Formula 1 may be the fastest form of motor-racing there is, but lest it is forgotten, it can also be a hugely self-centered sport.
If you thought that speed was the only defining factor about Grand Prix racing, then probably it’s time to acknowledge an important underlying facet about the sport we so love.
The sport is also about huge egos where individuals actually have to be self-centered. Unlike Cricket and Baseball or Basketball that rely on team spirit, Formula 1 places the highest-possible importance on an individual.
The 10 teams, and hence, 20 drivers are all pitted against each other not reliant on one another to chase the ultimate drive to victory.
Therefore, it’s rare to find individuals who care for others. Even rarer are those moments that are aimed at the greater good of the racing world.
But Niki Lauda- 1949 to 2019- was quite simply an exception. In a world where the only idea of glory for everyone was to win a Grand Prix- as simple as that- Niki Lauda was also concerned about the nature of the sport.
Here was a man who worried about racing conditions, primarily because they bore a direct impact on the safety of the other drivers. In an era of sky-rocketing ambition, Niki Lauda personified groundedness.
A man who took the bold call of retiring from a Grand Prix because the conditions quite simply weren’t suitable for driving.
Remember the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix?
At a time where collecting another race win was the idea of most, Niki Lauda epitomized the value of self-preservation.
Not many drivers have actually cautioned against racing in conditions that were absolutely adverse to racing in the first place and nearly touched death to prove a point.
The same way we remember the 6 world titles of Lewis Hamilton, each of Senna’s fantastic victories at Monaco, the unbending energy that is Michael Schumacher, we may never forget Nurburgring, ’76.
But when a prolonged complication with the kidney stole the great Austrian in 2019, we probably realized that Formula 1 parted with the man in flesh and blood, not in spirit.
In his passing, we realized the virtues he stood for. The single-minded determination, those endless reserves of courage; and that inexhaustible love for F1.
We mostly only see drivers loving the sport, the sport not necessarily reciprocating the love. But it could be said that Niki Lauda was different.
A veteran of 177 race starts, Niki only retired from the cockpit of that car, calling it quits altogether after the 1985 Australian Grand Prix.
But in actuality, he didn’t really leave the paddock ever.
Just like the adage “true love never dies”, Niki’s affair with Formula 1 continued well into his later years.
Some equations do not really carry an expiry date
The red cap bearing the insignia- Novomatic- still sits in the cabinet of every racing event inside the Mercedes paddock.
It once crowned one of the most efficient brains in the world of Formula 1, a man nicknamed “The Computer” for his ruthless efficiency and no-nonsense work ethic.
It guarded with integrity the scars Niki Lauda bore with utter humility.
Inseparable with the man who carried them all his life, the scars also highlighted the indelible mark Niki left behind in a career that’s hailed for its relentless determination.
Just how many mortals are administered their final rites whilst they are battling for life, albeit watching live proceedings?
Few have battled both inside the cockpit of a Formula 1 car as also for their very life and still made a much-vaunted comeback.
Yet, what we must remember and hold in great respect, just like the 3 world championships, and a decade and a half long stay in the sport that culminated into 25 wins and 54 podiums, is the effort he put with the most dominant team in the current context.
Can anyone imagine all the grandiose and highly-deserved Mercedes success without Niki Lauda’s guidance and support toward Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff?
Central to Mercedes’ rip-roaring success starting 2015 where they simply haven’t allowed any other team to lay its hands on the world championship isn’t the devastating speed of Lewis Hamilton and the team’s meticulous backing of its champion driver alone.
There was a dominant force in Niki Lauda too, who had put all the painstaking years of grind and experience to launch the team like a meteor fired in the outer space.
Niki Lauda was someone who proved it’s not always about being self-serving. Yet, he also reiterated that it’s fine and fair to have our favorites.
All the love for Lewis- no harm done, sir!
That being said, here was Ferrari’s new hero after Sir John Surtees. Despite the early struggles at the BRM team, Niki Lauda’s pure speed had caught the eye of the great Enzo Ferrari. He would promptly move to the Italian stable and begin a relationship that was forged in intensity and brutal honesty, rewarding the faith of the Maranello-based outfit with committed drives that manifested in a four-year stint.
In such time, he drove 3132 laps for the Scuderia, collected 15 wins from 58 races in the red cars, which points to an excellent average of collecting a win from every fourth race.
Moreover, from the onset of 1974 to 1977, Niki Lauda raced to 23 pole positions and stepped on the podium on 32 different occasions.
On top of that were the exceptional drives in 1975 and 1977 that earned the skinny Austrian two world titles, which in effect, ended Ferrari’s woes, who hadn’t had a winner since Sir John Surtees in ’64.
There was another world title that would follow in 1984 for the then 35-year-old. An epic crown with the famous McLaren MP4/2 that served yet another lesson in fortitude and commitment, besides underlining the fact that age was honestly just a number, for as long as one was fired by determination.
Not surprising then that Lauda called the 1984 triumph as the most difficult victory for his career as he had to control and ultimately, stop the daring Alain Prost.
Yet in doing all of that, Niki Lauda will also always be remembered for courting one of the most exciting rivalries in the history of the sport.
Facets like Senna versus Prost happened much later, circa mid-eighties and nineties. The Lauda vs Hunt contest, that happened years before, arose F1 to worldwide attention; a feud forged in the intense rivalry that later gave way to integral respect between two highly-respected adversaries on the grid.
And it was exactly a “Rush” of sorts which we felt in Lauda’s drives that spiked the adrenaline that is Formula 1.
Never before has the sport been so exemplified by one man’s surge toward greatness. Never again will we see the likes of Niki Lauda ever again.