Roadtrip with Niki

Niki Lauda is one of the most formative figures in motorsport. Three Formula 1 world championships, an incredible comeback and the special relationship with James Hunt shape his legacy. We remember a special visit to Vienna, in the middle of autumn 2008. We talk about life wisdom and other nonsense. And about women, in a way. A Mercedes SL 600 gives wings to the story.
Text Herbert Völker
Photo Jürgen Skarwan

It was the last days of this amazing late autumn. Confused swallows began to build their nests. I called Niki: "We should go for a cabrio ride one last time this year."
"What's on offer?"
"SL 600."

Laudas live, what a coincidence, in the most beautiful spot of Vienna, above the city where the wine grows. (I know people from Stuttgart who say that they also grow wine in the city, but they should try the difference). The two dogs come to welcome me.
Shivas practically walked up to Niki at the time. The expert for the animal kingdom had a trick at the ready: "Well, well, what a pretty dog! Who do you belong to??", and happened to spot Birgit on the other end of the leash. With sensitive tricks Niki proved his love of animals, so that after a few months Shivas took possession of the dog-friendly estate, and not unwillingly, says Lauda. Shivas is a Golden Retriever, then Felix was acquired, a Flat-coated Retriever, and Niki and Birgit even got married - the most amazing things can happen. He considers thirty years of age difference invigorating, Birgit has never objected.

There's not a shred of sentimentality about him. Not even for classic forms. He doesn't care about exotic cars. To own a classic car? Absurd idea.

Niki is very proud of his skill with dogs. He even confided in me once that he thought he was a dog whisperer.
"What does that mean?"
"I understand dogs, and dogs understand me."
"For example?"
"They follow me even in difficult situations because I can empathize."
"What would that look like?"
"Felix, for example, got his tail stuck in the trunk of the car and…"
"…hold on. Did he close the trunk himself?"
"No, I closed it, but only very gently…"
"which means the big dog whisperer pinched the dog's tail.”
"just a little, and Felix squeaked just a little. Something like this (Lauda squeaks very softly), but after that he never jumped into the car again. Not for anything. He lay down on the floor, turned on his back, showed with every move he made: "I'm not going to jump into that."
"And how did you cope with this incredible situation?"
"I offered him another car. He didn't want to go in there either. But I talked to him for so long and kept giving him treats until he finally jumped in. Now he's doing it again, thank God. And Shivas will jump in anytime."
"Did you pinch his tail as well?"
(Annoyed): "NO."
"All right, all right…"
So much for dogs and how to start a family in the maturity of life.

"Did you pinch his tail as well?" "NO." "All right, all right…" So much for dogs and how to start a family in the maturity of life.

We leave the roof of the SL open and drive to the hilly west outside the city, which has been protected from urban sprawl like a reserve since the days of the emperor. The attempt to break off an expert discussion about the SL as a style icon is a bit tough. Mr. Lauda doesn't care about the Mercedes SL evolution over the decades because he doesn't care about all the cars of the past. The thought of owning an oldtimer seems absurd to him. Already the first attempt as a collector failed. At the end of his first World Champion season (1975) he had persuaded Enzo Ferrari to let him buy his winning car at a good price, but then came the test drives with the 76 model, which was simply better, after that the old car didn’t interest him anymore.

There is not a hint of sentimentality, not even for classic forms. It's only the snapshot of the moment that counts, and whether or not this picture is emotionally appealing. The SL is appealing, Lauda says, also in this black. You have to know: He accepts all colors, as long as they are metallic grey and washed. Birgit never has her car washed "because it's going to rain tomorrow anyway", but Niki says that the paint has to be able to breathe, so you have to have it washed. A stupid fingerprint can get on his nerves so badly that he has the car washed immediately. Addendum colors: White is on his mind lately, unthinkable a short time ago. He is even considering proposing it to his wife. Let her try it out, and he would look at it from a safe grey metallic distance.

In anticipatory mood I switched on the Airscarf (warm breeze from the headrests, great!), ideal for autumn days.
"The car must also appeal to me emotionally, and that starts of course with the looks," says Niki. It goes without saying that the SL hits a sweetspot for him. But not only that: "My C station wagon, for example, and as an AMG, it's beautiful, everything fits. After all, emotionality is not limited to sports cars. There will hardly be a good racing driver who doesn't care how his car looks. The ideal situation for me, of course, was when the beauty of a Formula 1 car could be totally transformed into speed. That's the secret of the Ferrari legend: speed and beauty inspire each other. That's what you and magazines like this one live from, that a lot of people can relate to the interaction between beauty and performance and are interested in what there is to read or watch.
"What I miss is the importance of technology."

"As a race car driver, you always pay attention to detail. After all, aerodynamics is influenced by the tiniest things. So I developed a feeling for the perfection of a machine and I could live with it better and better. When I was warming up a car, I could feel the cold oil running through the engine, or at least I imagined it. Of course I know that today's engines are designed in such a way that you don't have to warm them up anymore, but it still hurts me to step on the gas right away. One should handle technical equipment the way it is technically logical. This includes the smooth, harmonious sequence of movements in a car as well as in an airplane. I have the ambition not only to land softly after a twelve-hour flight, but also to deliver the plane very gently at the gate, without jerking it and without hard braking. Pay attention how many pilots don't give a damn. One could add that gentle braking is a rather exotic virtue even for airfield bus drivers, but we're not stepping on anyone's toe today.

Before we talk about that left curve in which the fate of young Lauda took a turn, it should be made clear what role the hills in the west of Vienna play also for the German reader. The whole Occident was in danger, the armies of the Ottomans would have stormed to Mönchengladbach prematurely if the fortress of Vienna had not defied them. After six and seven weeks, however, it became increasingly harder until Christian troops, in dire straits, were gathered on the Kahlenberg, sixty thousand men after all. How they stormed down!, and how the cavalry of the Polish king Sobieski made hit the turbo! (Wikipedia also mentions the German contribution to the helpful army of September 12, 1683: Bavaria, Saxony, Upper Hesse and the brave lads from the southwest German principalities, so with the Swabians we're back on track to the Mercedes story). Today's Höhenstraße is a mixture of Corniche and old Solitude, partly still in its original paving, not from the Turkish period, but from the job creation of the 1920s, like at the Nürburgring.

The first life crisis had to do with a Mini Cooper S and surprisingly much hoarfrost.

Niki's failure at the first educational path was obvious at 18, and the Matura (secondary school) would also lead nowhere. The only plus on his side was his driving license and a VW Beetle with two carburetors, half-open engine cover and wide wheels. His school neighbor, the son of the poultry dealer, did not have a driver's license, but had knowledge of a Jaguar and a Mini Cooper S in his father's garage. One evening he suggested that he takes the Cooper out of the garage and drive it somewhere nice in the country. The young men drove on the mountain road, Niki is at the wheel. With the serenity of the 41 years that passed we took the same route with the SL. Niki says that he tested the Mini very seriously at that time: “Passing the fishermen's house, the slight left, everything under control, right turn with bridge and hoarfrost, and me with full speed."
No eighteen-year-old with above-average talent expects hoarfrost. A high curb took up the full width of the Mini, the two left wheels were very low and very crooked in the wheel housings. The complication was that the son of the poulterer feared the anger of his father in an almost dramatic way. After all, he knew that the Mini was set for sale for 38,000 shillings (for which one could use 7,000 Euros today).

"Was this your first life crisis, Niki?"
"You could say that. I intercepted my grandmother at breakfast, told her that I would have to go to prison without her, she understood in a flash, I led her in the blue beetle with the open bonnet to the bank, and she gave me an envelope with ATS 38,000. I went to the poulterer, said, "Please sell me your car, he said yes, and handshake, my son will take you to the garage, by now the Mini had already been towed away."

"Did this have a serious impact on your life?"
"Sure. I thought, with a 38,000 shilling piece of junk, there's nothing I can do but go into a mechanic's apprenticeship. I threw the old Beetle on the market and bought spare parts for the cash, which I then put into the Mini at the garage with the help of the other mechanics."
The next spring Niki Lauda finished second in his class in his first race in the Mini Cooper S . Two weeks later the first victory.
"Niki, tell me again about your career as a mechanic."
"I was an apprentice, and my main job was getting lunch. I could get a wrench thrown at me if I got the wrong food for one of the journeyman, like a cheese sandwich instead of a salami one. But the matter was settled one morning when an excited important customer demanded an oil change because he had to leave. A journeyman told me to do it quickly, and I'm standing down there in the pit with an insanely big wrench, pulling in the wrong direction and destroyed the thread. So now we had to explain to the customer that the engine had to be removed and a new oil pan had to be fitted, and that it would take us three days, - a huge drama, and left and right wading for me. Thereupon I told my father about my newly awakened academic ambition and ended up back in high school, but now already with a freshly repaired Mini Cooper S. From an old beetle with an open lid, it was an incredible upgrade".
The right-hand bend, I should mention, looks absolutely unchanged since those early days, and the bridge has retained its talent for black ice. You should put a HISTORICAL-LANDMARK sign up there.

For lunch we can agree on the Eckel in Sievering, that is already in Vienna again, but somewhat in the country. Lauda is an unimaginative eater. He likes Wiener Schnitzel best. That may go back to the initiation rite of the noble tribes in Austria, all the way up to the archdukes, to whom it happened at the age of 16 or 17. In this particular case, it was a lady, a young cook on the grandfather's estate, where excellent schnitzels were served, and one night the schnitzel cook came into the young gentleman's room and said something like, "You're going to be a great racing driver as fast as you are.
So we drive to the Eckel, which Niki and I can warmly recommend to all visitors to Vienna, and order schnitzels with a potato and corn salad salad, the only true combination, everything else are substitutes from the untrained.

I remind Niki of the motto "Upon the Ladies" of this magazine. Can we talk about fashion?
"You dress rather, hmm, carelessly, can one say that?"
"I guess. Birgit asked a while ago if I could dress a bit better. I said I had a suit anyway, a grey one, for 12 to 15 years, and I've only worn it once, for a Schumacher-laudation, I think. So anyway, I showed her my only suit, I barely closed my trousers, but, most importantly, there was a moth hole on the sleeve. Birgit: You need a new suit. My knowledgeable brother-in-law, Albi, said go to Knize (to be pronounced with a long i and very soft sch, every Viennese has known that for a hundred years). Knize was familiar to me because my mother, as long as she lived, gave me a Knize voucher for Christmas, but it was only enough for one sweater, you can imagine the prices. Too expensive, I said. My advisors: The tailor's son is cheaper, he has recently started his own business (the family is still in business, the old tailor has stolen the young man's wife, you can't get better word of mouth in the city center of Vienna). So we marched to the son of the famous tailor, but a few meters away the same product cost only a third… you can imagine where I bought it.
"Don't you get a celebrity discount?"
"No. The son of the famous tailor would have given me a tie, but it wasn't enough."

Fashion, then. There is this red parka. One that other people use to climb Nanga Parbat.

This story could suggest that Lauda was penurious. There are clues to this which are often picked up in some small talk. The fact is that he treats himself and his loved ones, no matter at which time, to everything that makes fun and sense, up to the private Challenger 300, which he definitely uses for overseas flights as well. He has merely retained a certain sense for the small change and does not necessarily jump forward when it comes to paying.
Last question on fashion: "Have you ever thought of turning your baggy look into a fashion line, so completely relaxed? I know some people who would go for that."

(In winter Lauda wears sneakers, maybe from Tod's, jeans, sweaters and a red Parka that other people wear to climb Nanga Parbat).
You can learn a lot from Lauda, a lot of it still comes from his racing days. Note: Only a well-rested racer is a good racer. Even in late years, says Niki, there is nothing better than a good sleep. Eight hours have to be, or need to be made up for.
Some things are not so easy for us to adapt to, the refusal of e-mail, that only goes through the secretary. Total refusal of public transport. Niki only has a vague idea of what a subway would look like. However, three years ago he was elected to the board of directors of the Austrian Railways…
"…whereupon, for the first time in my life, I felt I should get on a train. I went from Vienna to Graz. The train driver told me about his job and mentioned the five suicides that happened to him over the years. After the first one he had to see a psychologist, then he didn't."
"This was your first and last train ride?"
"That's right. I also resigned from the board."

As a confidant of the Lauda cosmos, I can say that of all his virtues, self-irony is the one that is most refreshing. People who can take on themselves are a real blessing. With celebrities this is rather rare.
"How did you get into the habit of putting yourself at such a distance from yourself?"

"I learned the hard way. Once you've disfigured yourself the way I did, you either live with a constant burden or just bounce on it. "Before I suffer having someone look at me, I'd better ask if they've found an earring somewhere, 'cause, you know, I lost an ear."
"You get to the point pretty quickly…"
"I've gotten shorter and shorter over time, so I'm more succinct. And with the wisdom of age came the humor… and, of course, the protective irony of someone who is damaged."
"You'll be 60 in February. Any wishes?"
"Forget it. I think birthdays past 30 are pointless."

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