• 1

    Danke, Niki

Wearing his trademark red baseball hat and never at a loss for a pithy comment delivered with characteristic Viennese nonchalance – that was Niki Lauda. We remember him as the racing driver, the businessman and the non-executive chairman of the board. But most of all, we remember him as our friend.

Niki, the friend

Niki was frequently heard to say in his own inimitable way: “I have no friends.” Yet that could not have been further from the truth. One person who got to know Niki particularly well during their years together at Mercedes is Toto Wolff. They spent countless hours in each other’s company, flying to and from the races, and they formed a real friendship during this time.

“Of course, we all had our moments with Niki,” says Toto. “But it only recently occurred to me that Niki was probably the person with whom I spent more time than anyone else during the last five or six years. That was through our work for Mercedes in Formula 1.”

One of the many journeys they made together has etched itself especially deep in Toto’s memory. A long flight back from Suzuka in 2016, after the team had just recorded its 60th Grand Prix victory and secured the constructors’ trophy for the third consecutive season: “When we were in the air, I saw that Niki had a tear in his eye. I said to him: ‘Niki, you’re getting emotional in your old age too. Things are really going downhill.’”

Niki looked Toto in the eyes and replied: “You know, I don’t have any friends, but if there’s such a thing as half a friend, then you are that half-friend.” That shared moment at ten thousand metres above sea level remains a very special memory for Toto: “I said to Niki, ‘That was the most emotional thing I’ve ever heard from you.’ It’s moments like that that I’ll never forget.” 

Niki, the ‘foreign minister’

Niki’s official title in the team was Non-Executive Chairman. For Toto, however, he was much more than that – he was their guiding star: “Whenever he walked through the factory at Brackley or at Brixworth, or when he gave one of his famous motivational speeches, he radiated a vitality like nobody else.”

Toto liked to refer to Niki as the team’s ‘foreign minister’ who felt free talk to anybody and say whatever came into his head. Any opinion that Niki uttered was backed up by his life’s work and experience: “It was a privilege to have him on our team, and it was moving to see how much it meant to him to be a part of the success enjoyed by this team.”

The level of Niki’s active involvement is demonstrated by the crucial role he played in convincing Lewis Hamilton to join the team in the run-up to the 2013 season: “He gave the team credibility, and that gave the team a big push. Everybody knew Niki – when he set his mind to doing something, he never went about it half-heartedly.”

Niki was a sparring partner and a mentor; he set the direction, applied pressure when necessary and protected the team from the politics of the sport. His role had so many facets: “Niki, you are irreplaceable. There will never be another person like you. It was an honour to call you our chairman.”

Niki, the forthright

Even in his diplomatic role in the team, Niki always remained true to himself. He was straightforward, honest, forthright. A handshake meant more to him than a thousand written contracts. His words had weight, and what he said counted for something. Even when it hurt.

Toto: “As our team-mate over the past six and a half years, Niki was always brutally honest but at the same time fiercely loyal. We have not only lost a heroic figure, who made what is probably most impressive comeback in the history of the sport, but also a man who brought valuable plain speaking and frankness to modern Formula 1. We’ll miss him very much as the voice of reason.”

The team were uniquely fortunate in having someone within their ranks who was not obliged to say the politically correct thing in every situation: “Niki could say whatever he wanted, even if it meant that he gave the team management quite a few grey hairs. To which Niki would just reply: ‘Who cares?’ In a world in which so many corners and edges have been smoothed off, everyone thinks twice about what they say, because it might be taken out of context. So it was all the more refreshing and important that Formula 1 had someone like Niki who just didn’t care.”

Lewis, who had a very special connection with Niki, also appreciated that side of the man. “They are both multiple world champions,” adds Toto. “Very few people have experienced what these two have – winning races and titles over the years, competing at the limit against the best drivers and teams in the world. And it’s a bond that is extremely important.”

Niki the racer

The active career of racing drivers and of sports personalities in general is all too often reduced to mere statistics. Not so with Niki. His legacy as a racing driver, but above all as a human being, is much greater and more significant than any list of facts and figures could express. His contribution to the annals of the premier class of motorsport was immense. For example, his three world championship titles (1975, 1977 and 1984), 25 race wins, 54 podium appearances and 24 pole positions in 171 Grand Prix starts.

But Niki was so much more than the sum of his successes on the race track, as Toto remembers from his own childhood: “He was the most famous person in Austria. Every kid growing up in the 70s, 80s or 90s knew who he was. Everybody looked up to him, and so did I. He was a living legend, the most iconic Formula 1 personality and one of the biggest names in sports on a global level.”

This continued far beyond the end of his Formula 1 career. And, of course, the eventful year of 1976 is an important part of Niki’s racing career. It was one of Niki’s greatest character traits that took centre stage: his relentless fighting spirit.

Niki, the fighter

At the racetrack, during memorable overtaking manoeuvres, in the business arena and especially after his serious accident on the Nordschleife, Niki always remained totally resolute: Never give up. Never surrender. Always keep going. Looking forward, not back. These are the qualities that distinguished Niki Lauda the fighter – whether in the cockpit, at the negotiating table or on his hospital bed when receiving the last rites.

And this is exactly how we all remember Niki the fighter today. In Niki, motorsport has lost its greatest combatant. Toto: “One of Niki’s greatest characteristics was that he never gave up the fight. Consequently, the day on which he had his accident was a defining episode in his life.” The terrible fire, the severe burns, the life-and-death struggle and the comeback after only 42 days – this is the stuff of legend, and it was literally the script for a Hollywood movie.

“But Niki would see it differently,” Toto continues. “Niki lived his life every day. He lived in the present, not in the past. He did not care about the past. It was over. He lived in the here and now. He wanted to do more in the future.” To keep fighting.

Niki, the businessman

When he was young, nobody expected Niki to ultimately become one of the most successful and famous racing drivers in the world. But Niki proved otherwise. After Niki’s career ended, nobody in the paddock would have expected him to become a successful businessman. Once again Niki proved everyone wrong.

As a child, he seemed destined to follow his father into the paper industry. However, young Niki had set his heart on a completely different career path which he pursued with single-mindedness, as he did with every objective in life. Even at that stage, he did nothing by half measures, honing his negotiating skills and seeking money to finance his rapid rise in the motorsport world.

These skills were to prove useful after his career as a Formula 1 driver came to an end when, away from the race track, he showed his entrepreneurial talent in the no less fiercely competitive world of business. It was here that Niki turned his focus to his second great passion in life, namely aviation.

Success by no means fell into his lap. The keen flyer founded his own airline not once but twice and each time made a success of it through sheer willpower and dedication and with the customary Viennese shrug of the shoulders. In a field in which so many others failed, he made a go of it.

“He was an exceptionally talented racing driver and a real inspiration as a businessman,” recalls Ola Källenius, Chairman of the Board of Management at Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG. In the business arena, Niki applied a lesson learnt from racing: What counts is getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. No excuses. That’s the way Niki was.

Niki, the unforgettable

Friend, fighter, ‘foreign minister’, Niki Lauda was so many things. Niki was the heart and soul of Formula 1, one of the greatest legends of our sport. He embodied heroism, humanity and decency – both on and off the race track. He leaves a great void in Formula 1, in our team and in the hearts of all who knew and loved him. None of us will ever forget him.

And Toto will never forget the last piece of advice from Niki. It was in 2019 after the team’s one-two victory in Baku, the last time the two friends spoke to each other. Niki’s comment to Toto: “It doesn’t come much better than this. Keep it up!” A message the team will carry with them forever.

“That was Niki as he lived and breathed,” says Toto with a smile. We take our hat off to this Niki. Thank you, fighter. Thank you, friend. Danke, Niki.