10 reasons that will make us miss Niki Lauda
#1 Lauda needed only three words to introduce himself to Enzo Ferrari after his first Cavallino F1 testing session in Fiorano, Italy. It was 1973. When Il Commendatore asked him how was the car, translated by his son, Piero Ferrari, Niki said: “Car is shit”. Piero had to translate into a more polite “the car is not good”. Enzo, furious and offended, asked him what could be done to make it better. The cold Austrian said the car was understeering. Chief Engineer Mauro Forghieri worked hard to fix the sloppy front end and the next test, Lauda improved by 8/10th of a second. Niki became a Ferrari driver and he won his first two World Championships, in 1975 and 1977.
#2 In an interview, his ex wife Marlene, confirmed that during the racing weekends, he was a total a**hole. Lauda wasn’t famous for his sense of humor. He was the freak of the paddock. He wasn’t funny or entertaining. He was so focused on himself and on his performance that considered anything else a distraction. Anything that would not give him an extra tenth of a second of speed would be demoted to a useless subject in his life. He was ruthless. His speeches were blunt but he was honest and direct.
#3 Lauda said in an interview that he always planned to be 15 minutes early at every meeting he intended. He decided it would be so early because that would be the time he needed to change a tire in case of a puncture and still be sharp at his meeting. He also didn’t forget to say that he would expect the other attendees to be also 15 minutes early, just because he was. He was a handful.
#4 His family was wealthy. His father was the CEO of a prominent enterprise in Austria and young Niki was driven by the chauffeur to school every morning. Niki at a very young age never accepted to be dropped in front of the school. Instead, he always stepped off the car one block away from school. He didn’t want to be judged by the wealth of his family. Soon his dad realized that young Lauda was never going to be a good student. As a matter of fact, he was pulled out of school and sent to be a car mechanic. There he smelled the engines scents from much closer, for the first time.
#5 Niki was stubborn. Three days after he signed his first sponsorship deal with a bank for 180 thousand USD, in order to debut with the F1 Team March, his grandfather sabotaged the deal and made the bank cancel the sponsorship. Lauda had lost his seat. Temporarily though. He then went to another bank and obtained a loan for the same amount to be paid in five years, with no interests, which he negotiated as an advertisement for the bank. He managed to sign with March and started his stellar career. He stopped talking to his grandfather, who was against young Niki to race.
#6 Lauda hardest competitor was James Hunt and his words for him are nothing short to romantic and in a way extraordinary: “He is a man that you never forget when you know him”. “James for me is still alive, even if he’s dead”. One day at the Paul Ricard F1 race track, James and Niki were testing for McLaren and Ferrari. Lauda tells that the night before Hunt didn’t make him sleep, despite of the discipline of the Austrian. Hunt fell asleep during the test, inside the car, on the track and was Lauda who went to wake him up. Few years after, Hunt got broke due to a wrong investment and lost everything. The two met in London. Lauda tells that he arrived on a bicycle, drunk, long hair and desperate. The Austrian helped him as a brother. He helped him to make himself a new life, which he did. Hunt ended up commenting for BBC and stopped drinking.
#7 After his terrible crash at the Nurburgring, Lauda’s face was severely burnt when his car caught fire and he got stuck inside. Skin from his legs was transplanted to reconstruct his forehead, parts of his eyes contour and a large part of his skull. He says he cannot care of his own look he only said that “I have an excuse to look ugly, I had an accident. You don’t have an excuse for being ugly”. Very German… ehrm, sorry Austrian humor
#8 Lauda nearly died in his accident at the Nurburgring but miraculously he was back in the car six weeks later at the Monza Grand Prix. It was pure will, against every doctor recommendation. Some of his transplanted skin got stuck in the canvas of the helmet. He bled. Friday practice didn’t go well. Saturday he went on track with no more fear and led the pack with the best lap time of the day. Carlos Reutemann, the other Ferrari driver at that time, couldn’t match his pace that day. Niki finished 4th.
#9 He retired from F1 in 1979 and took a long “sabbatical”. When he decided to come back he was chosen by McLaren. At that time Mr. Alain Prost was the king but Niki beat him by half a point after an epic fight and won his third F1 title in 1984. He made a point. He was the best.
#10 Niki Lauda has become a true legend during the Japan GP. The year of his accident at the Nurburgring, 1976, he still managed to arrive at the last race three points ahead of James Hunt for the drivers’ championship. Torrential rain made him decide that it was too dangerous to continue racing and let Hunt win the championship. Enzo Ferrari wasn’t happy, but again, Lauda couldn’t care much. He says he only needed to prove himself and the world he could overcome a nearly fatal accident and that he still was the best F1 driver of those years. You will be missed. Auf Wiedersehen.