Rush: Winning formula

By Tom Cary

Three-time champion Niki Lauda is blunt, driven and has seen F1’s best and worst. He talks to Tom Cary about a new movie of his infamous near-fatal crash and his legendary return to the racetrack

Three-time world champion Niki Lauda cheated death and went on to found two airlines and run a F1 team himself. Photo / Corbis
Three-time world champion Niki Lauda cheated death and went on to found two airlines and run a F1 team himself. Photo / Corbis

Niki Lauda shakes his head in bemusement at much of the celebrity-driven guff that passes for news these days. Having raced in - and lived through - Formula 1 in the 1970s and 1980s, a full-blooded era in every sense, the three-time world champion has a rather different perspective on life. The force of his despair is quickly evident when I sit down with him.

"So many people today are interested in this bullshit," he snorts, removing his trademark red baseball cap and scratching his skull, scarred from the burns that so nearly claimed his life following a horrific accident at the Nurburgring in 1976.

"I cannot understand it. Honestly, for me it is all bullshit. I hate this stuff, these Z-list celebrities. There are people who are famous for doing f*** all. Big breasts or whatever. More and more stupid things are making headlines."

If it is a little surprising to hear the non-executive chairman of a major corporate entity such as the Mercedes F1 team using such language, it should be noted that Lauda has never been shy of breaking with convention.

From the moment he defied his father's wishes and took out a bank loan, secured by a life insurance policy, to buy his way into the March team in 1971, the Austrian has always been outspoken, brusque and fiercely independent.

He has won three world titles, cheated death, founded two airlines and run a Formula 1 team.

Lauda's current diatribe against the cult of celebrity has its roots in a conversation we were having, inevitably, about Mercedes' star recruit, Lewis Hamilton, and his occasional, well-documented forays into the gossip pages. Lauda, typically, has no time for it. He points out that the 2008 world champion's sometimes erratic behaviour in recent years would not even have registered as a ripple on the testosterone-filled Formula 1 pond of his heyday, although he concedes that times are different. "Everything has changed," he notes wistfully. "Society has changed."

It is a timely lament. Lauda's era, and more specifically his titanic battle with James Hunt in the 1976 championship, has just been made the subject of a big-budget film, Rush, by Hollywood director Ron Howard.

Rush tells the story of the intense rivalry between two very different people, the charismatic playboy Hunt with "Sex: Breakfast of Champions" emblazoned on his overalls, and the almost pathologically driven Lauda; of the latter's near-fatal accident at the infamous "Green Hell" of Germany's Nurburgring racetrack when he had to be pulled from the burning wreckage of his Ferrari; and of his near-miraculous return, just weeks after being read his last rites and with his face still bandaged and covered in weeping sores, to take the title race to the final day of the season in Japan.

Niki Lauda was impressed with how well Chris Hemsworth (left) and Daniel Bruhl impersonated James hunt and himself in Rush.
Niki Lauda was impressed with how well Chris Hemsworth (left) and Daniel Bruhl impersonated James hunt and himself in Rush.

Hunt is played by Australian heart-throb Chris Hemsworth but it is the German actor Daniel Bruhl in the role of Lauda who really shines, uncannily mimicking the Austrian's accent and mannerisms.

"I was very impressed," Lauda says of Bruhl's performance. "I couldn't believe how well he [impersonated me]. He was even worse than I was. 'F*** you!' 'F*** this!' He did a very good job.

"I have had no negative comments about the movie at all. Everyone who watches it gets something out of it. Even women like it. The butt of Mr Hemsworth is sensational. The butt makes the movie."

A few factual inaccuracies aside, Rush appears to have gone down fairly well with the paddock cognoscenti, too. A special advance screening of the film at the Nurburgring in July, attended by Lauda and F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone among other luminaries, ended in a standing ovation.

And while not the most subtle film, Howard clearly having given it the Hollywood treatment ("It is a movie for today's time," says Lauda), those who were there say it paints a decent portrait of Formula 1 in the 1970s, a time of big personalities and ever-present danger. Lauda admits the scenes in which he fights for his life before returning, disfigured, to an awestruck paddock in Monza, shocked even him.

Not that he has regrets. "You can never compare eras - or you should not," he says. "And thank God times have changed in terms of the danger. But as for the rest? I miss it. You needed to be a different personality back then to these [Sebastian] Vettels and drivers of today. Because they don't have to think about it [death] any more. I mean, every year one or two got killed. Right in front of you. So if you think logically, with 16 drivers, you were just waiting your turn.

"It was a completely different sport, so therefore the drivers were more charismatic, had more personality, bigger characters, more egocentric, more screwing, more enjoying life ... because you never knew when it might be over."

Their antics certainly make the odd Twitter gaffe from Hamilton seem pretty tame by comparison. Lauda muses over the damage Hunt could have done with an iPhone. In any case, the Austrian, who once made headlines for saying that Hamilton would "kill someone" unless he reined in his recklessness, claims he is not in the least bit worried by the young British driver's focus.

"Not at all. Not at all," he says when asked if he feels Hamilton has too many distractions in his life. "He has to be careful because the media of today, like so many people today, are interested in this bullshit [gossip]. But he is focused. He is super quick. And now he is in a very competitive team, no question about it."

Niki Lauda talks to his manager and crew during a pitstop moments before the fiery crash that almost killed him at Nurburgring on August 1, 1976. Photo / Getty Images
Niki Lauda talks to his manager and crew during a pitstop moments before the fiery crash that almost killed him at Nurburgring on August 1, 1976. Photo / Getty Images

The unlikely relationship between Hamilton and Lauda is blossoming, it seems. It was the Austrian who was charged with enticing Hamilton from McLaren and he admits he did not know what to expect when they met properly for the first time in Singapore last year.
"I asked around the paddock and they all said, 'he's a very complicated character'. I said, 'fine'," he recalls.

"Then I went to see him in Singapore and in two seconds it was the exact opposite. Lewis is a clever, intelligent guy who can decide on his own. All this bullshit of management and talks, they were not even there. Straightforward questions, straightforward answers. We immediately spoke the same language."

Lauda reflects for a moment. "I think he respects me and likes to talk to me. And I like him very much. Whenever he has questions, I am here to answer them. You know, when we met his first question was, 'why should I leave a winning car?' And I thought for a few seconds and said, 'You're right. But think about it. You are at McLaren for so many years with the same people. I am famous, not only because I lost my ear, but because I proved myself in different teams, different cultures.' It was the first time I had got him to think about it. And he agreed."

Hamilton could do worse than continue to listen to a man who literally went through the fire of Formula 1 and came out the other side, a champion.

Rush is in cinemas now.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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