Niki Lauda’s brusque way of dealing with pundits and politics as Mercedes F1’s non-executive chairman are a signaling back to the days of when he dealt with racing in a similar sense. With little regard for relationships within the paddock, Lauda set about racing with a directness and a single-mindedness that had not been seen until then. Jackie Stewart had been assiduous, yes, but Lauda brought a dedication that bordered on obsessive. He would have to, for his route into the sport was unconventional and without much praise, so to compensate he would have to employ his stunning intellect and capacity for hard work.
Lauda hated sensationalism, worship, and the simpering nonsense that some racing fans get so caught up with. Lauda, ever the pragmatist, never aspired to be a racing driver until later in life. Instead, he found himself driving in hillclimbs and working on cars as a mere hobby. Therefore, his interest in motorsport stemmed from an appreciation of the car rather than a youthful desire to become World Champion.
Lauda’s business acumen was employed early on in his career. Never a standout in the lower formulae but consistent and confident enough he would eventually succeed, Lauda, with the help of a considerable loan secured by a life insurance policy, found his first Formula One seat with March. Cleverly, the young Austrian negated any interest payments by advertising the bank on his racing car, but was still saddled with huge debt by the time he found a better seat for the 1973 season with the slightly-more-competitive British Racing Motors.
British Racing Motors was another serious financial investment, and to race, Lauda needed to dig himself deeper in the hole. Luckily, the nimble-but-unreliable BRM finished fifth at the Belgian Grand Prix, and ran as high as third at Monaco before retiring. That calm, precise and immensely quick performance proved to the naysayers that Niki Lauda was no talentless pay driver, but a man who employed his noggin both in and out of the car. What was more impressive was his unfailing self-belief. Even before getting noticed, somehow, the young man knew he could win.
BRM then brought Lauda onboard as a paid driver, and he would start to chip away at some of his monumental debts. Nevertheless, his money problems were far from solved, and Lauda, eager to prove himself with BRM, used his technical understanding to help improve the car as best as he could, thereby reducing the need to take excessive risks in the race and also improve the performance of a mid-pack machine that was never that competitive.
Lauda’s understanding of the suspension, tires, engine and chassis became well-known, as was his willingness to stay long hours at the track perfecting the handling of his machine. He was able to develop the car well enough to outpace the team’s established number one, Clay Regazzoni, who would move to Ferrari for 1974, brought news of Lauda’s setup brilliance to the Prancing Horse. This sterling recommendation was enough to sign the Austrian to the team, but his certainty and understanding of the car were put to the test by Enzo Ferrari himself before this unproven young man would be considered worthy of praise.
Without much respect given to the illustrious marque, Lauda’s did not try to be polite during his first encounter with the 312B3. Lauda’s harsh criticisms raised eyebrows, but Lauda insisted his improvements could find two tenths. Mr. Ferrari never liked to hear his cars lambasted and saw this as an impetuous move. So, if Lauda’s forecast turned out to be wrong, he would be sacked. When Lauda made the prescribed adjustments to the car and returned to the pits, he had not gone two tenths faster. He had found half a second. From then on, Lauda had proved himself as a capable driver in Ferrari’s eyes, and he was out of debt.
Lauda realized, perhaps better than the others at the time, that driving was not just an exercise in bravery or skill. To win consistently, one had to have an intimate understanding of the car and the mechanical components. Lauda, known as “The Computer Brain,” was never a no-guts-no-glory kind of thinker. His objective take on racing was that consistency was more important than a spectacular win, also known as the “championship mindset.”
This perspective, which was later emulated by drivers like Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost, helped him see races in the grand scope of things, often settling for a certain third or fourth place rather than risking a crash for first place. He also acknowledged his strengths. When partnered by Prost in 1984, Lauda came to realize he could not match the Frenchman on pace. So, in typical Lauda-style, he worked hard at refining the car and focused on race strategy. That year, he beat Prost to the title by half a point, and showed that focusing on consistency and taking glory with a grain of salt helped in the long run.
Though known for his rationale and technical understanding, Lauda was perhaps best defined by his indomitable will, which would serve him well when his Ferrari’s rear suspension failed and sent him careening into the guardrails at the Nurburgring in 1976. After which, his Ferrari caught fire with him still trapped inside, where he inhaled toxic fumes for nearly a minute, before being extracted and rushed to the hospital.
Every day, the inside of his lungs would be cleaned to remove the toxic residue — an agony impossible to imagine. His scalp had been charred, his ear unrecognizable, and his eyelids seared off. With half his face burned and the toxic gasses putting his life on the line, Lauda had to use all his mental energy to stay awake to fend off the comforting pull of death.
Six weeks later, only having missed three races, Lauda returned the the Italian Grand Prix that year with a specially-made helmet that fit the bloodied bandages still wrapped around his scarred head. Lauda surmounted a paralyzing fear, worked himself up to speed progressively, and eventually found himself at one with the car, despite the fact he had been given his last rites just a few weeks prior.
His commitment and bravery saw him to fourth place that day, and from then on, he had established himself. He was a man who had reinvented his life and cheated death — a phoenix rising from its ashes. With a sharp mind, near-monastic discipline, and an insatiable will to succeed, Lauda was the first of the modern breed of drivers, for whom there was only success. Women and wine were fine, but they were merely distractions to the scientific Austrian who infuriated a demigod, won three World Titles, and eventually started his own airline. For this man, nothing is impossible.