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Top Gear chats to Niki Lauda
There are many great moments in Rush, but although the film is a cocktail of fast racing, faster women, old-school male bravado and general chicanery, Niki Lauda’s fiery crash during the 1976 German Grand Prix puts it all into brutal perspective. It’s the section that anchors the film, the one that elicits audible gasps among the audience before plunging them into a contemplative silence.
And no wonder. Ron Howard handles the aftermath with elegance and sensitivity, but he doesn’t hold back on the unimaginable pain Lauda endured as he defied the priest who read him the last rites and the doctors who doubted he’d ever recover. This is a man who had his lungs vacuum pumped repeatedly, and had a nurse peel off his bandages under neon lighting while his wounds were at their worst. They were still raw when he climbed back into his car at the 1976 Italian GP 43 days after his crash, to finish fourth in front of a stunned tifosi and bemused paddock.
All this stuff ricochets around your head when you meet Lauda for the first time. It doesn’t much diminish the second time. In fact, it’s difficult not to be cowed in his presence no matter how often you meet him. He’s that guy. Formula One’s ultimate survivor. The driver who won two world championships for Ferrari, quit the sport to set up a successful commercial airline, then returned to win a third title in 1984 driving for McLaren. It’s also well known that this scion of an Austrian banking dynasty doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I know this because I was the fool who asked him a stupid question back in 2001 when he was running the ill-fated Jaguar F1 team, and got a blast of the Lauda hair-drier for my trouble.
Perhaps age has mellowed him. He married again a few years ago, and his wife Birgit gave birth to twins, Max and Mia. Talking about fatherhood makes his eyes sparkle, and he concedes that he was simply too selfish to be much good at parenting the first time round (he has two sons, Matthias and Lukas, from his first marriage, and another son, Christoph, from another relationship). I met him in Vienna last year, on Ferrari-related business, then again at Monaco earlier this year. On that occasion, the more mellow Lauda was nowhere to be seen: news of the Mercedes F1 team’s opportunistic Pirelli tyre test had just broken in the paddock and watching him - these days non-executive chairman of the Merc F1 team, remember - was like watching hell bubbling up before your very eyes.
The logic-driven, apparently unemotional young Lauda is brilliantly captured by the German actor Daniel Brühl in Rush. The more seasoned Niki insists he wasn’t quite as serious as he comes across in the film. Based on the meetings across a decade, I’d be inclined to agree. It’s better than arguing with him…
Top Gear: Are you as cool and calculating as you appear in Rush?
Niki Lauda: I am emotional. But I also have everything well under control and I can analyse things properly. What drives me crazy is the amount of talking that goes on. I like to make my life simple. I get straight to the point. If it’s my mistake, it’s my mistake. In motor racing, you learn to achieve the best result in the shortest amount of time. It applies in life too. Be quicker than the others. And don’t make mistakes. Even if things fail, have the discipline to find a new way, rather than embarking on a pointless emotional journey.
TG: Your family wasn’t happy when you decided to become a racing driver.
Niki Lauda: My biggest problem was my grandfather. He was president of the Red Cross and ran a huge company in Austria. I had a good relationship with my mother and father, but my grandfather… I fought my grandfather like you wouldn’t believe. I went my own way, and decided to become a racing driver. I don’t think I would ever have fought that hard if my grandfather had been a reasonable person.
TG: So you had to pay your way into your first drive.
NL: I joined March with Max Mosley at the time. I was an unknown driver who could bring money to help their budget. I had sponsorship from an Austrian bank. It went to the supervisory board, and my stupid grandfather stopped it from happening! So I went to another bank, and he said, ‘what happens if you die?’ So I secured the loan against my life insurance. I put their logo on my helmet, which is how I got out of the mess my grandfather put me in.
TG: Did your grandfather ever say, “sorry Niki, you did well…”
NL: No. I broke with him, and the poor guy died before we had a chance to make peace.
TG: You raced for BRM, run by Louis Stanley, when it was a fading force. But it was still enough to get you noticed by the most famous team of all.
NL: ‘If Ferrari calls, don’t forget to tell me’. It was a running joke. I would always say this as I left my little office in Salzburg. I got back on Tuesday, and my secretary said, “Ferrari called”. “Don’t joke,” I replied. “No really, someone called Monteprezelo or something…” I called him, I went to Maranello, I saw the Old Man and he said, “I want you to drive for me”. Why? “Because you are ahead of Ickx and you are an unknown and nobody knows why you are so fast…” I told him I’d just had dinner with Mr Stanley. The Old Man said, “I’ll fix it”. Then we got to Brands Hatch and there was a rumour that the British police weren’t going to allow the Ferrari transporter through because of a dispute between BRM and Ferrari over the driver Niki Lauda! This was the rumour in the paddock. Actually, it was Bernie [Ecclestone] who helped sort that.
TG: How was it meeting Il Commendatore the first time?
NL: It was quite simple negotiating with him because I didn’t have very much to negotiate about. I think he paid the equivalent of 50,000 euros today. I said, “at least let me have a car”, and they sold me one - at a discount. A cheap car but not free, not part of the deal. Then I came over to do my first test. The 1974 car was very uncompetitive, remember. At Fiorano TAG Heuer had installed the photocell timing equipment, which was very clever, and I thought, ‘they have this technology, and yet they can’t make a competitive car, I don’t understand the world any more’. I told Piero [Ferrari], “the car is s***, it understeers everywhere…” He replied, “you can’t say that, it’s a Ferrari!” “Tell the Old Man I think the car is no good”, I said. It doesn’t turn in properly, and there is no balance. Then Forghieri [Mauro, Ferrari’s famous technical director] was brought back from Siberia. We decided we could go half a second faster. Piero said, “that’s very brave. If you say this, you have to make it happen.” Forghieri fixed the geometry, and I went 8/10ths of a second quicker. And for whatever reason, the Old Man trusted me from that moment on.
TG: You’d passed some sort of test. Or perhaps simply proved yourself.
NL: Ferrari’s interest was only to win. He didn’t really care about the drivers. He liked Villeneuve because he was crazy. And he liked me because I told him the truth, and didn’t bulls*** him. He was friendly with me, accepted me. I would simply knock on his door. Looking back now, after all the fights I had with him after my accident, he was a very egocentric man. Absolutely focused on his cars, on his ideas, being successful in a brutal way. But in the end, he was Italian and he had a heart. I had the opportunity to experience it on the odd occasion, but the rest of the time it was not funny. Let me tell you this. Audetto [then team manager] visited me in hospital, after my accident, and went back to the paddock, went up to Fittipaldi and said, “Lauda is dead, we want to offer you a two-year contract”. Emerson rang me when I was better, and said, “nobody knew if you were dead or alive and they were already talking to me about a contract! Replacing you for a few races, that I would understand…” And this was not Audetto. This was an order from Ferrari himself. But listen, in terms of charisma and personality, none of today’s Formula One managers can compare with Enzo. Think how long he has been dead, and we’re still talking about him!
TG: He seems to grow in stature with every passing year. He’s almost a mythological figure now.
NL: There are people in F1 who wish they were like Enzo Ferrari, when they should concentrate on being themselves. Why was Enzo Ferrari different? Because he was who he was, and never wanted to be somebody else. Di Montezemolo has a big burden, but he has done a great job this past 20 years. The cars are excellent. And he has charisma, he does it his way. He is the best man to continue the job Enzo began, doing it in his own way, while keeping the spirit of the Old Man alive. When he was team manager, he had a different approach. He was a new type of manager. He came from the outside. He made us very successful.
TG: Your comeback after the Nürburgring crash was arguably the greatest act of sporting bravery ever. Does it seem that way now, looking back?
NL: No. I always knew about the risks I was taking. Every year, someone was killed. Do you enjoy driving these cars so much that you’re prepared to take that risk? It’s not the same today. When I finally had my accident, I was not surprised. So I never moaned or bitched with myself. Why does my head hurt? Then there was a simple question: is the pleasure of driving still strong, or do I want to retire? As I got going again, the fitness came back, I went running while listening to some good music, and I thought: do I retire for good, or do I fight fear, fight the accident and go for it [thumps table]. After my accident, I never worried about how I looked. It was how it was. I asked a nurse in the burns clinic, “when can I look in the mirror?” “Any time,” she said. It should never have been allowed. And she switched on a neon light, and my head was as big as this [makes expansive gesture with his hands] because of the heat and the water retention. My head went straight into my shoulders… I had to squint my eyes to see… “s***”, I thought. Of course, it got better and better. I had seen my injuries at their worst. It’s shot extremely well in the film, I must say. The horror. I finally understood how the people at the time must have felt. At the time, I didn’t care. I was racing!
TG: Tell me what happened on your return.
NL: I went to Fiorano, and I said, “let me drive a car.” I was still in pain, so I needed to see if I could drive it. Before Monza. No problem, nothing felt wrong, felt like before the accident. I went to see Ferrari, I want to drive at Monza. He was surprised, and said, “it’s a bad idea. If you miss this race and if we lose the championship people will understand”. I said, “Excuse me, I’m fit, I don’t care about the championship. I want to get back to work. Simple”. And he said, “ah, but we took a decision and we have Reutemann now, too”. My contract said two cars not three. “Only in Monza you have three cars,” I said. My first day at Monza was terrible, I was putting too much pressure on myself. And I had to fight the idiots in Monza to let me drive. The next day, I drove like there was no Grand Prix, and I was the quickest Ferrari. My confidence came back. I finished fourth [barely six weeks since his accident].
TG: But things got more and more complicated, didn’t they?
NL: Everything seemed OK until Fuji, when of course I got out of the car. I called the Old Man and said I wasn’t going to drive in those conditions. There was a nice, positive reaction from him, so I was relieved. Then I had to have another operation on my ear and my eye, so I was out for two months. I called and said, “I’m ready to go testing, I’m fit”. And Ferrari said, “good. You can test brake pads at Fiorano”. I said, “are you nuts?” And he said, “I took a decision, Reutemann is the new number one and he’s fully in charge of testing”. Carlos is going to do the test at Paul Ricard. I went outside, came back in, and said, “I’m going to McLaren. Cancel the contract”. More meetings, meetings, meetings. Then they called me back in. I was given a few days at the end of the test. I knew what Reutemann was doing, what tyres he was on. They started packing up and I said, “I have to test…”
TG: the politics must have driven you crazy.
NL: In three laps, I blew away Reutemann’s best time. And he’d been testing there all week! The Old Man called the next day and I told him, “you will never win the championship if he does all the testing”. He accepted this, off we went, Reutemann was part of it, and I won the championship. And then Bernie came along, offered me a load of money to leave Ferrari and go to Brabham, and I’d had enough of the political problems by then. Two days later, all of the big Ferrari hitters were in the room, not just the Old Man. I thought, “they really want to make a new contract”. Forghieri said, “how much do you want?” which they never would have asked before. “I’m leaving”, I said. And Ferrari looked at me and I could see in his eyes that he was hurt and he could not believe it. It was Ferrari. They had the best car. But I was leaving. And I will never forget how it felt, I walked out like I was walking on air. The relief was incredible.
TG: How does it feel to see your story immortalised in a major film?
NL: I know Peter Morgan [the film’s scriptwriter]. I had actually known his wife for a while. Actually I wasn’t aware of his body of work, and of course he is one of the finest screenwriters working in cinema today. I met him, and he started talking about his idea. I told him pretty much what I’ve just told you today. I trained Daniel [Brühl] well. He came to Vienna and did some training with a speech coach. I asked him, “how difficult is it for you to play me?” He replied, “extremely, because you are still alive”. People will know if I am a bad actor. The film is about two different guys who used different approaches but who were fighting for the same success. It’s a movie for an audience today.