Niki Lauda book review: no filter

Published: 13 July 2020

► New biography of F1 legend Niki Lauda by Maurice Hamilton
► Three world titles, one life-altering crash, a couple of airlines
► Found a dual role later in life as spiky pundit and champion of Lewis Hamilton

The words are great. Of course they are – they’re by Maurice Hamilton, one of the very best F1 journalists writing in English, who knew Lauda for 40 years. But the book is, quite brilliantly, framed by two photos. Neither is a very good photo, but the journey between the two is thrilling, poignant, funny, pacy, eye-opening and at times disturbing.

The first was taken in 1971 at Mallory Park by the young Maurice Hamilton, long before he was a motorsport writer. He barely knew who Lauda was, but the focused look of the 22-year-old Austrian sitting in his F2 car caught his attention. And 40 years later Hamilton showed it to Lauda, who in between times had clocked up three F1 world titles, nearly died in a fireball at the Nürburgring in 1976, launched a couple of airlines, put a lot of noses out of joint, been portrayed in a Hollywood movie and eventually settled into the dual roles of Mercedes F1 figurehead and no-nonsense TV pundit.

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Lauda’s rise was rapid. The talent was always there, but backed up by a confidence and truth-bending persuasiveness that convinced people he had the backing of his wealthy banking family, when in truth his father was completely opposed to Niki being a professional racer. 

He was soon moving among some big motorsport names – Mosley, Peterson, Hunt, Hailwood, di Montezemolo, Murray, Ecclestone – and quickly outgrew March and BRM. Fortunately, Enzo Ferrari saw Lauda’s potential and signed him up.

In his second season with Ferrari, 1975, he won his first world title. Driving the best car, he made it seem relatively straightforward. But nothing would be straightforward for Lauda again.

In 1976, he won two GPs, but then broke some ribs in a tractor accident, which may have seemed bad at the time, but was nothing compared to that season’s Nürburgring horror accident, which would have been career-ending for most people. That accident, and his comeback from it, defined the public Niki Lauda. Within days of returning home from hospital he was watching the video footage of the fiery crash, trying to make sense of it, planning his return to racing.

He was back later that season, and the following year he was champion again, but his relationship with Ferrari had ground to a halt. After a couple of seasons with Brabham he retired from F1 and turned his focus to Lauda Air.

But F1’s magnetic pull was irresistible, and he bagged his third world championship in 1984, with McLaren. He quit for good after a disappointing 1985. The way Hamilton tells it, Lauda didn’t enjoy racing so much now that he was no longer the fastest man on the track.

Racing had been his life, but falling out with people was his hobby, which he was able to enjoy in gloriously fractious stints as a consultant/manager/figurehead with Ferrari and Jaguar Racing. More recently, he had a much happier time at Mercedes, where he clicked with Toto Wolff and was instrumental in bringing Lewis Hamilton over from McLaren. (Hamilton was one of only two current F1 drivers to attend Lauda’s funeral.)

Simultaneously, he was by now fully embracing the role of grumpy old pundit, indiscreet, unfiltered. If he was hard on others, he applied the same rigorously unsentimental logic to himself. ‘I always try to remember each little mistake and never ever make it again,’ he once said. 

Maurice Hamilton tells all this with great authority and fluency, aided by substantial interviews with – among many others – John Watson, who was two times a team-mate, and Marlboro’s John Hogan, who was with Lauda pretty much all the way. There’s even that rarest of things, a tribute from Ron Dennis: ‘He taught me, indirectly by observation, how to get an edge by always being focused.’

The second defining picture, the one on the back flap, was taken in 2017 in Abu Dhabi, when Lauda uncharacteristically sauntered over for a chat with Maurice Hamilton, and even more uncharacteristically agreed to pose for a cheerful phone pic. It would turn out to be their final conversation, before Lauda succumbed in 2019 to the illness that had been creeping up on him.

But what a life.

Niki Lauda – the Biography

By Maurice Hamilton

is published by Simon & Schuster at £20

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions