Niki Lauda’s life surpasses any film script: three times World Champion, twice with Ferrari, he is also an entrepreneur in the airline industry, television commentator and invaluable consultant. He has shown extraordinary character throughout, overcoming many difficult and dramatic moments, and his face is testimony to that. Nick Mason met him in Vienna to talk about the past and present
Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
I’d been looking forward to talking to Niki Lauda. Although he comes with a reputation for giving short shrift to questions he thinks inane, his ability to be both funny and incisive is legendary, and he didn’t disappoint. Niki is able to gain as much information from as wide a view as possible before selecting the best route to whatever he wants to achieve. On most subjects he is certainly opinionated, but his view is formulated after considerable thought. One got an inkling as to how he might have put this ability to work as a racing driver and, thinking about it now, perhaps he set the template for the likes of Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher in terms of being able to calculate tactics while simultaneously driving as fast as possible.
Being able to problem-solve and evaluate on the run clearly works well in a business situation, too. Having made the decision, the solution can then be pursued with a relentless, and sometimes breathtakingly risky application. Tales of the early funding of his racing career had the table transfixed, and described a picture a million miles away from the 21st-century fast track systems available to young drivers.
Obviously these qualities have proven equally effective with the establishment of his airline businesses and role as Formula One adviser and consultant. Again, his ability to embrace the politics and complications with a direct approach makes for a fabulously entertaining story.
The other thing I found particularly interesting was his skill at evaluating his own strengths and weaknesses, and making adjustments accordingly. One has read innumerable descriptions of athletes and performers responding to pressure, and in general it seems that an ability to transform stress into motivation is a prerequisite for success. In Niki’s case, he appears to have an alternative solution in recognising pressure and being able to divest himself of some of it. Fascinating.
Then there was his relationship with Enzo Ferrari. It’s clear that despite the Machiavellian politics, arguments and shouting matches, there was considerable respect and genuine affection between them… Apart from his obvious talent as a driver, Niki was part of Ferrari’s transition to a more modern motorsport era, where the driver played a wider role as part of the development team. In a world before computers and telemetry, there was still a gap between the engineers and the physical car that could only be bridged by the driver, presenting an opportunity for him to reposition himself as team leader and motivator.
Finally, it was illuminating to talk to Niki about the upcoming feature film Rush, directed by Ron Howard and currently in post-production, that vividly depicts Niki’s 1970s rivalry with James Hunt. Niki clearly appreciated that this was a bigbudget feature, not a documentary in the style of Senna. He seemed relaxed, and indeed amused, to learn that elements were fictionalised to attract an audience beyond the typical F1 fan. His view on the subject also revealed his acute sense of humour and something else perhaps unexpected: a willingness to laugh at himself.
Nick Mason How do you spend your time now?
Niki Lauda I sold Niki, my second airline after Lauda Air, to Air Berlin, last November. I had a “put” option that they asked to bring forward. In eight years of operation, we were profitable from the second year. We grew to 4.2 million passengers, 22 planes, and we always made money. We had a proper low-cost structure, we expanded like crazy, never had bank loans other than to finance the purchase of the planes. I’m on the board of Air Berlin now, to help them get their act together. So my work now is much less, because my day-to-day work was the airline. I’ve also been with RTL [German broadcaster] for 15 years, covering F1, and I travel to every grand prix.
NM From what I gather, you could write several books based on your exploits in the aviation industry alone.
NL I came out of a competitive environment in motor racing. When I started Lauda Air, I tried to find a better product for a reasonable price. We were the first to fly to Australia: Austrian Airlines didn’t even know where Australia was! I sold one airline to them and built up another one. Learning to fly and becoming a fully qualified commercial pilot myself also meant nobody could bullshit me when we were negotiating.
TOFM Like some of your contemporaries in motor racing, you have a pronounced entrepreneurial streak. In effect, you have had a three-act career, with no end in sight either…
NL I’m enjoying it, which is the number one thing. I always try to come up with a crazy idea and then make it work. The idea is the easy bit, making it stick is the difficult part. I like to 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.
NM It’s about having the ability to function under duress. In motor racing, but also in negotiation… Your family background is interesting. Did that shape you significantly?
NL 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 remember eating in this very hotel [The Imperial in central Vienna] – we had lunch here every Christmas Day – and there was one rule, we were not allowed to talk. And we kids talked and we were thrown out. 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 as hard as I did if my grandfather had been a reasonable person.
TOFM Did he 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.
TOFM You paid to drive for March and BRM, and secured a bank loan against your life insurance. When did Ferrari enter the scene?
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 before a race. I got back on Tuesday and my secretary said, “Ferrari called.” “Don’t joke,” I said. “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.” I said, “Why?”
“Because you’re ahead of [Jacky] Ickx and you’re an unknown and nobody knows why you are so fast…” I said I’d just had dinner with Mr Stanley [BRM’s boss] and done a deal. The Old Man said, “I’ll fix it.” Then we got to Brands Hatch and there was a rumour in the paddock that the police weren’t going to allow the Ferrari transporter through because of a dispute between BRM and Ferrari over the driver Niki Lauda! Actually, it was Bernie [Ecclestone] who helped sort that out.
NM Didn’t things get off to a tricky start, with that famously difficult first test?
NL Well, the first time I met Enzo Ferrari, [Franco] Gozzi and Montezemolo were there. It was quite simple negotiating with him because I didn’t have very much to negotiate about. I think he paid the equivalent of about €50,000 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. That really annoyed me! Then I came over to do my first test. The 1974 car was very uncompetitive, remember. At Fiorano, TAG Heuer had installed photo-cell timing equipment, which was very clever, and I thought, “If they have this technology and they still can’t make a competitive car, I don’t understand the world any more.” I told Piero [Ferrari], to push him, “The car is shit [his curt assessment of the car was meant more as a wake-up call for those involved in its design], it understeers everywhere…” He replied, “You can’t say that, it’s a Ferrari!” I replied, “You tell the Old Man I think the car is no good. It doesn’t turn in properly, there is no balance.” Then [Mauro] Forghieri was brought back from Siberia. Together we decided that we could go half a second faster. Piero said, “That’s very brave. If you say this, you have to make it happen.” Forghieri then fixed the geometry, and lowered the roll centre on the chassis, and I went 8/10ths of a second quicker. And, for whatever reason, the Old Man then trusted me from that moment on.
TOFM Maybe you’d passed a sort of initiation test…
NL Ferrari’s only interest was winning. He cared more about the cars than the drivers. He liked Villeneuve because he was crazy. And he liked me because I told him the truth, I didn’t bullshit him. He was friendly with me, he 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. 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 [Daniele, then team manager] visited me in hospital, after my accident, then went back to the paddock, went up to [Emerson] Fittipaldi and said, “Lauda is dead, we want to offer you a two-year contract.” This was an order from Ferrari himself. But listen, in terms of charisma and personality, none of today’s F1 managers compare with Enzo. Think how long he has been dead, and we’re still talking about him!
NM In the music industry, there are no more big characters like that. Now if you have a problem, you deal with business affairs. The legal department, basically.
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. Montezemolo has a big burden, but he has done a great job this past 20 years. The cars are excellent. And he has a charisma himself, he does it his way. He is the best man to continue the job Enzo started, doing it his own way, while keeping the spirit of the Old Man alive. When he was team manager, he had a different approach. A new type of manager. He came from the outside. He made us very successful.
TOFM Your comeback after the accident at the Nürburgring in 1976 remains arguably the greatest act of sporting bravery ever. You were badly burned, your lungs were severely damaged. And yet you were racing again just six weeks later.
NL I always knew about the risks I was taking. Every year, someone you knew was killed racing. You had to ask yourself, do you enjoy driving these cars so much that you’re prepared to take that risk? When I had my accident, I was not surprised. So I never moaned or bitched with myself. Then there was a simple question: is the pleasure of driving still strong, or do I want to retire? I remember 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… “F**k,” I thought. Of course, it got better and better. I had seen my injuries at their worst.
NM What happened when you returned to the team? What was their reaction?
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. I went to see Ferrari – “I want to drive at Monza”, I told him. He was surprised, and said, “It’s a bad idea. If you miss this race, it’s just one more race, and if we lose the championship, people will understand.” I said, “Excuse me, I’m fit, I don’t give a f**k about the championship. I want to get back to work. Simple.” And he said, “Ah, but we took a decision and we have [Carlos] Reutemann now, too.” My contract with Ferrari stipulated 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 at the track to let me drive. The next day, I calmed myself down and drove like there was no grand prix – I was the quickest Ferrari in practice. My confidence came back. And I finished fourth in the race.
NM And after that?
NL Well everything seemed OK until Fuji, when I got out of the car. I called the Old Man afterwards and said I wasn’t going to drive in those conditions [there was torrential rain at Fuji; in the race James Hunt finished third, and won the world championship over Lauda by a single point]. There was a nice, positive reaction from him, so I was relieved. Then I had to have another operation on my eyelid, so I was out for two months. After that 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 f**king nuts?” And he said, “I took a decision, Reutemann is the new number one and he’s fully in charge of testing.”
NM You had to hustle to get a proper test in the car, didn’t you?
NL Yes. And in three laps, I blew away Reutemann’s best time. And he’d been testing [at Paul Ricard] 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 still part of it, of course, and I won my second championship at Ferrari. And then Bernie [Ecclestone, then team principal at Brabham] came along, offered me a load of money to leave Ferrari and drive for him, and I’d had enough of the political problems by then. Two days later, I’m in a room with all of the big Ferrari hitters, not just the Old Man. I thought, wow, 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 walked out like I was walking on air.
NM And pretty soon we’ll be able to see you on the big screen, in Rush. That must feel rather special.
NL I know Peter Morgan [the film’s scriptwriter]. I had actually known his wife for a while before I met Peter. So, actually I wasn’t aware of his body of work, and of course he is one of the finest screenwriters working in cinema. I met him, and he started telling me about his idea for a film. I told him pretty much what I’ve just told you today. Anyway, we were having dinner some time later, and Peter told my wife Birgit, “Niki won’t like what I have done. This is a Hollywood film and I’ve had to change lots of things.” [laughs] I haven’t even read the full script. I don’t care, I can accept it. I think Ron Howard is fantastic. I know Eric Fellner, one of the producers – he’s a big Ferrari fan. Daniel Brühl [the actor portraying Lauda] is terrific.
TOFM I met him on the set earlier this year, and I can tell you his take on you is inspired.
NL I trained him well! He came to Vienna and worked 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.” Marlene [Lauda’s first wife] told him all sorts of things about me. [laughs] Peter showed me the scene where my injuries are shown for the first time, on my return at Monza.
It’s shot extremely well, I must say. The horror of the moment. I finally understood how the people at the time must have felt. At the time I didn’t care.
TOFM You recently became a father again, at the age of 60. Another pretty significant development…
NL It’s very funny. Honestly. Max and Mia, they’re almost three now. To see them every day, how funny they are, the things they do… With Lukas and Mathias [his sons from his first marriage], I was never there. I was egocentric. Racing was dangerous. It was about me staying alive in a very extreme sport. Children are unpolluted by the things that adults worry about. I am still a kid, in a way. It’s not difficult for me to go back there. At least, that’s what I like to tell my wife, Birgit…
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 18, September 2012