Monday 24 June 2019

David Kennedy: 'Vibrant Lauda stood defiant in face of trauma and tragedy'

Niki Lauda. Photo: Getty Images
Niki Lauda. Photo: Getty Images

David Kennedy

Formula One lost one of the sport's greatest heroes last week with the passing of Niki Lauda. He'd recently turned 70 but a double lung transplant eight months ago led to his untimely death. In truth it was a miracle he survived this long considering what he endured in life. In 2005 his wife gifted him her kidney and in 1997 his brother donated his.

Lauda was a vibrant, articulate, witty and acerbic character who stood defiant in the face of trauma, and tragedy. The paddock will be all the poorer without his presence.

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He came to F1 in 1971 as a paying driver, thanks to a privileged background, a few bank loans and a family that disapproved of his chosen profession. He went on to win two championships for Ferrari, the first in 1975. He was runner-up to James Hunt the following year, but more of that later.

His second title came in 1977, again with Ferrari. Following a two-year hiatus from the sport, he made a comeback with McLaren in 1982 - partnering Ulsterman John Watson. In 1984 he won his third title by just half a point, ahead of new sensation on the block, team-mate Alain Prost.

Lauda straddled two very different decades in F1 safety, the 1970s which saw a stream of fatalities and the '80s, when safety measures had begun to be implemented. The cars also changed immeasurably, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable.

Of course it was 1976 and the crash at the Nürburgring that would define him. In an era long before smart phones and camcorders, an 11-year-old boy captured Lauda's crash on celluloid at the 241kph Bergwerk bend, half-way around the course. The Austrian lost control on a damp track, ploughed into fencing and a bank, bounced back and leaking fuel caused the inferno.

Jackie Stewart named the Old 'Ring 'The Green Hell' after his 1968 win in atrocious conditions. Jochen Rindt said "it's difficult to drive and easy to die" there. The Old 'Ring is nothing compared to today's computer-designed shortened circuit.

Back then F1 cars had 172 bends to contend with on a 22.83km lap. Up hills and down dales through forests and mountains, if you got it wrong at corners like Bergwerk your lap was ruined. Fittingly, Lauda was the only driver to break seven minutes for a lap when he recorded a time of 6:58.6 in his Ferrari 312T in 1975. After the accident the circuit was deemed too unsafe for F1, ironic considering Lauda had wanted to boycott the race in '76 due to safety concerns. It was the end of an era. Raw fear had lost its host, replaced by sober circuits that didn't terrify and tantalise in the same way the 'Ring did.

When Lauda crashed at Bergwerk, the sheer length of the circuit offered little hope of immediate rescue from the flames engulfing him. Thanks to the bravery of fellow drivers, including Arturo Merzario who physically pulled him out of the cockpit, the Hesketh driver Guy Edwards, who now lives in the west of Ireland, and a marshall with a hand extinguisher, they collectively saved Lauda's life. He was trapped in 800 degree heat for 50 seconds.

In hospital, when it was thought he was not going to survive, a priest administered the last rites to a startled Lauda who was regaining consciousness. He was furious with the priest and that fury fuelled his determination to live. It was certainly an unconventional and miraculous 'phoenix rising from the ashes' moment, itself worthy of a biblical parable.

He missed just two races before returning to defend his title and during the final race of the season in Japan, in horrendous conditions, he pulled off the circuit and effectively handed James Hunt the championship. Blood from his wounds was seeping through his balaclava and a damaged tear duct filled his eye with water. No wonder his autobiography is called To Hell and Back.

When Lauda left motorsport he turned to aviation, a world that frustrated him. They have "their foot on the brake of everything," he said, a shock to a racer who only knew about having his foot on the throttle. His first airline company, Lauda Air, began service in 1987 with flight attendants wearing jeans, an example of the unconventional attitude Lauda adopted. It ran into financial difficulties and the nadir came when a plane crashed in Thailand in 1991, killing 223 people. His second airline 'Niki', which became 'Laudamotion', was sold to Ryanair.

The buzz and energy of F1 lured Lauda back to his spiritual home. His most successful partnership was with Mercedes. He was instrumental in signing Lewis Hamilton in 2013. Team boss Toto Wolff and Lauda made an unlikely pairing but their Austrian synergy created one of the most successful unions in the history of the sport. Lauda was Wolff's foil in many ways. While Lauda shot from the hip with a no-nonsense narrative, in contrast, the well-oiled Mercedes PR team delivered sanitised accounts of events.

Whatever adversity visited him, Lauda turned it to his advantage. His severely scarred face from third-degree burns and his half an ear were paraded with the confidence of someone who saw only the essence and truth in everything. Even his prominent teeth, which earned him the moniker 'the rat' he took as a compliment. "The rat was my role model in the animal kingdom, given its high intelligence and its instinct for survival."

Lauda is immortalised in Ron Howard's film Rush, brilliantly played by Daniel Brühl, a portrayal that was given the Niki seal of approval.

The Mercedes team will be looking to honour his memory with a victory in Monaco this weekend. Lewis Hamilton was too distraught to speak at a press conference.

Given that Monaco is one of the few challenging circuits left on the calendar, a Hamilton win today would be a fitting salute to his boss and mentor, who was victorious himself there in 1975 and 1976. I know it's a cliche, but it will be a long time before we see the likes of Niki Lauda again.

In Irish motorsport news, a documentary produced by Grainne O'Carroll on the history of Mondello Park will be screened by RTE on Monday week, June 3. Golden moments, from Grass to Glory is a trip down memory lane. Stick it in your diary.

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