Sport Motorsport Solitary Niki Lauda became Formula One’s best friend

Solitary Niki Lauda became Formula One’s best friend

Niki Lauda
World champion Formula One driver Niki Lauda passed away peacefully at home. Photo: Getty Images
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To watch Niki Lauda from a distance in a Formula One paddock it was hard to understand how the three-time world champion could claim he was a man without any friends.

You could see team crew, media, fans and even drivers gravitate to him. And yet, like satellites orbiting a flaming star that was dangerous to approach, most would keep their distance lest they be burned.

A sometimes brutal straight talker, Lauda claimed in 2017 that friendship required too much of him.

“This is true and everybody gets upset about this,” he told US sports reporter Graham Besinger. “The problem is when you get known in the world a lot of people bother you.

“They want to be your friend because of this and that and therefore I protected myself from these constant attacks.

“Somebody says ‘I am your friend’ and ‘Can you can do this’ and ‘Can you do that, I want an autograph’ and whatever. And to stop all this in a way I protected myself and said: ‘Where are the real friends?’

“A real friend is a 24-hour guy who can talk about any kind of problems that you have. And I tell you honestly I do not know one where I would do that because I have protected myself.”

How then to reconcile the grief from the sporting world yesterday when news arrived that Lauda had died peacefully at home after undergoing a lung transplant in August last year – let alone the fact he’d been the recipient of two kidney transplants, one from his brother and one from his girlfriend.

That Lauda lived to 70, more than 42 years after the Nurburgring race accident that saw him trapped in a fiery car and breathing in super-heated fuel for at least a minute was testament to his steely resolve.

He had often said in his life that you learned more from defeats than victories, and carried that mantra off the race track and into his business career and personal life.

He told Besinger that his single-mindedness in all things came from the on-track requirement to concentrate, or die.

“In my times where it was very dangerous to drive I had to put myself into a position that I had to 100 percent concentrate on my job,” Lauda said.

“If I do a mistake I kill myself and I cannot be disturbed by anything … more or less to stay alive over the race weekend. It means you had to block everything out to do the job.”

As is often the way for sport’s anti-heroes, the 25-time Grand Prix winner became more appreciated as he aged.

The 2013 Ron Howard movie Rush that detailed his storied rivalry with British driver James Hunt helped fuel the legend and introduce Lauda’s exploits to a new generation of fans.

Lauda’s part was played by Daniel Bruhl who told that the Formula One veteran had told the screenwriter the third time he saw the film he couldn’t sleep that night because it moved him.

“He’s human,” said Bruhl.

“Niki is just blunt. There’s something attractive and brave about it. He taught me to lose fear. He told me at the beginning, ‘Don’t give too much importance to what people say or think about you’.”

The actor himself was on the receiving end of some of that straight talk with Lauda calling him about one particular scene.

“He called me at six o’clock in the morning. He was obsessed with details. He said, ‘Oh, good, good, good but the wedding ring is bullshit. I never wore a wedding ring. I don’t want to see that ring again’.”

Lauda himself confirmed one epic scene in the movie when he told Enzo Ferrari that his new car was “shit” … although he told Besinger that the conversation was held through an interpreter.

Lauda’s last Formula One race was at the first Australian Grand Prix held at the old Adelaide street circuit. His McLaren was leading when it suffered a brake failure on the main straight.

Lauda returned to Formula One as an adviser with Ferrari and Jaguar before the spectacular success as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team. It is a partnership that secured five world titles from 2014.

In that role he was a regular fixture at Formula One tracks around the world – even seen signing the odd autograph and posing for selfies.

At a Barcelona testing in 2016 he was out front of the Mercedes pit wall watching the cars circle for whole sessions and greeting pit crew from all teams as they passed by.

Niki Lauda
Niki Lauda watched cars circle for whole sessions at the Barcelona testing in 2016. Photo: Supplied

And, in November last year, when still recovering from his lung transplant, Lauda sent a video message to his Mercedes team and fans, thanking them for the support.

Befitting a straight talker, Lauda acknowledged what his death has shown to be the plain truth when he stated: “A message to my team … and my friends”.