn’t do that – and we didn’t need to. Part of the problem today is that, because of all this internet bullshit, somebody says something, and instantly it’s around the world…”

It was late in 2012 when Lauda accepted an offer from Mercedes to become non executive chairman of the F1 team, and I wanted to know exactly what that entailed. “It’s very simple,” said Niki. “I made a deal to be chairman – but my contract makes clear that Mercedes did not want me to be the sort of chairman who has a board meeting three times a year.

“Certain points in my contract make clear the areas where I need to be informed, where I can get straight in and do things. In other words, I am a chairman who is also part of the team – but that doesn’t mean I do anything against Paddy [Lowe] on the technical side and Toto [Wolff] on the commercial side: they are running the team, OK? I want to make that clear. Under the terms of my contract, though, I am allowed to ask certain questions, discuss certain areas.”

One requirement of the contract is that Lauda spends a goodly amount of time at the Mercedes team’s British base.

“When I came to Brackley for the first time in my new position, Ross Brawn and Nick Fry were there. I said good morning, asked them questions about things I had no idea about, and then Fry asked me how often I was intending to come to England. I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ And it turned out that Haug [Norbert, formerly the long-time competitions director of Mercedes] was only at the factory three times a year. I said, ‘Well, I can tell you that I will come as long as it takes to be competitive’.

“Between the races I don’t go there often, but I see everybody at the races anyway, so there’s plenty of time to discuss things, if necessary. And before the season started, I was at the tests and I went to England – backwards and forwards. I thought I should understand more technical things – because of my own experience I like to know how these modern cars work, and what the drivers are doing compared with what I was doing in the past.”

It has been suggested that Lauda has a particular responsibility for the drivers, but he said not. “Except for being chairman of the board, I have no responsibility – but, if Toto or Paddy asks me, I have knowledge of certain things, and then I give them my input. I only do something when we three all agree that maybe now I should speak to Nico and Lewis…”

The system, between the three of them, seems to work well.

“To give you a simple example, when the drivers are discussing good or bad news, then Toto is there to remind them that they’re driving for Mercedes, okay? This is a company with 300,000 people, and he is very strict on this: ‘Hey guys, watch it – we are representing Mercedes’.” Lauda pauses, then grins. “Sometimes, though, the drivers – how do I say this politely? – don’t understand this nice way of talking to them, and in that situation I think I have an advantage because when I talk to Lewis or Nico, we are speaking on the same level. OK, they’re five generations or whatever ahead of me, but I was a driver, too, and I can be very straightforward with them because I know the words, I know what their brains are fighting about…”

Lauda is rightly credited with bringing Hamilton to Mercedes, and I found that interesting, because at one time – in 2011 – he expressed strong misgivings about Lewis, about the way he was then running his life.

At that very moment in walked the man himself. “Ah, Lewis, good morning,” said Niki. “We were just talking about you…” Hamilton smiled a little uncertainly, then returned the greeting before moving on.

“It’s true,” Lauda resumed, “that three years ago I didn’t think Lewis had his mind on the job – but at the time I was working in TV, and he was a McLaren driver, so honestly I didn’t care!

“I have to tell you this: the very first time I was brought to the Mercedes board, before September 2012, I was there as a guest only. This discussion started, and in the end I asked a simple question: who is driving next year? Haug said it was Schumacher and Rosberg, and it was all fixed.

“I said, ‘What would happen if Schumacher retired?’ They said, ‘Well, we’d find somebody else’. Yes, but who and when? It was getting late in the season. We talked about it, and I got permission to talk to Lewis.

“After the race in Singapore I went to see him, and then the whole thing started. The first time was at two o’clock in the morning in his hotel room – I have to say I’d never before been with a man in a hotel room at two in the morning – and I didn’t know him at all. From the beginning, though, we seemed to have a good understanding of each other, and this was the start of trying to convince him to come to Mercedes. At the time McLaren was trying like you do not believe to persuade him to stay, but in the end he decided to come here.”

Hamilton had been leading the Singapore Grand Prix when his car failed, and there was a widespread assumption that at that point his patience with McLaren snapped.

“No, no, that had nothing to do with it,” said Lauda. “There was something else that influenced him at that moment – which you know about, and can’t write, and I know about, and can’t say…

“I made it very simple for Lewis. I said, ‘If you stay forever with McLaren, that’s very nice – but where’s the challenge in your life? I changed from one team to another – people do that, and don’t get bored. It’s very simple…’ He understood that, but still it was difficult to explain to him why he should leave McLaren, a winning team, and drive for us.

“He said to me, ‘Would you change?’ I said, ‘No – honestly, no. But if we get things together, if it works out…’ I said to him, ‘If you could be world champion in a Mercedes – a works team – can you imagine what this would do for your image?’ It’s like me winning with Ferrari. Why am I known? Because I burned my ear off, and drove Ferraris, and won championships, right?

“I said, ‘I think that Ross has put the right people – like Aldo Costa – in the right places’. There had been some encouraging changes in the technical group, which I explained to him, and that was enough. I made some promises to him at a time when I didn’t know if they were going to happen, but he won at Budapest last year, had some pole positions and the team moved from fifth to second in the constructors’ championship. And this year I think it’s worked out – to an unbelievable extent – for both Lewis and Nico...”

Frank Williams, I said to Lauda, has always been of the opinion that you cannot put two bulls in one field, that a single number one driver is plenty.

“I think that’s bullshit,” Niki responded. “Look at me and Prost, and all the others there have been – you know better than I do.”

After all his years as a top Grand Prix driver, Lauda is ideally placed to understand the inevitable tensions between Rosberg and Hamilton. That said, his own relationships with team-mates were invariably good, as with Clay Regazzoni.

Niki grinned. “No, no problem with Regazzoni – because I was quicker than him! Very simple. Same with Watson: he was a nice guy, and he blew me off at Long Beach in ’83, but generally speaking I could beat him.

“The relationship with Reutemann was difficult, but that was because of circumstance. He was actually a nice guy, Carlos, but I was upset with Ferrari because they put him in the team when I had my accident. I had to suffer that, worry about the politics at Ferrari – and then race against this guy when I came back at Monza. It was the situation that annoyed me, a matter of ‘This guy is probably dead, anyway – where’s the next one?’”

In terms of pure speed and competitiveness, by far the toughest team-mate Lauda ever had – at McLaren in 1984 and ’85 – was Alain Prost. “No doubt about that,” said Niki, “but even with him, out of the car – with my logical approach – I had no problem personally. It was never that I didn’t get on with him: as a person, I liked Alain a lot, but I watched him all the time. Is he nervous or not? There are things you can do. If I had a team-mate who was quicker than I was, for me that was a challenge – and in a positive way, not a negative one: ‘If he can drive the car as quick as that, why can I not?’

“I’ll admit I was suspicious of Prost at first. I was McLaren’s number one driver, I’d developed this fantastic [TAG-Porsche] engine, Watson was gone because he wouldn’t sign his contract in time – and then along came Prost, and he made my life bloody difficult! Without him it would have been much easier to win the championship in ’84 – and not by half a point! With Watson, I’d have won it by maybe nine points or so…”

Once he came to realise that Prost was a man who could be trusted, Lauda was happy with the arrangement, and indeed it was the partnership with Alain which convinced Niki that, in the right circumstances, two number ones can be made to work.

“I had to accept Alain because he was there – and when he was quicker, he gave me a positive challenge. On the other hand, when Prost was with Senna, they didn’t like each other so much that all this positive thing didn’t happen. I think my two guys are in a similar situation – Lewis and Nico don’t hate each other, but they have the same problem we all have. When Prost was quicker, I was pissed off – kicked my engineers, and said, ‘What the hell’s going on over there?’ And they would say, ‘Well, he tried this and that…’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ They were hiding things, on set-up, and these things add together – and then you really get upset! Not with Alain personally, but with the system, with his side of the garage.

“I have to say that I think drivers today are maybe easier: they’re not so hard as we had to be – because there isn’t the risk there used to be. So, from a personality point of view, they’re different, and I think this real hate and fight and war – like Senna and Prost had, for example – does not exist any more. It’s harder to hide things these days.

“In normal circumstances, I think if you have two really top drivers, there’s a benefit for the team, no question about it. OK, there are some issues, like trying to steer them, and make sure that the whole team benefits, but I believe that today Mercedes – with these two guys – is in the best position, even if the car was not so competitive.

“Red Bull is getting into a similar situation, isn’t it? Look at the new guy from Australia – nobody expected it, but Ricciardo’s right there, isn’t he? So this is the best solution – not only for winning races, but also for development of the car. Today the guys all seem to drive in a similar way – you don’t seem to get ‘understeer drivers’ or ‘oversteer drivers’ any more – and so the development of the car goes much quicker than it did. Everyone in the team works harder, because every engineer is trying to help his driver, preparing the car better than the other guy. So for me, having the right two drivers, even with all the difficulties – because you can’t have only one side of it! – is the most important part of being a successful team. I’m very happy with the way we are racing now.”

In closing, we talked about 'the new Formula 1', of which I am a conspicuous fan, particularly in comparison with the 2.4-litre V8 era that left me frankly cold. Yes, there was the screaming racket, apparently beloved by so many, but to me it was sound and fury signifying rather little, with engine notes indistinguishable one from another, and the cars circulating as if on rails. It was the antithesis of Tony Brooks’s observation that, ‘A Grand Prix car should always have more power than its chassis can comfortably handle…’

This new ‘hybrid’ generation of F1 car, with vastly increased torque and – let’s savour it while it lasts – significantly reduced downforce, is patently more difficult to drive, and therefore to my eye far more exciting to watch. It baffles me that all so many people can talk about is that it doesn’t make enough noise.

The point has been made before that if interest in F1 for the manufacturers – Mercedes, Renault, Honda – were not to be lost, the engine regulations simply had to change, to become more relevant to the technology increasingly employed in these companies’ road cars.

More hybrids are appearing all the time, and increasingly turbocharging small engines is the favoured route to high performance.

Inescapably, though, turbocharged racing engines are by definition quieter than normally-aspirated ones. “At Mercedes,” said Lauda, “we tried a few months ago to make it more noisy – with that megaphone thing – but it didn’t work out in the way we hoped, and in my opinion it also looked ridiculous. We tried, but we could not do it, so now I hope the discussion is finished. We just have to let it run as it is – and as more races go by. I think eventually it will be accepted. We have damaged our sport ourselves: from day one in Melbourne we started this discussion, and I think it was wrong.

“If you go out on the circuit, these cars are much better to watch: they’re more difficult to drive, they move around more – and they’re much quicker on the straights. The lap times will come back – there’s all this bullshit about them not being as quick as before, but it’s no wonder, with generally harder tyres than before and less downforce…”

All that said, it is surely a very strange scenario when the man who has long controlled Formula 1, becoming a billionaire along the way, has not ceased – along with his devoted acolytes like Ron Walker – to denigrate it in 2014.

“Well,” said Lauda, “Bernie’s problem is that the organisers are all suffering at the moment, and for the last few years: not so many spectators, fees too high, so they don’t make much money – or any money at all. It’s a circle of problems – and the Australians used the noise so as to pay less to Bernie. Very simple. They said, ‘The show is half – so why the hell do I have to pay $50m or whatever it is?’

“It seems crazy to me that there is all this fuss about the noise when there are other things wrong with F1 that are much more important. I hope all this complaining about the noise, from Bernie and Ron Walker and others, will die away, because, in spite of all the unnecessary rules, I think the actual racing is better than it has been for years…”

Lauda's points are well made, and for the most part, I think, indisputable. The British passion for Formula 1 seems to be holding up reasonably well, if the size of the Silverstone crowd was any guide, but a fortnight later Hockenheim, in comparison with times past, was like a ghost town.

It used to be the case, particularly in the huge ‘stadium’ section, that there was not a seat to be had, and in its vintage years the circuit pulled a massive crowd. When the German GP was first run at Hockenheim, in 1970, 120,000 were there to watch Jochen Rindt’s Lotus 72 take on the Ferraris, but this time around the organisers said they were hoping for 50,000, and I’ll warrant they were disappointed.

Some suggested that the World Cup had a part to play, that Germany was so caught up in it this summer that all else was forgotten. In the hope of drawing attention to the Grand Prix, and increasing last-minute ticket sales, someone in the organising committee came up with what must have seemed originally to be an inspired idea: for every goal Germany scored in a particular match, the price of race admission would be reduced by €10. Sadly for him – and his circuit’s revenue – the game selected was that against Brazil…

Those who passed up the bargain basement tickets missed a fine race, for although Rosberg was unchallenged from start to finish, there were great scraps up and down the field, just as at Silverstone.

For me the most stirring aspect of the British Grand Prix was the battle – for fifth place – between Alonso’s Ferrari and Vettel’s Red Bull. In a patently slower car, and on tyres nine laps older, Fernando said he always knew that ultimately Sebastian would beat him to the flag, but in a racing car he cannot help himself, and as I watched him slice by the Red Bull on the outside into Copse – surely the moment of the season so far – the thought occurred that Enzo Ferrari, who loved a fighter above all else, will have been looking down in rapture.

It is the warrior in Alonso that I admire most of all, not least because it so much reminds me of Villeneuve, the Old Man’s favourite son. Back in 1979, in the old outside press stand at the Österreichring, I watched the start, as Gilles – from the third row – went through a gap that wasn’t there between Jabouille’s Renault and the pit wall, and then passed Lauda, Jones and Arnoux to lead the pack away up the hill to Hella-Licht. Denis Jenkinson, sitting alongside, stood up and clapped.

“No one like him, is there?” he said, and there wasn’t. After the race I asked Villeneuve why he had chanced such a start, knowing that ultimately it was futile, since he didn’t have the car to stay ahead of the turbocharged Renaults and Jones’s Williams. Gilles’s expression made me regret asking the question. “I’m a racing driver,” he said. “I had to…” Thirty-five years on, I well understood the throwaway remark of a Mercedes man in Montréal: “Thank God,” he said, “Alonso is not in a Williams…”

Not for 10 years would anyone have had such a thought, but for me the most pleasing aspect of the 2014 season has been the rebirth of Williams as a serious contender, and the emergence of Valtteri Bottas as a world champion in the making. In manner, and the way he goes about his business, Valtteri puts me in mind of Mika Häkkinen, and it is no surprise that Frank and his team are so high on him. Third place in Austria, followed by seconds in both Britain and Germany, vaulted Bottas and Williams to fifth and third in their respective championships.

Not for quite a while, though, has a world championship season distilled so completely to a two-hander between team-mates, which is why, as Lauda said, maintaining equilibrium at Mercedes requires his constant attention. No, Rosberg and Hamilton do not hate each other, but the fact remains that they drive the same car, and only one of them can win the world championship.

Back in 1988 there was a similar situation at McLaren, involving Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, whose relationship had at that time notyet become toxic. The Honda-powered MP4-4s were completely unopposed, but although Prost scored a total of 105 points to Senna’s 94, it was Ayrton who took the title, thanks to the ‘11 best results’ rule that then applied.

In my mind, Alain was always the true winner of that world championship, and I shall feel the same again this year if either Hamilton or Rosberg deservedly earns a good points lead by Abu Dhabi – and then loses the title at the last because of the double points rule, which, one trusts, will be revoked after a single season. The Barnum & Bailey idea of double points at the last race came from Bernie Ecclestone, but a couple of months ago even he acknowledged it may not have been his shining hour: “It’s probably not fair that someone should do all that work earlier on, and then at the end someone else can just pop in… but, anyway, double points won’t be necessary this year because the championship will be over much earlier than that…”

At the time Hamilton was on a roll, with four victories on the trot, which presumably accounted for Bernie’s last remark, but he was underestimating the pace and intelligence of the man in the other Mercedes. Traditionally we relish the years when the title fight goes down to the wire, but this season my hope is that, to avoid bringing ridicule upon itself, the world championship will be settled, one way or the other, before they get to the final race.