It was sad to hear about the passing of Niki Lauda last week. He died after contracting pneumonia after a lung transplant. He was 70 years old.
One of my favourite motor racing books is his autobiography titled To Hell and Back. This is what I wrote in one my reviews.
If someone had said to me at the end of 1973 when Jackie Stewart had just retired that Niki Lauda would be the next great champion of formula one, I would have laughed in his face. In my eyes it was obvious who the next great driver was. It was Ronnie Peterson. Had I tested those theories with a substantial cash wager I would have found myself out of pocket because Lauda won two world championships, retired, then made a comeback and won a third championship. The story of Lauda’s dreadful crash at the Nurburgring has been told many times, it’s even been made into the movie ‘Rush’ directed by Ron Howard. To Hell and Back is Niki’s story in his own words and a great story it is too. On his return to F1 at Monza after his terrible crash, Lauda drove out onto the track and was so scared he began to shake uncontrollably. Nevertheless, he carried on, overcame his fears and became a motorsport legend.
Things weren’t too great at Ferrari when he returned either. They had already replaced him with Carlos Reuteman, the Argentinian driver and Niki was understandably not amused. He returned to racing at the Italian Grand Prix that same year, 1976 and came home fourth, an incredible feat of endurance for a man who only months earlier had been given the last rites. At the championship decider, the Japanese Grand Prix, Lauda withdrew from the race in torrential rain after deciding the conditions were too dangerous to continue. James Hunt came third and therefore became the 1976 World Champion by a single point.
Lauda won the championship again in 1977 then left Ferrari. After two years with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham outfit he retired but was lured back to F1 again by Ron Dennis the boss of McLaren in 1982. Lauda won the championship for a third time in 1984 but this prompted a salary disagreement between the two men. Lauda claimed that he had only asked for a token £1 salary as a driver and the rest of his reported $3 million dollar salary was for his publicity value. Now he was world champion he reasoned, his salary should be upped considerably, after all his publicity value was the same if not more but now he was a world champion driver. Ron Dennis disagreed and Lauda took his financial issue straight to team sponsors Marlboro. They coughed up the extra cash but Alain Prost then became Ron Dennis’ favoured driver. Lauda retired at the end of 1985.
Lauda took a lot of risks in his early career, financial risks rather than racing ones. He took out a £30,000 bank loan to buy his way into the March team’s Formula 2 car. They were impressed and quickly elevated him to the F1 team. In 1973 he borrowed more money to buy his way into the BRM team. Lauda was good but the team were near to the end of their days, however when team mate Clay Reggazoni moved to Ferrari he told Enzo Ferrari how good Lauda was and Ferrari signed Lauda too and Lauda was happily able to repay his loans. Later in life he was able to start his own airline, Lauda Air which he sold in 1999 but then went on to start another airline.
In 2013 director Ron Howard made the Hunt/Lauda championship battle into the movie Rush.
Niki worked as a consultant to Ferrari and as team principal for the Jaguar F1 team and most recently he was a non executive director for the Mercedes F1 team. Until his lung transplant he was a familiar face in the Mercedes pit along with Toto Wolff, the Mercedes Team Boss and has been credited with luring Lewis Hamilton away from the Mclaren team.
Niki Lauda was one of the legends of Formula One and it was nice to see Niki remembered at Monaco this year by the F1 drivers and teams who all wore red caps in his memory.