Book Review: Niki Lauda – The Biography

A year after the death of three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda, renowned British journalist Maurice Hamilton (no relation) wrote and published a final biography of the great Austrian. In it he collected countless reports and interviews from then and now, taking the reader through the central events of Niki’s life from a multi-dimensional perspective that is incredibly readable and very easy to escape into. Hamilton has been on the F1 scene since the late 1970s and in Lauda’s circle of journalistic contacts for 40 years, writing and broadcasting for F1 the UK.

Moving Swiftly On

Opposite to the developed narrative, Lauda and James Hunt were actually friends throughout just about 99% of their professional careers. Photo: James Hunt Archive.

Firstly, an important aspect of this biography is how much quiet respect Hamilton holds for the reader as much as the subject of his book. With a few notable exceptions, just about everyone who has contributed to this book deserves to be in it, and Hamilton treads the line perfectly between holding the reader’s hand, and not talking over the people in the story. The narrative is made up of the chronological structure, with first-hand interviews peppered into each event. It keeps the narrative fresh when reading different expressive voices or opinions, and presents Niki’s world so much more interestingly than the legend insists.

The narrative is strongest when compared against the film Rush (2013), which depicts the essential events of Lauda and James Hunt’s careers up to and including their fight for the 1976 F1 championship. The book dismisses their famous rivalry outright, which was itself fabricated by a zealous British and Italian press. We learn that Lauda and Hunt were really friends: they had dinner together, they drank and smoked together, they holidayed together, they even shared adjoining hotel rooms during the final rounds of 1976 when the tension was highest.

Aside from the fallout from the Canadian Grand Prix – when the loudmouthed Ferrari were found to have been running afoul of chassis rules all season, and got away with it – there few to no moments from Formula 3 until Hunt’s death where Lauda and he were truly at loggerheads. In fact, Niki’s first offer for 1978 was to join James at McLaren! It is chapters like these that put this book a cut above the rest.

Niki’s Contemporaries

Niki idolised Peterson, but the two couldn’t have been different in their driving styles. Photo: Goodwood.

In a career this long it would be impossible to make a readable narrative including every one of Lauda’s colleagues, but this biography still manages to contain a great deal, again building up the world he raced in rather than confining it to a dull affair of one man’s race results for page after page. For example, the Austrian’s adoration of Ronnie Peterson, who would be Lauda’s teammate at March in 1972: with contributions from Max Mosley, the reader learns that Peterson had a wonderful ability to get around a car’s problems – a philosophy totally antithetical to Niki’s. The Austrian instead got better at developing chassis, stepping on people’s toes, and getting the best out of the engineers around him, which built his professional and personal character as success came his way.

When considering the danger of motorsport, the names of Roger Williamson, Piers Courage, and even the other victims of the Nürburgring in 1976 are not shied away from. We learn how Niki pushed for safety reform, uniting drivers, protesting, and boycotting events when he felt it would make a difference for the betterment of all. When discussing his own life-changing crash, we hear the honest accounts of fellow drivers at the scene such as John Watson, who had no idea that Lauda – whom we discover was speaking after the accident – was actually suffering invisible injuries to his lungs. The confusion of events at the time becomes clearer, and the brash “sex for breakfast” generation appear a lot more sympathetic.

Most of the book is about how Niki’s own rather strong personality bounced off others. What starts off as an interesting examination of the functional culture clash at Ferrari becomes twice as interesting when followed by Niki’s failure to instil any change at Jaguar-Ford. His determination to speak his mind was combined by an old-school upbringing that he should never eat alone and that he should always keep the key players on his side. It was an attitude many drivers knew instinctively – Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet, for example – but one that Lauda especially leaned on at all stages in his career, be it at March or Mercedes.

He seemed to get on with everyone to a professional degree, not least James Hunt. He most enjoyed working with Clay Regazzoni and Alain Prost, and was happy to cite that Prost was the faster driver during their time as teammates, with “no backroom dealing” going on. But as Prost learned the hard way, it is not so much about speed as tenacity, and Lauda would not have won the 1984 F1 Championship without it. The only driver who gets a bad rap is Carlos Reutemann, whom Lauda seemed to dislike in any case, before things deteriorated further after the Nürburgring injury: Enzo Ferrari was confident Niki would be in no state to return to racing, and so zealously grabbed Peterson, Emerson Fittipaldi, and then Reutemann (whom Enzo knew Lauda didn’t like) on an immediate two-year contract in Niki’s place. Although we know that the relationship became irreparable, Hamilton does an excellent job of conveying things from both sides’ points of view, with the very clear justification for both sides now that the initial animosity has long since worn off.

Lauda Against the World

The tenacity Lauda developed would be passed onto his teammate to even greater success in the coming decade.

There are wonderful anecdotes connecting Lauda to the everyman that are littered throughout the book. One of this author’s personal favourites was from his comeback in 1982, when he was forced after qualifying at Long Beach to attend some press conference in some far away exhibition centre. When he finally arrived, he was so fed up that he stood on the podium for about five seconds: “tyres good, engine good, driver good, conference over” before getting in the return taxi, leaving the American press agents flabbergasted, used as they were to the excruciating regurgitation of sponsor names at these kind of events.

Lauda’s constant state of internal and external conflict caused him to instinctively join the Brabham underdogs in 1978, when he had an easy opportunity to join Hunt at the established McLaren frontrunners. Later, it put him at endless odds with the Jaguar head staff: he couldn’t live down the issues that existed at the team, not least the Ford group’s determination to inadvertently draw attention to all the team’s problems (reserve driver Tomas Scheckter being caught with a prostitute in his car was a particularly dramatic one!). It is fascinating to note that Niki’s favourite driver to work with had been none other than Eddie Irvine, a fact which might be surprising at first, but makes perfect sense after a minute of thought.

Lauda seemed to thrive in the matched determination of the passionate Ferrari garage, but he could not stand the cold, balance-sheet-focussed kind of determination that characters like Ron Dennis had, even if the two should hypothetically have got along. The worst moment of his career was not, in his opinion, the fiery furnace crash that permanently burned half his face and very nearly killed him, but instead the moment Ron Dennis hijacked his retirement speech in 1985 to promote the work of John Barnard instead in building such an excellent car that Niki was presumably unworthy of. Charming!

Lauda in Retrospect

After his stormy relationship with Ferrari, Niki found varying degrees of success dealing with the stone-cold McLaren, the woefully inefficient Jaguar, and the corporate juggernaut of Mercedes. Photo: Mercedes F1 Team.

What the book does so well is in showing the actual actionable change Lauda made, in spite of his occasional missteps. He was instrumental at times in rounding up the drivers against the governing body when it came to enforcing safety increases, all the way into the mid-1980s. He was the person who convinced Sir Lewis Hamilton to escape the unhealthy environment of McLaren (and Ron Dennis) and move to Mercedes. His initial criticism caused Ron Howard to completely redraft Rush, which sounded more like Driven (2001) than its final version.

The book is tinged with tragedy, of course. After all the talk of Lauda’s personal development, and the loss of his closest friends through accidents, it is particularly sad how no present-day drivers attended his funeral – a fact that Jean Alesi for one was furious about. Perhaps, in how upfront and willing he was to see the truth in an uncomplicated manner, he allowed our current contemporaries to take him for granted. Other than contributions by Lewis Hamilton, and a bizarrely masturbatory foreword by Nico Rosberg, there is not much from present-day drivers that provides any worth.

It is not a hagiography, either. It more than willingly points out the dissonance between Nürburgring and Zolder, for example, when the shoe was put on the other foot. He was horrified at being blamed by Ferrari for his terrible crash, but then maintained to his dying day that Jochen Mass was responsible for the death of Gilles Villeneuve in 1982.

In spite of being a man who didn’t show much emotion, Lauda’s testimony can get quite powerful at times, especially in the aftermath of Lauda Air’s tragic plane crash in Thailand, or in the final years of the man’s life as his health deteriorated. He maintained, just as much as his rival Hunt is now credited for doing, an unquenchable desire for F1 to be emotional instead of clinical, and his rhetoric reflected his own inner conflict working at the grey and corporate Mercedes while Ferrari victories would draw in millions more audience numbers at a racing weekend. As Maurice states, “he did not suffer fools gladly” in any situation, and fought tirelessly to keep his voice clear and his name clean, even when going against giant corporations like Boeing for the blame of the Lauda Air crash.

Conclusion

At least among his own generation of drivers, Niki Lauda was a hero, and what Formula 1 owes him is beyond evaluation. Photo: MTV Uutiset.

Niki Lauda was a hyper-punctual man, never kept trophies, and always used every available minute of his time to achieve something. Considering the things he got up to, it’s no wonder. What Maurice Hamilton’s biography does so well is to take all these interesting moments and discursive topics and make them flow well, even when five or six different people are doing the talking at one time. Having known Lauda as he did for so long at a relative distance, he has also been able to keep in and leave out exactly what was needed to help the reader understand Lauda and what people actually thought of him. There is great value in this book as a result, and this author cannot recommend it enough.

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