I’m not sure what you say about a Formula 1 legend like Niki Lauda upon hearing of his death. I suppose a decent eulogy would recount his achievements and career spanning decades. His championships in 1975, 1977 and 1984. The near-fatal crash in Germany in 1976 and the dogged determination to return to the action later that same year having suffered through the pain of severe burns to his body and lungs.
Perhaps one could speak of his airline or the time he was consulting for Ferrari or perhaps when he was the team boss for Jaguar in 2000 through 2002 or most recently as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas team.
The fact is, there is so many accomplishments to discuss, where does one begin?
On a personal note, I have always felt a different emotion when I think of Niki Lauda. As much as I am aware of his accomplishments, it is his humanity that I resonated most with. Sure, I loved his no-BS approach to life, his pithy quotes, his brutally frank way of speaking hard truths and taking the measure of a person or situation in as little as two or three sentences. I’ve met very few who didn’t love his crunchy outer shell and prickly demeanor that was engaged at precisely the right times.
The thing that prompted such deep admiration from me was his iron-willed determination through adversity and his ability to face some of life’s most difficult challenges with measured, equal force.
Niki was a shining example of a man who was incredibly practical in his resolve and resolute in his focus to overcome adversity. He was determined to achieve what he himself knew he could achieve. Not for fame or glory per sé but to sate the inner Niki that held himself to a higher standard.
Most men would have given up after the German Grand Prix in 1976. Most Men would have passed on the opportunity to come out of retirement let alone set the benchmark of a third world title in 1984. Most men would have folded the Airline long before he did and most likely had never chosen to get into the airline business at the time he did. Then again, most men weren’t Niki Lauda and most will never be.
Niki raced in an era where many drivers died and to be honest, he probably should have in 1976 but he lived with the scars, not as a reminder of the fear but, as a reminder of his ability to thwart Death’s intent and much like Antonius Block, to prolong the call to afterlife via a lifelong game of chess.
Niki played his pieces masterfully and with every venture, he faced challenges but there was a peace within Niki that suggested what he faced in 1976 was far greater than anything an Airline’s balance sheet could throw at him or a struggling racing team.
Niki knew exactly where he stood in life and saw each challenge as an adversary’s move on the chess board of life that needed to be countered with superior strategy. Niki didn’t just operate at 30,000 feet either. He was tactical and could get into the long grass on many subjects preferring a methodical, if not practical and common sensical approach to resolution.
Niki took failure on the chin and taught us all that if your problems are money, you have no problems. Niki sought action and the thrill of success or victory. Like Bernie Ecclestone who measured success by the deal, Niki measured it by the outcome of the execution of a plan or process.
Life, like a race car, was taken apart mentally and balance was sought through re-assembling it for maximum performance and edge. Niki’s family said it best:
“With deep sadness, we announce that our beloved Niki has peacefully passed away with his family on Monday,” the family said in a statement, according to the Austrian press agency. The statement paid tribute to “his unique achievements as an athlete and entrepreneur” and said “his tireless zest for action, his straightforwardness and his courage remain. A role model and a benchmark for all of us, he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather away from the public, and he will be missed.”
I will miss Niki. We all will. But what I will miss most is his unvarnished truth and approach to life’s challenges because there was a lesson to be learned in nearly everything Niki did if you cared to look for it.
There is a great interview series with Niki that Graham Bensinger does here. Check them all out.