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Niki Lauda: Why He Was So Special

Monday, 20 May 2024, marks five years since the passing of our friend and non-executive chairman Niki Lauda.

The Austrian sits very firmly in the pantheon of F1 greats. One of the best, not just of his generation, but of all time.

On and off the track, he built a legacy few will replicate in F1 folklore. In the paddock as a driver, he was revered. In his later years on the other side of the pit wall, he was everyone's friend.

Simply put, wherever Niki went, he left a mark and made a difference.

"One of my favourite memories of Niki was in Brazil," recalls Lewis.

"Myself, Niki, and Toto had gone for Sushi. Niki dropped some fish and it landed in some soy sauce and splattered all over him.

"We all just burst out laughing, and that is what is was all about. It was not business, just three guys laughing really hard!"

George also quickly felt the warmth and friendship of Niki on joining the team.

"My first race with the team was Baku in 2017. I had only been part of the team a couple of months, but Niki came straight up to me and welcomed me with open arms," he said.

"He invited me to a concert that evening, and we just danced the night away and had such a great time. There were so many laughs along the way.

"Experiencing something like that with someone you looked up to as a kid was so surreal.

"He was such a kind person, so down to earth. He just enjoyed doing the things in life that we all enjoy doing."

Toto's favourite memory of Niki highlights the bond the pair had, and how much they both liked and respected each other.

"We were coming back from Suzuka, just him and I," recalls Toto.

"He said he wanted to tell me something. He stopped for a moment, and I thought wow, Niki is getting emotional.

"He said he had no friends - he always said that. But he said if there was such a thing as a half friend, then I was it.

"He was almost teary, but it was the best comment I received from Niki in all our years working together. It meant that we were friends."

Many fans and followers of F1 today may not remember ever seeing Niki race. But the Austrian's record speaks for itself. Three World Championships, 25 wins, and 24 pole positions from 171 Grands Prix.

Niki came through the ranks with a tidy, consistent, but supremely fast driving style. Having bought himself a spot on the F1 grid in 1971 with March, the Austrian competed on both Formula One and Two fronts for the team.

Two seasons later he was at BRM; a team in decline, but one that Niki helped elevate back into the public eye by running third for much of the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix.

The world had taken notice, and a major focal figure in the sport at the time had also had his attention captured.

Ferrari - the most successful and well-known mark in the sport - had not won a World Championship for close to a decade, but Enzo Ferrari had seen enough to sign Niki for the 1974 season, and promptly tasked his newest recruit to end that drought.

A podium in his first race repaid the faith, and Niki's first two Formula 1 wins would follow that season. In the final standings, Niki and team-mate Clay Regazzoni had taken the Scuderia to second in the Constructors'.

Led by Niki, a relentless and thorough winter testing programmed followed. In 1975, Ferrari would go one better than the year before. And so would Niki. The Austrian delivered a first drivers' championship in 11 years to Maranello, and his first in F1.

Five wins, nine poles, and eight podiums from 14 races. It was a faultless season from Niki, who secured the title at, of all places, Monza, in front of the adoring Tifosi.

It is impossible to discuss Niki's career on track and not mention the events at the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring.

He entered the weekend 23 points clear of rival James Hunt and looked on course for a second consecutive World Championship, before disaster struck in changeable conditions at the notoriously challenging Nordschleife.

The near-fatal accident left Niki unconscious in his car for around 55 seconds, surrounded by 800C flames caused by a punctured fuel tank.

Perhaps more memorable and remarkable than the injuries Niki sustained that day at the Nordschleife, is the mental and physical strength he showed to recover.

He had been given the last rites in hospital, but staggeringly appeared on the grid at Monza six weeks later, and even claimed a P4 finish.

Such courage was rarely seen in Formula 1, even in the back in the seventies. Such courage may never be seen again.

Though the 1976 championship ultimately went the way of Hunt, Niki came back rejuvenated in 1977, and duly collected a second World Championship in three years with Ferrari.

Niki had already decided to leave the Scuderia at the end of the 1977 season, but quit two races from the end, joining Brabham for 1978.

Two less successful campaigns followed, but there were two more wins to add to the collection before the end of 1979.

Having ended the season early with no wish to "continue the silliness of driving round in circles" Lauda - an ambitious entrepreneur and aviation enthusiast - retired and went off to run his own charter airline - Lauda Air.

But the racing bug bit again a few years later, and Niki returned to F1 with McLaren for the 1982 season.

Such was his talent and aptitude for driving, Niki was immediately right back on the pace.

He won a race on his return at just the third attempt. A third world title and first for McLaren followed two years later in 1984, a season where Niki became the first and only Austrian to date to win the Austrian Grand Prix.

Similarly to his impact at Ferrari, Niki's title was McLaren's first Constructors' in 10 years, and first Drivers' title in eight years.

At his home race a year later, Niki would announce his second - and ultimately final - retirement from F1, though did take one final win at the Dutch Grand Prix later that season.

At the start of 1986 he took control of Lauda Air once more.

It was not until 1993 that he returned to the paddock, when Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari Team Principal during Lauda's first championship-winning season of 1975, brought him back to the prancing horse as consultant to the team.

In the same year he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Niki made the step up to Team Principal level for the first time in 2001, when he headed up the Jaguar team, which had been formed at the start of the previous season. He remained in charge until the middle of the following season.

In late 2003, he reached for the skies again, and set up his second airline, Niki.

He remained a consistent present in the F1 paddock, working as a commentator for German and Austrian broadcaster RTL.

In September 2012, he was appointed non-executive chairman with Mercedes, starting his story here in Brackley. He would form a key part of our team's success through the early part of the F1 Hybrid era from 2014 until his death in 2019.

Lewis' victory around the streets of the Principality six days after Niki's passing remains one of the most emotional in the history of our team in F1.

In 2016 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from Laureus, using his acceptance speech to perfectly highlight the nuances between success and failure.

"I have seen a lot of people here winning and losing," he said. "So I would like to dedicate this award to the losers. From my own experience, winning is one thing, but out of losing I always learned more for the future.

"I got stronger in losing."

From my own experience, winning is one thing, but out of losing I always learned more for the future.


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