Niki Lauda was a remarkable man; a very special person. That may sound trite when writing an appreciation in the immediate aftermath of his passing but, in the case of Andreas Nikolaus Lauda, it is perfectly true.
There is barely an aspect of his life that was not significant and occasionally astonishing. From funding his early career by securing a bank loan against an insurance policy on his life; promising sponsorship when he had none; winning the championship in his fourth full season; not only surviving that horrific accident in 1976 but returning to the cockpit six weeks later and taking the championship to the wire — then winning it for a second time 12 months later; quitting, then returning to claim a third world title by half a point in 1984.
These details have been well documented but, with Lauda, it was the way he did it and the clipped manner in which he spoke about his achievements as if they were routine that made him special.
Pragmatic does not make a start when describing his attitude toward life and the obstacles thrown in his path. That’s why interviews and chats were always a pleasure. Saying that, you had to be well prepared and avoid small talk. But once you had his attention, the answers would be gloriously direct and formed by the same straight logic he had applied to his racing.
He spoke a brand of common sense that could sometimes be withering, but invariably precise and correct. Sound bites had no place in his repertoire, largely because they were a waste of valuable time; time that had a deeper meaning for a man given the last rites immediately after the fiery crash on the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
In 2006, I was commissioned by my newspaper to interview Lauda for “Triumph and Despair,” a series in which a sportsperson recalled the highs and lows of his or her career. I began by saying that winning the championship in 1977 must have been the moment of triumph.
“Correct,” was the typically brief reply. And what about despair? It must have been the moments leading up to when the priest administered the last rites?
“It wasn’t,” he said firmly. “In 1991, one of the planes from Lauda Air, the airline I had set up, crashed in Bangkok, killing 223 people. When I was in motor racing, I had taken the decision to risk my life. But when you run an airline and more than 200 people want to go from A to B and they don’t arrive — that’s a different responsibility.”
He went on to describe the absolute horror and devastation of the crash site as he tried to find the reason for the Boeing 767 falling from 28,000 feet. Lauda could fly all of his aircraft. He suspected that reverse thrust had deployed on one engine, turning the aeroplane upside down.
When eight months passed without comment from the manufacturer, a mass burial for the last 23 unidentified passengers proved to be the tipping point as relatives continued to look to Lauda for answers. Lauda flew straight to Boeing’s headquarters in Seattle and asked to fly the simulator programmed in the way it was thought the 767 had been at the moment disaster struck.
“At first they refused,” said Lauda. “I said: ‘Listen, this was my f—ing aeroplane, my name, my damage… so let me do it.'” Boeing agreed and Lauda proved it was an O-ring failure on the reverse thrust. When Boeing said they could not issue a statement immediately, Lauda went into action — as only he could.
I said: “OK, I’m going to hold a press conference. I’m going to say we take a 767, load it up like it was with two pilots, deploy reverse thrust in the air and, if it keeps on flying, I want to be on board. If you guys are so sure that people can continue to fly these aeroplanes, then let’s do it.’ They issued a press statement straight away. Finally it was made clear the manufacturer was at fault and not the operator of the aeroplane.”
On a lighter note, Lauda had me in stitches as he told the story of how Austria’s national airline had tried to pull strings and scupper his best-laid plans.
“I was about to make an inaugural flight from Vienna to Sydney,” he said. “On the day before, I had a call from an official in Canberra saying my airplane books did not turn up on time. They were technical books for the 767 and they said they could not give me permission to fly over Australian air space.
“I said: ‘What d’you want me to do? I have 223 people all ready to go.’ He said: ‘I don’t care’. I said: ‘Neither do I. I’m coming, so if you want to stop the flight, you’ll have to shoot me down.’ The flight went ahead.”
Niki Lauda: A remarkable man. A very special person.