Niki Lauda: A true Formula 1 legend
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The epithet ‘great’ is often bandied about with little real meaning but can be truly applied to Niki Lauda whose death was announced on Tuesday (NZ time).
A man who always spoke his mind and saw through much of the cloud of PR rhetoric while at the same time being a true legend of the sport.
He received the last rights after his horrendous accident at the Nurburgring in 1976 but recovered in time to take part in the Italian Grand Prix, less than six weeks later, his serious burns, still raw and evident to all.
Leading the World Championship prior to his accident he ultimately failed to win the title by just one point.
Lauda became part of Formula 1 folklore but there were many facets to the man, including a tremendous wit and a certain devilish attitude.
He bonded with James Hunt and was not averse to Hunt’s partying and attitude to life at the same time being far more analytical and systematic in his approach to racing.
Outside of a racing car it was a pleasure, and something of an education, to be in their presence where irreverence tended to rule.
He joined the McLaren team in 1982 after ‘retiring’ from Formula 1 in 1979 with uncertainty within the team, and himself, that he was still capable of winning races.
That hesitation was soon dispelled and he won the US Grand Prix just three races later.
The respect that he commanded among other Formula 1 drivers was more than evident when they followed Lauda’s bidding to go on strike at the South African grand Prix just three races into his resurrected career.
Lauda was at the time under the care of Willi Dungl, an Austrian sports rehabilitation expert and Dungl accompanied him to every Grand Prix.
He had Lauda on a very strict health diet that included two pieces of dry Austrian bread with some sort of ‘spread’ on it and water.
He usually started to eat it, slowly, until Dungl had left the area and then quickly asked for a very strong, very black, double espresso coffee and a ham and cheese sandwich, hungrily devoured.
Driving on the public road with any racing driver is often an experience that is thrilling.
Driving with Lauda most times was akin to driving with Miss Daisy.
He was a careful and considerate driver who once told me that “if you drive very fast and loose on the road, just pretend it is you who is coming the other way”.
Lauda’s achievements, not only on the track but in life in general are exceptional.
From racing driver to airline pilot to airline owner, businessman, pundit and a major figure in the Mercedes Formula 1 team
With his disfigured ear and badly burnt facial features, he earned the cruel nickname of “The Rat’ or even ‘King Rat’ but it was a nickname he embraced and even wore the name on his helmet on occasion.
On a very personal note Niki was great fun to be with and one who took no nonsense from anybody.
He was a character with a charisma from a past era.
An era when the closely monitored utterings of todays racing drivers was yet to come and he carried that attitude through to his last appearance with Mercedes at a Grand Prix in 2018.
Lauda, like his great friend and rival Hunt, were figures from a different time and place and I am proud to have known and worked with them both.