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, it's already too late?
If the connection is short, like mine, then every move is automatic, I master the car. While you're thinking: I'm sliding, I'd better counter-steer — I've already passed you. Those with the shortest ass—brain connection are the best drivers. Period.
You're fascinated by everything that drives, so you saidâ€¦
That'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: "you idiot!" 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 don't want to push to find out.
Would you support them?
I don't think I'd have much of a choice. But I'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. He's a racer in the GT-class. And he's actually pretty good at it.
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Lauda at the 1982 Dutch Grand Prix — Photo: Hans van Dijk
Did you get support from your family when you started out?
Well, in my grandfather's company they had pallet transporters, there were no carts like today's youth are driving. But I wanted to master those, and that's how I slipped into it, probably against my parents' wishes, most certainly against my grandfather'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.
You've faced pressure repeatedly in your life. Let'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: "Now you're one of the two. But you're still alive!" And quickly I started to ask if you come back after an accident like this. People don't get it. I'm a racer. And that's what I'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.
You're on the board of Mercedes' Formula 1 team. The reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, driving for Mercedes, says you're one of his friends. You replied: I wouldn't say that. We're all lone fighters.
I always say: I don't have any friends.
That's a bit gruff.
I always knew: Life, death, driving, not driving? There's nobody I could talk to about it.
Other racers for instance?
One told me: "With that ear (injury), you can't drive." That's because he has a better chance of winning if I don't drive.
Nothing but competition, no friendship?
Competitors. There's no room for friendship. My wife is my best friend. I talk to her about everything. But in case of an emergency, I'd rather rely on myself. You can't count on anybody. I'm much faster than you, or others, when it comes to solving my problems.
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Lauda came out of retirement for his third title in 1984, for McLaren Photo: twm1340
Speed, that's always important to you?
It'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?
Let's not exaggerate. People like to talk. Look at politicians, if they only talked less, and acted more. The refugees' crisis: as if it was such a surprise that people keep coming. Now there'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.
I'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 — 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.