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Niki Lauda: Walking away

By Peter Robinson, 21 May 2019 Features

Niki Lauda: Walking away

Wheels was with Niki Lauda for five days during his last F1 race, the 1985 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide

For the legendary Niki Lauda, the 1985 Australian Grand Prix was to be his last race before retiring. It became a memorable farewell, as the GP became a classic Lauda race.

Then Wheels Editor, Peter Robinson, was there.

Wheels Magazine, January 1986

“WHY ARE we waiting for the French clown?" Niki Lauda turns from the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz 280SE and repeats the question. Agnes Carrier, the Frenchwoman who runs Marlboro's international relations, still doesn't understand.

"He can come with me, now I'm ready," he says with a broad smile. But Alain Prost, "the French clown" who also happens to be the 1985 World Drivers' Champion, has already chosen to ride in the Mitsubishi minibus for the short journey from pits to media centre for McLaren's press conference.

Niki Lauda, motor racing's legend, is clearly in a good mood on this Wednesday afternoon in late October, only four days before his 171st, and last, Grand Prix. His small, short fingers glide the big car through the crowds, beside him sits Willy Dungl, his fitness instructor and masseur.

"This is my last. I am not racing next year." The words come fast yet they are spoken softly, almost as a mumble in a mild Austrian accent.

Read: Niki Lauda dies at age 70

The decision to retire at the end of the '85 racing season had been announced in August, in front of his countrymen in Austria, and even a $US 5.5 million offer from Brabham's Bernie Ecclestone hadn't been temptation enough, though the rumours of a comeback continued until he reached Australia. "Money shouldn't make a difference to a decision like this," he says, and with no irony in his tone, though it comes from the mouth of the highest paid driver in the entire Formula One circus.

 

After winning his third world championship, by just half a point from team-mate Prost in 1984, 1985 has been a difficult year. Lauda has missed two races recovering from a strained wrist and scored points in just three events including that memorable win in the Dutch GP when he beat Prost by half a car's length. And that had been the race right after he had announced he wanted to quit at the end of the season.

“My car wasn't very motivated this year. There have been stupid little problems, but it is absolutely normal to have things go wrong in motor racing. This year I have had the problems," he says with a shrug. "I have tried to do my best, to finish my last season doing my best."

The press conference, shared with Prost and team boss Ron Dennis, is relaxed, the questions are fielded expertly.

 

Niki has some nice things to say about the new Adelaide track. "It is the best road circuit in the world," - and denies the stories spread by Austrian newspapers that his McLaren has been the subject of deliberate sabotage.

The two McLarens, we are told, are identical even to the way they are set up. Prost agrees that next year, when Keke Rosberg joins him as equal number one driver things will be different. Rosberg's car will be tuned to accept his more difficult, oversteering driving style.

Niki, in jeans, sloppy and the ubiquitous red cap with the Parmalat insignia, is remarkably casual, and charming to a fault. When the formalities are over he and Prost go outside to meet the cameras, sign autographs for the normally cynical motoring press and answer the more persistent journalists' questions. The patter is the same; he has said it all before, in a dozen different countries and in three languages. The two drivers leave together in the 280SE to go back to the Hilton Hotel and its pool. The Clown and The Rat.

THERE IS no practice on Wednesday and qualifying doesn't begin until Friday, though the Formula One can be allowed out on the new track for two and a half hours on Thursday. Most of the cars arrived for Australia's first world championship race on the previous Thursday, the drivers arriving in ones and twos over the weekend and during the early part of the week. Lauda arrives at 8.25 on Wednesday morning.

I’m waiting for him at 10.30 am the following day - having been told he demands punctuality - in the comfortable rest area behind the McLaren pit. Already I've been informed that Niki played up the previous evening. Agnes warns me gently, "Niki has a headache this morning, but it doesn't matter."

One of the team tells me in less guarded tones that Niki drank too much red wine last night at the $150-a-ticket ball (black tie affair or not, Lauda none the less appeared wearing that Parmalat cap), then went on to the disco. "We had to drag him back to his room at almost two this morning. It's most unlike he's normally in bed at nine."

The world championship for 1985 has already been decided. The constructors' title will go to McLaren unless there is a total turnaround in fortunes. It is clear that the friendly Adelaide atmosphere is infectious.

"Everyone on the team is enjoying themselves," the McLaren PR man says. "Back home in England it's pissing with rain. Here it is going into summer. It's a great place for a race."

At 11.00 am the little man (at 65kg, he is heavier only than Prost among the GP drivers) arrives alone, carrying a sports bag and wearing a sheepish grin that exposes those slightly buck teeth. "Morning," he says to everybody in general. One of the team saunters over, lifts Lauda's dark glasses and peers into those normally steely blue eyes.

"Not bad," he says, "not bad," and everybody laughs. Of tension there is none and you begin to wonder just how seriously the team is treating this final race of the season.

 

Niki is eating a salad when I'm ushered into one of the two rooms that serve the McLaren. The chat is friendly if predictable. "It is my own decision. I don't retire from racing because I have to, retire because I want to. It doesn't mean I'm retiring from life. I am doing something different. For me, there is no problem."

It is obviously a very different, much-considered decision compared to the emotional, spur-of-the-moment act in Canada in 1979 when Niki walked away from his Brabham during his practice and barely said goodbye to the team. Then he was not enjoying himself; the motivation had gone. He doesn't regret that retirement now, and the absence lasted just over two years before "the joy of driving" (and, is it cruel to add the money?) brought him back.

Air Lauda is prospering, with two aircraft already and a third Boeing 737/300 about to be delivered. Niki is fascinated by its new navigational system and intends picking up the plane after four weeks flight training in the USA, after the AGP.

But what of his greatest races?

What of his incredibly courageous comeback at Monza just six weeks after the horrific crash at the Nurburgring in 1976, when his face was scarred for life, and he was given the last rites (“I was overwhelmingly afraid," he said of that Monza race in a recent interview). What of his decision to pull out of the dangerously wet 1976 Japanese GP, and virtually hand the world championship to James Hunt? What of his drive to a second world championship for Ferrari in 1977, and of his superb race through the field to second place at Monaco in 1978?

For Niki there is no sentiment. The Viennese boy, born February 22, 1949, to a wealthy family and raised mostly by a nanny, now says, "I honestly believe only in today and tomorrow."

His grand-children, he says, in answer to a direct question, won't want to know about who he was or what he did.Yet if you press him he will admit, with his eyes alive, that he enjoyed beating Prost in this year's Dutch GP. There were those who criticise him for not letting Prost through to get the extra three points for the championship but Niki, understandably, doesn't agree. If he respects Prost, he also wants to beat him, and the Dutch GP, he knew, might be his last chance.

"He's slowed down since winning the championship," Lauda says. "You check the times in Kyalami."

Steve Nichols,the American engineer in charge of Niki's MP4 McLaren, says, "Niki doesn't often show a lot of emotion. Last year after Estoril (the only time his wife Marlene has seen him race since his comeback) when he won his third world championship, he as really excited and beside himself with joy. And at Zandvoort, after that classic duel with Prost, he was very pleased. That is really quite an unusual state of mind for Niki.

Lauda has two lives and they seldom mix. At the races he is totally professional (despite the impression he gave at Calder for the for Formula Mondial cars when he stopped halfway through the race and drove off before the event was over), and yet the men he works with so much of the year have never met his children.

So there is the family, kept private and away from glare of publicity, and there is the world of racing.

Nichols respects Lauda, of that there is no doubt, but they are not close friends despite the intimacy of their working relationship.

“Having him go,” says Nichols, “brings out mixed emotions. He is a very interesting personality, much loved, a legendary figure. It has been an honour and a privilege to work with him, of course. From that point of view it is sad to see him go.”

THURSDAY MORNING the new track is unusually slippery, the Mondials and the Group A touring cars spinning frequently on the dusty surface. The Formula One men watch and reckon the circuit isn’t going to have much grip at all.

To Alan Jones falls the honour of doing the first lap in a Formula One car and he is alone on the circuit, hanging tail out on most corners - not deliberately, as the 25,000 spectators clearly think, but because the track is so slippery. Then out they all go. Brazilian Ayrton Senna's Lotus is quickly in the 1m 24s bracket while Prost, Piquet, Mansell and many others spin on the glass-like surface. Some crash and damage their cars quite badly.

Niki is 11th fastest at the end of the day and reasonably pleased. He is home before dark. There is no wine on Thursday night. 

FRIDAY THINGS begin to get serious, and in the pits there is an air of total competitiveness. Senna is aloof away from the track, astonishingly fast on the track, and it is soon clear that the Williams cars of Rosberg and Mansell and Senna’s black Lotus are going to be fighting pole. The untimed morning session is considerably faster than the previous day but the official qualifying session in the afternoon is on a track that has mysteriously lost some of its grip. The times are off. Laudu can do no better than 1m 24.6915 for 12th position and is 2.289s behind Rosberg, who is fastest.

Qualifying tyres normally only last for three laps, one to get them warm, then a flying lap and one slowing-down lap. Lauda says after practice, “I am doing six or seven laps round here before the tyres start to work properly, and then they come in very gradually.” Is he, the pundits ask, winding down into retirement; or is this a tribute to his ultra-smooth driving on the new circuit?

Prost comes into the pits during practice and runs too wide, sliding off the bitumen and into a barrier. It is an embarrassing moment for the new world champion. He returns to the
McLaren pit with the front wheels splayed and immediately goes out in the spare car. His 1m 23.943s is seventh fastest.

SATURDAY BRINGS a tremendous battle between Senna and the two Williams drivers with Senna the first, and only, man to break the 1m 20s barrier with a superb 1m.19.843s.

Mansell is second with 1m.20.537s. Lauda is in trouble. There is an electrical fault which means his TAG turbo engine is cutting out at high revs, so he is in the spare car while the entire electrical system is changed. He had hoped to be seventh or eighth on the grid but now his chances are fading.

Finally, his time is a lowly 23.941s and he is 16th fastest. Prost is fourth, .002 behind Rosberg.

Niki doesn't seem upset. This is, after all, a tight and demanding street circuit which is going to place more emphasis on brains than brawn, on finishing the full 82 laps rather than leading into the first corner. It is a situation made for Niki Lauda.

James Hunt, Lauda's great rival of the ‘70s, suggests that it must be getting more difficult for Niki to find the motivation. "He has more money than he needs, why play his hand for yet another season?" he asks.

But the attraction is still there for the man who has won 25 Grands Prix equal to Jim Clark, one more than Fangio, second only to Jackie Stewart. A win today might, it seems, be enough to get him to change his mind and accept Bernie's offer.

"I hope everything goes really badly for me in the race. I love racing so much that I want to leave racing with an unhappy memory of my final race. I don't want to be lured back just by having a good result, which will make me regret my decision to retire. I want to pull through the field to third place and then have my engine blow up three laps from the end."

ON SUNDAY morning, in the grandstand opposite the McLaren pit, hangs a sign that is impossible to miss. It is for "Always remembered, sadley missed, Niki farewell."

Complete with spelling mistake, it is a reminder to the pits if they had forgotten that this will be the last race for the man who, in 1985, was reigning world champion.

The mood is electric, the urgency enormous. The drivers and the teams have much to prove before next season Adelaide is showdown '85.

Grand Prix practice on Sunday morning is in race trim with the boost turned down and on race, rather than qualifying, tyres. It is a much more accurate guide to the relative merits of the cars that will line up on the grid in the positions decided on Friday and Saturday.

Nothing, however, can change the sheer speed of Senna and he is quickest with a time of 1m 23.854s. Lauda's 25.633 is eighth fastest and he is satisfied. Yet there is concern over brakes. The McLarens run carbon fibre brakes that have benefits in weight saving, but the pads wear out much more quickly than pads used with the older cast-iron ventilated discs. Both Williams cars have chosen the metal discs, but de Angelis' Lotus and Johansson's Ferrari are the only other cars to switch from the carbon fibre brakes.

Lauda is still relaxed. After the Sunday practice he sits quietly in the McLaren pit taping up his helmet's visor, the sweat already pouring off his face in the hot conditions.

"I think I have always been like this," he says. "To me there is nothing different here. Another race." The total control is incredible.

IT WAS a dramatic start, the cars thundering off to the first chicane and successfully sorting themselves out, much to the surprise of many people (including most of the drivers) who felt the inevitability of a first corner crash. Rosberg had even reckoned the corner should be run under the yellow flag (no passing) for the first lap.

Instead, the accident came on the third corner, when Senna and Mansell touched and the highly Favred - and now very angry - Williams driver was forced to limp back into the pits.

Lauda was 16th when they went over the line at the end of the first lap, and was 16th again on the the second. Then, as others fell out, crashed or were passed, he began a brilliant drive through the field. He was 15th on lap three, 13th on lap six, 12 on lap 10, 10th on lap 12, eighth on lap 13, seventh on lap 14, sixth on lap 15. Then the race stabilised for a few laps as Senna and Roseberg fought out the lead.

By half distance Lauda was third to Rosberg, but it was all happening up front. As Rosberg pitted for new tyres, Senna hit the tail of the Williams, losing part of his front wing and making the Lotus almost uncontrollable, although he took the lead. A few laps later, Senna with a new front wing, after a visit to the pits, was past Lauda again into second, but then Rosberg’s rear tyres went off and he had a long 23 sec pit stop and rejoined the race in third position.

On lap 56 Lauda outbraked Seena at the end of Brabham Straight and took the lead in his last Grand Prix. The calm in the McLaren pit was broken by cheers and clapping repeated around the circuit. But Lauda’s McLaren was far from perfect: those brakes. Two laps later, the same place where he had passed SEnna, a rear wheel locked, the car swerved sideways and hit the concrete barrier head-first. The car was too badly damaged to go on. Niki Lauda climbed out, pulled off his helmet and began the long, sad walk back to the pits. The people rose, they cheered, they clapped, they whistled. They had seen the end of a champion’s career. 

THERE ARE four of us waiting for Niki as he comes back, bitter disappointment written across his face. The team consoles him and we wait. Then he asks us in; his calm cool exterior has returned though he gulps at the mineral water bottle and his bare feet sweat. The other three journalists start question-time in Italian. “Ask in English,” he tells them, pointing to me.

“I had no brakes for the last 10 laps. The pedal it is hard, the it goes to the floor. I had to pump for that corner, then the backs locked and it was over. So that’s the end of it!

“With a big effort I could have finished, my tyres were okay.” He eats watermelon now, and strawberries.

 

“How much money I throw away, better to remember this than fly home and think, ‘Shit, I won, what am I doing retiring?’”

He looks for his shoes, finds them, goes off to a television interview. Then it is into the helicopter fora  flight to the airport and the plane to Sydney for the long flight home.

“Now,” he says, as he leaves the McLaren pit for the last time, “now I grow up and do something useful with the rest of my life."