I am not sure how, or even if, I can look Niki Lauda right in the eye. I am waiting for him in a multi-chandeliered and cream cake heavy hotel suite in his native Vienna. I have just seen the movie Rush. Utterly compelling.
It is based on his story, the danger, rivalry, excitement and brushes with sex and death in the world of 1976 Formula 1 when the sport was so dangerous at the beginning of each race there was a certainty 20 per cent would not make it to the end.
The Ron Howard movie chronicles the impassioned rivalry between Lauda and the first British Formula 1 champion James Hunt. In one vital race at Nürburgring in the 1976 Grand Prix Lauda’s tyres lost grip and his Ferrari caught fire. He was dragged out
‘Another ten seconds and I would have died.’
There followed gruelling operations to remove smoke and debris from his lungs and his face was irreparably burned, he lost half an ear. He refused to give up. Showing spectacular strength and verve he appeared just a couple of months later at a race meeting in Monza with for want of a better description, a new face.
Fellow drivers recoiled in horror and couldn’t look at him. He was shocked and hurt. The damage was horrendous and this was first time he saw the impact on the rest of the world. Even though he’d missed races he was still in the lead.
He enters the room relaxed, jeans, checked shirt. Eyes like pale blue Swarovski crystals, they burn and sparkle. His charisma almost takes my breath away. He sees me looking at him, examining him and gives a slow knowing smile.
He has just seen the movie, which is basically his story – he was a constant companion to writer Peter Morgan and helped him with memories and knowledge of the sport. Apparently Morgan knew nothing about Formula 1 and he tells the story with the passion of its discovery. Undoubtedly his best work.
I look at Lauda’s face. The scars have faded with age. He is now 64. ‘Yes, the wrinkles improved it,’ he says with an almost impossible confidence. He is comfortable with me looking right at his face. In fact he enjoys. He enjoys staring tragedy and disaster in the eye and dealing with it. He enjoys strength. This is a man who has not only learned to live without his face but has enjoyed living despite it.
‘When after the accident I came out into the world and people looked at me they were shocked. It upset me. I thought they were impolite not to hide their negative emotions about my look. When I saw the movie it let me see the story from the other side, from the point of view of other people looking at me. It helped me understand why people were shocked.’
What was it like for him when he first saw the scarring? ‘My then wife fainted when she first saw me, so I knew it could not have been good. I wondered is this really the way I look? As I get older the scars get lost in the lines and well…’ he shrugs to himself, ‘you just get used to it.
‘It took a long time though. I never realised because I accepted the way I looked at the time. I never thought about it, I just kept on going.’
It’s interesting in the age of cosmetic microsurgery where transformations are commonplace that Lauda refused to have any more work done after the initial surgery to keep him alive.
‘I only had to do surgery to improve my eyesight. Cosmetic surgery, it’s boring and expensive and the only thing it could do is give me another face. I had the eye surgery so that my eyes could function and as long as everything functions I don’t care about it.’
You believe him when he says that. He is striking in the way he has very few insecurities. Born to a wealthy Austrian family in Vienna. His parents had expected him to follow into a comfortable life. Lauda wanted none of it. He’d never been afraid of speed and always had a passion for the way things worked.
He peers out from under his ubiquitous red cap that only slightly disguises the fact that half of one ear is missing. ‘You have to accept it. You can’t think how you would be until it happens to you. If a person gets burnt somewhere when you are in that situation you think differently, you think what do I do now, how do I find my own way of handling it and when you’ve found it it doesn’t bother you any more. People who have never been in your situation they can’t imagine what they would do. They just ask themselves why is he like this? Why doesn’t he do something about it?
‘Maybe if they were in my situation they would behave the same way as I did. I was always being offered cosmetic procedures. See this little thing here and he gestures to the side of his face. This was done by Ivo Pitanguy in Brazil. He was the most famous plastic surgeon in the world at the time. He wanted to do everything. He asked me, “Are you nuts? Why wouldn’t you want this?” I just don’t like the look of it.’
He looks up at me, through me, examines my face. ‘You have not had work done. What do you think of the stupid women who get work done all the time?’ I’m not sure. Ask me in ten years.
‘I think it’s bad. If you have something done people can see right away that you’ve had surgery.’
The point of good surgery is that you don’t see. ‘I see it straight away,’ he says as someone who is hyper aware.
‘What about women who have their lips done and have all this shit? (He mimics the trout pout). I hate it because it becomes part of your personality.’
Does he automatically find a woman unattractive if they’ve had any cosmetic surgery? ‘I would hate it. It means they can’t stand whoever they are. I’ve had a lot of incidents in the past where people were wondering how I looked. At least I can say I had an accident. The idea that people would work on themselves, who hadn’t had an accident… I can’t stand plastic surgery. You have to have enough personality to overcome this beauty bullshit and find the strength to love yourself the way you are.’
There’s no point in telling him many people could never find that strength. When you look at him you don’t see scars you see strength and that strangely makes him really good. His eyes seem to glint even bluer when I tell him this. He says, ‘I’ve learned from my life experience. I think I was much less charismatic before.’
In the movie it shows the young Lauda being very determined, practical and pragmatic. His personality was the opposite of the flamboyant catnip to all women James Hunt.
Actor Daniel Brühl who played him had to have prosthetic teeth. He was known as the rat for his protruding large teeth which strangely you don’t notice at all now.
‘Marlboro was the sponsor. They put The Rat on my visor. A marketing guy thought of it because of my teeth. He wasn’t vain before the accident or diminished by being called The Rat and he wasn’t diminished afterwards. He has never counted on his looks.
His psychological journey to overcoming his brush with death and a face that was so scarred it shocked people, was one that he treated with his usual sportsmanship and pragmatism and got on with it. He didn’t falter. Was he ever afraid?
‘I’ve had lots of positive and negative experiences. I don’t really have any fear.’
Did he ever have fear? ‘I was brought up in a well-educated family here in Austria. I knew how to use a knife and fork. I had a very good and stable personality from a very young age. I don’t know the reason I don’t have fear in me. I’m very secure and always have been. I went through a lot of terrible things, like my accident, which again taught me how to be stronger.’
He retired from Formula One in 1979 but made a comeback in 1982 with McLaren, hanging up his helmet in 1985. Still fascinated with fast and powerful travel he decided to start airline Lauda Air having gained his own commercial pilot’s licence. It did well for a while.
‘Another terrible thing was the airplane that crashed, the Boeing 767.’ The flight crashed in Thailand in 1991 killing all 223 people on board. He talks of it still solemn.
‘I’ve been through a lot and I realise the future can’t be controlled. I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties. That said, I’ve always been a stable person.’
Is that why he was attracted to Formula 1? You wanted to test that stability. ‘No. Formula One is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits. This is why people race, to feel the speed, the car and the control. If in my time you pushed too far you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive.’
He says this recalling the precision not the danger. It was always a mathematical equation for him. ‘I was more technical than the other guys. I didn’t just want to make it go quicker, I wanted to understand the car so I knew exactly how to make it go quicker. I always knew that the car makes me successful. The faster the car the better my chances of winning were, but in those days it was always a fight to stay alive. You had to push to the limit without making any mistakes.’
Much is made of the physical scars that remain from his 1976 crash at Germany’s Nürburgring, but it left his lungs weakened and he was in severe pain. It took him all of his strength to breathe. Was there never a moment where he felt simply grateful to be alive and not need to get back in the car? ‘No, not one moment, because I knew how things go, I knew about the risks. They questioned me, did I want to continue? But I always thought, yes, I do. I wanted to see if I could make a comeback. I was not surprised to have an accident. All these years I saw people getting killed right in front of me.’
He was married at the time to Marlene – who passed out when she saw him and went on to have a nervous breakdown. ‘Yes, I remember. I expected her to tell me that everything would be alright but she passed out. It didn’t help at the time. Other than that it didn’t really affect things. We went on to have two sons.’
Did having children change your desire to race, to take those risks? ‘No, I was very focused and continued racing and now I am married again and have twins, a little girl and a little boy.’
He talks of his Max and Mia born in September 2009 with great pride telling me that his wife is away, that he’s been looking after them on his own. Does he think his twins will be racers? ’I hope not. Too early to say. My daughter though is fearless. She climbs everywhere with not a care at all. She is like me. This is actually my first time alone with the kids while my wife is in New York. I’m going to rush home after our meeting because that’s when the nanny will leave and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a nice experience. Birgit Wetzinger (his second wife) said I would never be able to do it, but it’s all working out.’ He beams.
Birgit, 34, used to work for his budget airline company FlyNiki, also now sold. She was a stewardess. Did he meet her on a plane? ‘I met her at a party and I fell in love with her. It was one of those things where you see someone and you just know. I connected with her right away because of her boots. They were a hippy type, flat boots. The opposite of the high heels that everyone else was wearing at the party. That was my first interest.’
You fell in love with her because of her boots? ‘Yes. Then I found out she was working for me. Long story short I asked her out and that’s where it started. We got married and after eight months Max and Mia came along. She is a Scorpio and I am a Pisces. Scorpios are very difficult to handle,’ he chortles to himself.
In the movie we see that he met his first wife when she hitchhiked a ride. Is that true? ‘Actually I met her at a party but I did drive her somewhere soon after and she did not recognise who I was and she thought I was a tennis player.’
In the movie he picks up hitchhikers and half scares them to death when he is suddenly not the sedate saloon car driver they imagined him to be. They then recognised him by the way he drove.
Is he still in touch with his first wife who he divorced in 1991? ‘Yes, very much so. She is part of our life. We have a house in Ibiza. She lives there. My old family and new family often get together. We went to a restaurant the other say, Marlene, Birgit and myself. She is an outstanding woman. When everyone is happy she is happy. We were joined by Lukas and Mathias (his sons) and their girlfriends. There’s no issue at all. Marlene never wanted to get married. I wanted to as everyone I knew at 28 was married. Later on I said I wanted to divorce and she said “Okay, if you stay who you are and take care of me” – which I do – “I have no problem with this.” We got divorced but we are still friends. Nothing has changed. What is more, Birgit is her friend too. It’s really an outstanding situation thanks to Marlene more than anyone else. She’s a secure, straightforward and warm hearted person with a positive way of thinking.’
The more I sit with him the more I’m impressed by his positive way of thinking, the more I realise what an unusual person he is to make seemingly impossible situations miraculously straightforward.
German actor Daniel Brühl did a very good job of capturing him. ‘He speaks English better than me. He came to Vienna to meet me and studied me for a while. I also took him to the Brazilian Grand Prix a couple of years ago. I like him. I asked him what he found difficult. He said because people know me from television, interviews and talks, they know how you speak so you can’t not get that right. He did a good job.’
Nowadays Lauda lives a little outside of Vienna. ‘Nothing fancy,’ he shrugs. I have a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake.
Does he ever get tempted to speed through suburbia? ‘No, but when I am stopped by the police if I go a little fast I always tell them I cannot help it, it’s in my blood. They either laugh or give me a hard time.’ He laughs now, an easy throaty chuckle.
His relationship with James Hunt is one where he laughed. In the movie they are portrayed as extreme rivals who eventually come together out of mutual respect and become even friends. ‘Yes, we were friends. I knew him before we met at Formula One (Formula Three). We always crossed each other’s lines. He was a very competitive guy and he was very quick. In many ways we were the same. When I looked into his eyes I knew exactly what was going on. I had a lot of respect for him on the circuit. You could drive two centimetres from his wheels and he never made a stupid move. He was a very solid good driver.’
The movie shows them as very different characters, Lauda very serious and pragmatic, Hunt loving to party, to womanise, to drink.
‘I liked his way of living. I did a little bit of what he did. I was not as strict as I appeared in the movie, but I was more disciplined than he was. I would never drink before a race. Certainly after it, I had to. Every race could have been my last. It’s different today, but then it was a tougher time. Every race we went out and survived we celebrated, had a party. It was a different time. We all had lots of girlfriends. I was not as bad as James but we were similar. He was just more extreme, so the movie emphasised this. We never had rivalries over girls. With the others we would have a beer after the race and then goodbye. That was not friendship. With James it was different. James was different.’
Does he think that Britain could ever produce another driver like Hunt? ‘No. Today life is different for the racers. They start younger. They do go-karts first. Everything is as safe as possible. The last driver to be killed was Senna 19 years ago, and the improvements were so big since that. Now nothing ever happens. It’s just not the same.’
Does that make it less exciting? ‘Maybe. But Hamilton did well in the race the other day. A little into the race his tyre exploded. He is a very good guy. A great personality.’ Then he gets a little gossipy. Asking me if I’d seen the tabloid headline about Hamilton and Nicole Scherzinger breaking up. He knows her well as he doesn’t often miss a race. ‘I have to as I’m in charge of the Mercedes team and I also commentate for German TV.’
Did he ever love airplanes as much as cars? ‘No. Cars are my profession. Airplanes I use for my own comfort. I’ve been a commercial pilot for many years, so if I want to go to Brazil I would go in my own plane. I go to any races I want on my Global 5000 12-seater airplane which can fly for 12 hours at a time. I never fly commercial.’
Does he miss his own airline? ‘No. I sold it as soon as I started the job I have with Mercedes. (He runs their team). Air Berlin wanted me to sell. It was the right time and the right price, so I did.’ He refuses to say how much he sold it for.
Can I assume that he doesn’t need to work for money any more, just for love? ‘I’ve never worked for money, never raced for money. You cannot do this for the money. You have to first race and if you are successful money comes. This is the way I’ve gone through my life. I did things I liked, and if I did it right money came. Money is not important to me at all. It’s nice when you have it.’
It’s been written that he’s not a very emotional person although I can’t believe that’s true? ‘I am emotional but I don’t show it. I protect myself. I’m always being watched so I cover myself. I cry easily when I see a stupid movie. I don’t know why, but I cry.’
He is very unflamboyant, not like his friend Bernie Ecclestone. Did he go to Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding, said to be one of the most lavish and over the top ever in the history of nuptials? ‘No. There was a race somewhere. But I know him well. It’s not Bernie who is ostentatious. He is the opposite, but the rest of his family. When I’m in London I go for lunch with Bernie a lot.’
Does he stay in touch with Hunt’s family? ‘I’m in touch with his brother, but that’s it.’
What quality does he think he shared with Hunt to make them both not ordinary drivers? ‘In many ways he was my opposite. We both tried to win. It’s sad that he’s not here now sitting with me. He had a rough time. He was sober and clean for four years and then had a heart attack. He died too early, too young. I wish he’d been here to see the movie. It would have been the best.’
I’m not sure if I don’t see a little watering in his eyes just now. He himself has no fear of death. He recently had a kidney transplant. Was that related to his lung damage? ‘Nobody knows. My brother gave me one of his kidneys which lasted for eight years and then I had one donated by Birgit. Unbelievable. She was a perfect match for the kidney. At first I refused to take her kidney. I found it impossible after only eight months of knowing me she wanted to donate an organ, but I felt responsible for her and she kept insisting. It was very hard to find a match. My son would have given me one but he was not a match. Lukas manages a company in Barcelona, and Mathias my other son is in Bali surfing. He raced cars until last years.’
Was he good? ‘He was medium.’
He has another son Christophe from an extra-marital relationship. ‘I have no contact with him. His mother wanted to have him on her own. That was it. He’s now 31 and I respect her wishes. I know him. We just don’t have day to day contact.’ He says this very controlled and matter of factly.
Did Birgit donating you a kidney make you more in love with her? ‘No. I was always in love with her.’
Could anything tempt you back into getting into a car and racing again now? ‘No. I’ve tried every type of car in every possible way. I retired. I came back. I nearly killed myself. I’m not interested any more. Now I behave.’
Fortunately he says this with an extra twinkle in his eye so I know he doesn’t entirely behave.