Niki Lauda is a Formula 1 legend. After the accident at the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring nearly killed him, Lauda was back in the driver's seat seven weeks later. In an exclusive interview with Suddeutsche Zeitung, the son of Austrian industrialists speaks about his family's attempt to derail his career, living with the daily risk of death on the job and the loneliness of a life in which, at the age of 66, his only real friend is his wife.
Mr. Lauda, what has changed in Formula 1 since you won your three world championships?
Today, the driver constantly gets feedback during the race, one-third of the responsibility is with the engineers who supervise the car. They tell the driver: Slow down, the left tire is overheating. Today, driving is enriched by all the data. The only data I had, came straight from my ass.
So it is true when they say you drive the car from your bottom?
A racer has the most direct connection between his ass and his head. The shorter the line of gasket reaction, the faster he can drive. If you, for instance, were a racing talent, your buttocks would tell you: Oh, the car is sliding. And you think right away: What should I do?
When I think that, itâ€™s already too late?
If the connection is short, like mine, then every move is automatic, I master the car. While youâ€™re thinking: Iâ€™m sliding, Iâ€™d better counter-steer â€" Iâ€™ve already passed you. Those with the shortest assâ€"brain connection are the best drivers. Period.
Youâ€™re fascinated by everything that drives, so you saidâ€¦
Thatâ€™s the basic prerequisite. I can see it with my children, Max and Mia who have just turned 6, and for their birthday they each got a racing go-cart from a friend. I almost shouted out: â€œyou idiot!â€ And they wanted to drive immediately. My wife keeps saying that they have my genes. Honestly, I have no idea if one of the two will be a good racer one day, and I certainly donâ€™t want to push to find out.
Would you support them?
I donâ€™t think Iâ€™d have much of a choice. But Iâ€™d rather prefer they didn't even try.
You are torn between passion and love for your children.
I know how long, and hard it is to climb the ladder. My son Matthias is 35 years old. Heâ€™s a racer in the GT-class. And heâ€™s actually pretty good at it.
Lauda at the 1982 Dutch Grand Prix â€" Photo: Hans van Dijk
Did you get support from your family when you started out?
Well, in my grandfatherâ€™s company they had pallet transporters, there were no carts like todayâ€™s youth are driving. But I wanted to master those, and thatâ€™s how I slipped into it, probably against my parentsâ€™ wishes, most certainly against my grandfatherâ€™s.
Could you please explain?
My grandfather was a very domineering man, an entrepreneur, who wanted me to join him in the paper industry. He did everything he could to prevent me from becoming a Formula 1 driver.
Youâ€™ve faced pressure repeatedly in your life. Letâ€™s just take this first race after your accident at the Nürburgring. Coming back only seven weeks later, that was a bit crazy, no?
I never tried to prove anything. For me, the accident was, pragmatically speaking, no surprise. I knew from the beginning what I had gotten myself into. By that time, each year one or two racers were killed in an accident, out of 16. It was a question of statistics when it would be your turn. When I woke up after the accident my first thought was: â€œNow youâ€™re one of the two. But youâ€™re still alive!â€ And quickly I started to ask if you come back after an accident like this. People donâ€™t get it. Iâ€™m a racer. And thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ll always be.
You didn't talk to your wife?
Of course I did. Obviously, she was against it, out of fear. There was nobody I could talk to.
Youâ€™re on the board of Mercedes' Formula 1 team. The reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, driving for Mercedes, says youâ€™re one of his friends. You replied: I wouldnâ€™t say that. Weâ€™re all lone fighters.
I always say: I donâ€™t have any friends.
Thatâ€™s a bit gruff.
I always knew: Life, death, driving, not driving? Thereâ€™s nobody I could talk to about it.
Other racers for instance?
One told me: "With that ear (injury), you canâ€™t drive." That's because he has a better chance of winning if I donâ€™t drive.
Nothing but competition, no friendship?
Competitors. Thereâ€™s no room for friendship. My wife is my best friend. I talk to her about everything. But in case of an emergency, Iâ€™d rather rely on myself. You canâ€™t count on anybody. Iâ€™m much faster than you, or others, when it comes to solving my problems.
Lauda came out of retirement for his third title in 1984, for McLaren Photo: twm1340
Speed, thatâ€™s always important to you?
Itâ€™s more about quickly coming to terms with myself. I hate unresolved problems. If I sit down with my wife, I say: Let's solve the problem, now! Every sportsman knows the shortest way to get where he wants.
Would you say that we live in an extremely achievement-oriented society where everybody is a lone fighter?
Letâ€™s not exaggerate. People like to talk. Look at politicians, if they only talked less, and acted more. The refugeesâ€™ crisis: as if it was such a surprise that people keep coming. Now thereâ€™s winter, a horrible situation for those poor people, and we just sit around, saying we're so surprised, but not doing anything. And the question of a common European border is still unresolved.
The movie "Rush" is about your duel with James Hunt. How was it for you, to watch the ambitious Lauda, played by Danil Brühl?
There was a private screening for me in Vienna. At the end of the movie I thought: I really was an asshole. I found myself highly dislikeable.
Iâ€™m like that. And I have always been like that. But that they showed that in the movie shocked me a little bit. How I tried to constantly teach Hunt. He was the Hero, he enjoyed life â€" and I was the fussy pragmatic. During the premiere, I was very insecure. But when I looked around, I saw people laughing, and crying, and I thought to myself: I guess I just have to accept me the way I am.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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