In the entire time that I’ve been enamored with these machines that we affix feelings to, develop emotional bonds for, and cherish, I haven’t paid much attention to the world of Formula One. I’ll say it directly: there is little appeal to me for racing machines that I’ve always seen as uprated go-karts. Drag racing just comes naturally…that’s the most basic form of a race, even before a car is involved. Rally is a controlled form of the kind of things I used to do on fire roads in the Northwest and on desert trails in the Southwest. Most forms of racing, I can grasp, but Formula One has been a struggle to grasp…or, at least, it was until I first saw the movie Rush back in 2013. Prior to the movie, I had never heard of the names James Hunt or Niki Lauda…like many, this would be my introduction to both drivers. And what impressed me most was Lauda’s blunt-force honesty. Niki Lauda had no problem whatsoever telling someone what he thought. The movie scene that captures one particular moment in 1973 that really hits home for me pretty well, but here’s how it went down from the man himself:
Andreas Nikolaus Lauda didn’t have to race. His family had a strong background in business…his father worked in paper manufacturing and his paternal grandfather was Hans Lauda, a prominent Austrain businessman who happened to be on the supervisory board of the Die Erst bank when Lauda attempted to buy his way into an Formula One seat in 1971 after years in Formula Vee and other series. The elder Lauda had vetoed any approval for his grandson’s loans that were needed for his seat in a March car, so after working with another bank to approve him for the loan in exchange for helmet branding and breaking ties with his family, he had his ticket into Formula One. It wasn’t a great start…the March was, put mildly, problematic and at the end of the 1972 season he wound up working his way into a seat with BRM, where after making impressive runs, he signed a three-year contract to cover the loans. which was bought out shortly by Ferrari and that’s where the legend of Lauda really takes off.
The story of Lauda’s Formula One career is out there for the world to see. Ron Howard did a great job telling the tale of the 1970s era, including the catastrophic 1976 German Grand Prix, where Lauda’s 312TS crashed at the left kink before the Bergwick corner at the Nürburgring and burst into flames, the six weeks of recovery that could best be described as hellish, his return to racing at Monza, clearly in pain, with bandaged burns and all, and the Japanese Grand Prix that saw Lauda leave the race after the second lap of the event that saw James Hunt clinch the 1976 championship. Forumla One was only one notch in Niki Lauda’s belt, however…he had developed a fascination with aviation and had started Lauda Air in 1979, which led to what he considered his worst moment in life, when Lauda Air Flight 004 crashed in the mountains of Thailand and a challenge with aircraft manufacturer Boeing. He was an author of five books, consulted for Ferrari in the 1990s, was the team principal for the Jaguar F1 team, and was nominated to be a non-executive chairman for Mercedes AMG Petronas, where he was important in signing Lewis Hamilton. Last August, Lauda had undergone a lung transplant in Austria.
To be fair, the 1976 German Grand Prix really cemented the legend of Lauda. The man was nearly burned to death inside of a race car on a track so long that a Porsche is used for medical emergencies, only to return six weeks later to climb back into the driver’s seat. But there is more, so much more, to the story of Lauda that needs to be reflected on. He was a calculating, driven individual who attacked everything he did with an eye for the details and a “fuck ’em” attitude to the detractors. No quip, no tradition, no amount of prestige was too great to see Niki Lauda back down from a fight. He had the balls to tell Enzo Ferrari that his precious racecar was a steaming pile, he had the balls to tell Boeing to either accept blame for Flight 004’s crash or to try out a known lethal move in an aircraft themselves to prove that he was wrong like they claimed, and he even had the balls to tell Death itself to sit the hell down for the next forty-three years, he wasn’t done yet. That’s the purest definition of tenacity I know of. I still don’t grasp Formula One, but I understand fully the mentality behind Niki Lauda and can appreciate what lessons there are to be learned from his lifetime.
When James Hunt passed on in 1993 after a heart attack, one of the memorial functions involved the mourners going to his brother Peter’s house to open a 1922 claret wine that James bad bought in the honor of their father, Wallis, who was born that year. Here’s hoping that The Rat and The Shunt are catching up on old times and enjoying a sip together wherever the next stop is. Rest easy, Niki.