The legend of Niki Lauda is well-known. But the man? “Every bit as good, and in many ways much better, than the Niki of my boyhood myth,” reflects Mercedes Formula 1 technical director James Allison.
To mark the first anniversary of the death of non-executive chairman and racing legend Niki Lauda, Mercedes has released a package of tributes from its drivers and leadership that reveal what made the three-times world champion so important an influence on the team’s success.
Since Lauda’s loss at the age of 70 regular tributes have been paid to his character and achievements. But the heartfelt words of his former colleagues cast light on the Austrian’s contribution to a team that has dominated the past six seasons of Formula 1.
Here are the strongest measures of Lauda’s influence at Mercedes, with insight from the people on the receiving end of his experience, guidance, and bollockings.
A KEY FIGURE FOR HAMILTON
The second half of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes spell has been considerably more impressive than the first: the post-Nico Rosberg era, shall we say. And though some might say that’s because Hamilton’s life has been made easier, a big part of it has been Hamilton’s relentless desire to improve and make the most of the opportunity he has.
The post-2016 version of Hamilton leaves nothing on the table and has high expectations of those around him. He says he got this from Lauda.
“He was always chasing,” says Hamilton. “If I was to learn anything from him it would be that.
“Within a team you naturally have to work together, but you have to lead it. You have to ask the questions, you have to really dig deep and push everybody.
“It’s like when you do a workout in the gym on your own and you think you do 10 push-ups or 10 bench presses or whatever it is and you get to nine and you don’t think you can do more.
“But often when you have someone there, he can push you to 12 or 13.
“It is similar in the context of working with people where people think that they are pushing to the max but there is a little bit more that you can squeeze out.
“Niki kind of taught me how to approach that in a working environment.”
The powerplay of Lauda and then-Mercedes boss Ross Brawn to lure Hamilton from McLaren to the works team for 2013 is well-known.
Brawn had to convince Hamilton that all the things were in place, while Lauda’s role was that of the ex-driver, a relatable and honest person – so much so that he even told Hamilton, according to Lauda’s new official biography, that he himself wouldn’t move to Mercedes!
But he insisted that the upside, if it all came together, would be tremendous. History shows Lauda was right, as was Hamilton for believing in him.
And Hamilton says those initial conversations – which supposedly were almost undermined late in the day by Lauda jumping the gun and telling Hamilton’s then-manager the deal was done, when it wasn’t – are “probably the fondest memories I have”.
“I just remember being home during the day, having a call from Niki and he is trying to convince me to come to the team,” he says.
“It was very cool to have a call from a world champion and an icon like Niki.”
Once Hamilton took the plunge, that relationship developed further. Hamilton says it became a friendship, and on a working level that initial bond created in 2012 was important.
It is said that as Hamilton found his feet within Mercedes, Lauda was the bedrock: not necessarily because he was Hamilton’s point man, but because he was someone Hamilton could immediately relate to and trust.
A RELEASE VALVE FOR WOLFF
There were some fractious moments early in their working relationship when Wolff joined Mercedes, where Lauda was already installed as non-executive chairman.
In a new Lauda biography by Maurice Hamilton, Wolff describes the two as pulling in “different directions”, and having a “fight over who was the most competent to make decisions”.
But they rapidly became a formidable duo.
Now, Wolff credits Lauda as being both a “sparring partner” and “sounding board”. They certainly had their disagreements, including over the response to the 2013 controversy when it emerged during the Monaco Grand Prix weekend that the team had conducted a tyre test with the latest car, but usually any conflict resulted in a positive solution.
But Wolff credits that saga as the beginning of a much more fruitful working relationship. And as a sounding board, Wolff sought Lauda’s council on a multitude of topics – including how to deal with the drivers.
“What did I learn from Niki? So much,” said Wolff. “From a personal standpoint, it is to never give up. Don’t ask for understanding, just get things done. Niki never complained. He was somebody that would be in pain and go through struggle, but he just sorted it out. The adversity that was thrown at him and the way that he coped with it is something that I really admired.
“Through the years our relationship developed and I think we learned a lot from each other because we were so different but his input and him being a sparring partner and a sounding board and most important a friend that would be with me in that in a hostile environment is something that I tremendously miss.”
Wolff regularly travelled with Lauda to on from races, as well as dining with him. They had a personal relationship – they first met as Lauda was second cousin to Wolff’s ex-girlfriend, and their paths also crossed within Vienna – that grew stronger when Wolff was involved with Williams, which is where their commutes began.
Once colleagues, and with any differences resolved (or at least accepted), their relationship helped Wolff to carry the significant load of leading a large grand prix team, as well as ensuring his decision-making and actions were focused on getting the best possible outcome.
Wolff is the most successful F1 team boss of today, and Lauda helped him to become that.
AN INSPIRATION FOR ALL
“When he arrived, everybody paid attention, everybody would listen to his words of advice,” says Mercedes High Performance Powertrains boss Andy Cowell.
“You take away the key things that we need to do, and he would remind us of those.”
As a “chairman who is also part of the team” – Lauda’s words – the Austrian had a curious position within Mercedes, one that was deeply more rewarding and effective than his stints with Ferrari and Jaguar.
After joining as non-executive director in September 2012 he effectively put himself to use where he saw fit: with the board, with F1 and the FIA, with drivers, with the team, with fans, with the media.
Lauda could be all things to all people because he was so experienced, so well-connected and so intelligent. If he didn’t know the answer he could find somebody who did.
As a former driver there was a connection to the likes of Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Valtteri Bottas he could make use of. He would be happy to discuss things with senior management and leave them to talk to the drivers, or would raise something himself once agreed with the likes of Wolff.
“I think I have an advantage because when I talk to Nico and Lewis, we are speaking on the same level,” Lauda once said. “I was a driver too and I can be very straightforward with them because I know the words, I know what their brains are fighting about.”
The influence he carried within Mercedes was tremendous.
“At the end of a race when we had done well Niki would bound over to the pitwall, his face alight with the joy of seeing his team perform at high standards,” says Allison.
“And it made us feel great to see that on his face, not just at the pit wall, not just at the track but across the whole of the team, factory-side alike.”
But it was not just Lauda’s effectiveness in a working environment that acted as a beacon to those around him.
As an individual with a story so spectacular it became a Hollywood movie, Lauda – the man who could, perhaps even should, have died 43 years before he did – was simply a walking inspiration.
“Niki inspired me with his personality, with his resilient approach to things and also the way he was able to reinvent himself,” says Wolff.
“He became a racing driver, created an airline, back to racing driver back to an airline and then heading the supervisory board of Mercedes Grand Prix – that is an amazing career.”
A big part of Lauda’s influence on others came from his no-nonsense nature. But that needs a separate entry entirely…
A ‘NO BULLSHIT’ MAN
Lauda’s reputation for forthrightness was well-earned, with perhaps the most common description applied to him being “no bullshit”. This is referenced by anybody who talks about him.
But the eloquent James Allison, technical director of Mercedes since February 2017, expresses this wonderfully in his tribute and, in doing so, underlines the value of a character like Lauda even if he was occasionally difficult to deal with because of that forthrightness.
“If you spent much time with him you could be absolutely certain that you would get the rough edge of his tongue because Niki was someone who lived by a code and the code was always, always tell the truth, however difficult, however socially embarrassing, however uncomfortable, tell the truth and if he saw you fell short of the high standards he set he would let you know,” said Allison.
“He would let you know right between the eyes and it hurt to hear it but just as he was swift to judge and criticise he was equally swift to praise where he saw good work being done. And you knew when Niki told you ‘Well done’ you knew it was sincere, that you could take it to the bank and it made you feel great.”
Allison also underlines that, despite Lauda’s capacity for abrasiveness, he was hugely well-liked as well as respected. This was perhaps the crux of Lauda’s ability to influence the team, as he was a fundamentally likable character and that counteracted the abrasiveness.
“It’s an interesting thing that people who live by this code of always telling the truth, however difficult, however brutal, those sorts of people they nearly always command respect but they don’t necessarily enjoy affection,” said Allison.
“And yet it is affection for Niki that is by far and away the strongest thing that I feel because you can’t spend time with a man like Niki and not fall in love with his sheer appetite for life and for living, for someone who took every single day that was granted to him and squeezed the absolute maximum from it, someone who did so with a sort of impish, joyful, boyish charm.
“I know that I loved being around him and I know the same is true of all my colleagues. It is the reason why we remember him, not just the annual anniversaries, not just the key milestones for our team but it is the reason I think of him often.
“I feel deeply, deeply privileged to have spent time with him, however briefly working in the Mercedes team under him. He was a remarkable man and I miss him.”
A DRIVER’S BEST ALLY
Lauda didn’t believe his role in Mercedes was as a middle-man between the management and drivers. But as mentioned before he knew life from their perspective.
It was Lauda who supposedly raised the prospect of Michael Schumacher not continuing with the team in 2013, because he may want to retire, when the team was being passive over its driver line-up and Schumacher had until October to make a decision. Lauda wanted the opportunity to pursue Hamilton. His persistence cut through the stagnation.
But once drivers settled into the team Lauda was a constant source of strength.
“We would talk often after the races and he would be asking things like: ‘Hey, Lewis, what do you need to be better? What do you need?’” Hamilton says. Lauda knew that if a driver was capable of doing the job he should get what he wanted.
Similarly, Valtteri Bottas wouldn’t be heading into his fourth season with Mercedes had he not learned how to bounce back from crushing disappointment. In particular, he ended the 2018 season on a low and admitted he’d lost enthusiasm after a series of bad results.
But Bottas credits Lauda with giving him support when at a low ebb, in particular highlighting Lauda’s own racing experience giving him an unusual sympatico with the struggling driver.
“Niki inspired me just by giving his support always when I needed it,” says Bottas. “He is a racing driver himself, he knows exactly when the driver needs the support and that extra was a big boost, the right words, he knows exactly when you need the support.
“He was the person that inspired me in the difficult times, he was always there with his support, for me to bounce back and to remind myself why I am doing this and that I am good enough to do it. He was very good at that.”
Part of Bottas’s strong start to 2019, which shored up his position at Mercedes and earned him a new deal for this year, was backing his own way of doing things and being willing to go more in his own direction on set-up.
This tallies with another aspect of Lauda’s influence, which helped give Bottas the confidence to back himself.
“From Niki I learned to always trust your talent, never doubt it, to really always remind yourself that you should not doubt your driving style, the way you do your things in the car,” said Bottas.
“I also learned from him not to let your head get down from disappointments and how to recover from them quicker and to look forward to more positive times.”
Lauda played an important part in ensuring there were many such times for those within Mercedes.
His influence in so many areas is why his star shines so brightly one year on: quite literally, as a single red star is enshrined in the livery of Mercedes’ F1 cars, adopted in the wake of his death.
Lauda’s legacy will remain front and centre for as long as Mercedes is in the championship. His personal relationships will ensure it doesn’t fade even if Mercedes is gone.
“I wish he would be around because we all miss him so much as a friend,” says Wolff.
“I lost my business partner, my travel companion, my sounding board, my coach, and we all in the team miss him tremendously.”