It’s incredible that these things can have such an effect. I mean I never knew the man, never met him. Just saw him on TV mostly, and read about him in Road & Track magazine. I did once manage to get within a shout of him. In the late seventies it was. At the Canadian Grand Prix, I somehow managed to sneak into the pits. And there he was. There was the great Niki Lauda sitting in his car. A Brabham-Alfa Romeo this time. And not his mythical Ferrari. So yeah, that was my moment. My claim to fame. “I took a picture of the great Niki Lauda.” Pretty nice shot too.
So yeah, I never knew the man. But yet, late last night, when I saw on Twitter that Niki Lauda had passed away, there were tears in my eyes.
I remember Lauda from his halcyon days. Or maybe they were my halcyon days. Don’t really know, but I do know that I vividly remember Lauda racing his Ferrari with wilful precision. Always precision. To me he was a cold and calculating F1 pilot. An almost emotionless man who, in a sense, became part of the machine that he drove so well. Just another component in a racing system designed to go flat-out. Go bloody fast. And scare the wits out of mere mortals.
His life is legendary. The stuff of fiction. His arrival in F1. Seemingly out of nowhere, and straight into a Ferrari. His Nurburgring crash in 1976. The heroic and near-miraculous return to his Ferrari’s cockpit only forty days after receiving the last rites. I mean, come on, everyone thought he was dying. Everyone but Niki anyway. And to think that he returned to contest that 1976 World Championship, contest it against his friend (and nemesis too), James Hunt. And to lose said championship by one point. Lose it because he decided to park his car in that last race. That Japanese Grand Prix, the one held on a day of monsoon-like conditions. Conditions that were near-impossible. Conditions that, today, no race steward would allow any F1 event to so much as begin.
I remember all of that. And I still wonder what went through Niki’s mind when he stopped his car. Did he say, “Hell with it. Life’s too short?” Did he say, “Screw this, I’ve been through enough?” I have no idea, but I do know that no one begrudged him of his decision.
He went on to win two more championships, you know. The next year–1977–again for Ferrari, and then 1984, this time in a McLaren. From there the man went on to fly airplanes, and start his own airline, and then, years later, help build the mighty Mercedes F1 team. It was Niki, apparently, who convinced Lewis Hamilton to leave McLaren for Mercedes. Quite a gamble, for both of them. And quite an accomplishment too.
He accomplished so much. So much. And now. And now the man is gone.
There were, to me, three men—three larger-than-life men—who drove for Ferrari. The first, of course, is my boyhood hero. The giant of them all, Gilles Villeneuve. The second was Niki Lauda. And Michael Schumacher was the third. When I think of any of those three, I immediately picture a red car. A Ferrari. To me you cannot separate the men from those machines. They’re synonymous. They’re inexorably linked and intertwined. By fact, by history and by giant near-mythical moments.
Men like Lauda. They’ve accomplished so much. And I often ask myself, “How did they achieve all of that?” Was it fate? Was it a God-given right? Was it sheer purpose and determination? I don’t know. Because we–the rest of us–the mere mortals, we lead our lives, and we accomplish whatever it is that we accomplish. And we feel more significant. We somehow feel more significant just because of our distant affiliation, our appreciation, for the giants of men like Niki Lauda.