A PHOENIX FALLS
Niki Lauda was used to rising from the ashes like a phoenix. But on the eve of the Monaco Grand Prix, he closed his eyes for the last time. Egmont Sippel pays homage.
Things might have changed by the time you read this article.
But on the podium in Monaco, after a hard-fought battle between Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas, Vettel must have wondered about the irony – and perhaps even the injustice – of it all.
Here he was, the heir to a Ferrari seat once occupied by Michael Schumacher, and many years before Schumacher, another driver: the great Austrian, Niki Lauda.
Vettel then, is – in a manner of speaking – twice connected to Lauda: via Ferrari, and via the Germanic tongue.
Yet, there was Hamilton, an Englishman, on top of the podium, boasting a far closer bond with Lauda than Vettel ever did, even though this particular Englishman hardly speaks a word of German, and even though he has never driven Maranellian cars as Lauda did.
After the race, however, it was Hamilton pointing to his one-off helmet painted, roughly, in the colours of Lauda’s – even though Seb’s was an exact replica. At the end of the day, it was Hamilton, and not Vettel, who laid claim to having raced with Niki’s spirit.
That’s because Niki, during the last seven years of his life, was directly involved with Mercedes, the team with which Hamilton has by now racked up four of his five world titles. And it was none other than Niki who had been instrumental in recruiting Hamilton to drive for Mercedes, after which he became something of a father figure to Lewis, a consigliere, a shoulder to lean on.
It so happened, then, on 26 May 2019, that Seb Vettel, standing on the second tier of the Monaco podium, not only had to look up to The Hammer, but also had to listen to the Prince’s Guards play Germany’s anthem, **Das Lied der Deutschen**, in honour of the car that has carried his mortal enemy to this particular moment of glory.
**Deutschland über alles**, rings the refrain of the first stanza. Deutschland, ironically, had defeated the German driver.
So, how perfect would it have been, then, in Seb’s world, if he could have topped the podium to listen to his country’s anthem being played in honour of him and his car, secure in the knowledge that he was the one with that special bond between a modern champion and a throw-back called Andreas Nikolaus Lauda.
THE INFERNO OF NÜRBURGRING
With the passing of Niki Lauda on 20 May 2019, that privilege will never be Vettel’s. In F1, Lauda has driven for March, BRM, Ferrari, Brabham and McLaren. In his post-F1 life, he has also consulted for Ferrari, Jaguar and lately Mercedes.
His ties to Ferrari, therefore, run deep. He won the world championship with them in 1975 and 1977; glory in 1984 came via McLaren.
But in between his two titles for the Prancing Horse, Lauda also got burned in one when he inexplicably lost control of his mount during the German GP of 1976, at the Nürburgring.
His Ferrari burst into flames and Lauda was badly burned, but the real damage was done by inhaling toxic air for nearly a minute, while being pulled from the inferno raging around him at 800 degrees Celsius.
Lauda was still conscious, but collapsed into a coma soon afterwards, while a priest read the last rites a day or two later in hospital. Battered and scarred, the Austrian pulled through with a will of iron and, miraculously, raced his Ferrari again, only six weeks later, at Monza; the holy cauldron of Italian motor racing.
The **Tifosi** went mad when Lauda turned out to be the fastest Ferrari driver, out-qualifying his regular teammate Regazzoni by almost a second and subjugating the challenge of Reutemann, who had been drafted into the team on the presumption that it would have been impossible for Lauda to make a return to racing, perhaps ever.
Heroically, the Austrian finished fourth on that Sunday and still held a slender lead going into the season finale in Japan. With title rival James Hunt finishing third at Fuji, Lauda would only have needed a fifth place to retain his title, but in torrential rain he elected to pit after the Grand Prix’s opening lap.
“My life is worth more than a mere title,” he declared.
Ferrari went bananas, and despite Niki winning the title the following year once more for Maranello, relationships with Enzo Ferrari had soured to such a point that Lauda switched to Brabham.
After two years of struggling with the Alfa Romeo-powered car, Niki pulled into the pits during practice for the Canadian GP in 1979, declaring that he was tired of “driving around in circles”.
He took his leave to run Lauda Air, but returned to F1 racing in 1982 with McLaren to cap a glittering career by clinching a third and last title in 1984.
The biggest blow of Lauda’s life still lay in store, though, when Lauda Air Flight 004 went down in Thailand on 26 May 1991, after one of the Boeing 767’s engines had gone into reverse thrust, a situation from which it was impossible to rescue the plane, as proven by Lauda himself on 15 simulated flights in Boeing’s headquarters.
Lauda’s legacy is of an honest, intelligent man and a gladiatorial fighter, who also happened to be a great racing car driver. When prodded about his scars and looks – for Lauda had been steadfast in refusing plastic surgery; the accident had happened, and that was that – he always answered with a twinkle in the eye: “I had an accident. What’s your excuse?”
Lauda was nothing if not blunt, honest, direct, unfiltered, unsentimental and true to himself, reducing life to the bare necessities. He once gave all his racing trophies – “mostly ugly and useless”, he said – to his local garage, in exchange for lifelong free car washes.
This pragmatic attitude to life was reflected in a permanently casual dress code and an endearing way of cutting to the chase. Lauda had a naughty sense of humour, often at his own expense, and talked super straight without ever making enemies.
It was in this spirit that Lewis Hamilton had the fight of his life on his hands, when Mercedes strapped medium compound tyres to his car, in the only round of pit stops in Monaco. Team manager Toto Wolff, another honest-to-the-bone Austrian, admitted afterwards that it was a mistake not to go for hard tyres, but Hamilton pulled through on badly deteriorating rubber by staving off Verstappen, Vettel and Bottas, each of them on the better-lasting hard compound.
If it was gruelling for Lewis, local boy Charles Leclerc got grilled in another calamitous weekend for Ferrari, while bad luck in qualifying also put paid to Bottas’s chances.
The Finn reigned supreme in Azerbaijan – redemption for last year when he should have won before his right rear tyre exploded – and by crushing Hamilton in Spain quali Valtteri looked set for a win in Barcelona, yet a bad start dropped him to second, just like it did after his splendid pole in China.
The fight is on, then, between the Merc drivers. And Ferrari is bound to bounce back, as from Canada onwards, when F1 returns to fast tracks.
So, keep the faith. We might yet be in for an F1 thriller in 2019.
FERRARI PAYS TRIBUTE
Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow paid tribute to Niki Lauda during the Monaco Grand Prix weekend. The SF90 cars carried a decal which celebrates the Austrian champion’s time at Ferrari, as Sebastian Vettel also honoured Lauda with a special helmet livery that reflects the famous red one that Niki wore throughout most of his career. The sticker is a replica of the graphic used on the side of the Ferrari cars Lauda drove from 1974 to 1977. His name is underlined by a black line as a sign of mourning.