Niki Lauda's €60,000 Interview

THIS INTERVIEW IS WORTH €60,000

Words: Stefan Wagner
Photography: Oliver Jiszda

Because Niki Lauda explains it all. The Formula 1 legend doesn’t hold back in this exclusive interview with The Red Bulletin as he gives his opinion on… 
  • Why it’s stupid to want to be rich
  • What Formula 1 is really all about
  • What the world outside Formula 1 is really all about
  • And what he’ll do if Gerhard Berger overtakes him

ATHE RED BULLETIN: Mr Lauda, I can book you to give a talk for €60,000. What will you tell me there that’s worth €60,000? 

NIKI LAUDA: Hang on a minute. That’s last year’s price. 

Have you put up your prices? 

Of course. Giving talks isn’t my main area of work, remember. I do it about four times a year. I couldn’t do any more than that. I get a ton of requests and more keep coming in. I prefer it when someone has given it serious thought and they want Lauda because Lauda is worth the money. And I can safely assume that when someone’s willing to pay €60,000, they’ve given it serious thought. 

So, say I’ve given it some serious thought. How do you prepare yourself for the appearance?

I don’t. But that’s deliberate, because I find spontaneity important. All I need to know is what industry you’re in. The last one was in Frankfurt in front of 2,000 people, and Sandra Maischberger was the chair. The sole airport slot available meant that I could only get there 15 minutes before the start. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Maischberger in advance, because she was already there on the stage. And do you know what? It was great that I didn’t know anything in advance. It was great fun. There were 2,000 people laughing, crying, getting up, sitting down again. Everyone was happy.

How long does one of these talks last?

From an hour to an hour and 20 minutes.

And then you’re off again?

I get on the plane and fly home.

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An hour of speaking with no preparation for €60,000… My next question has to be: how does one go about getting rich?

That’s the wrong question to ask. What sort of a stupid goal is that, getting rich?

For a lot of people it isn’t stupid at all…

I’m telling you, getting rich shouldn’t be a goal in itself! Asking that question is putting the cart before the horse. First, I have to do something. Only those who do something get anything; the ones in the forefront. It won’t work if you’re driven by money. No one in the sporting elite is only driven by money.

But what if, say, I’m an insurance salesman, or a writer who does interviews? Then money is obviously a motivating factor…

Basically, you have to find out what you’re good at first, where you can put your talent and ability to good use. If you get that right and you’re in the right job, then maybe you’ll get rich – but only as a consequence. Getting rich is always a consequence, a by-product of what you’ve done. Anyone who starts out by saying he wants to be rich is going about it the wrong the way

“No one in the sporting elite is only driven by money”

Have you ever been good at something for which you only had average talent?

Yes, racing.

Really?

I went at it more on the technical side, initially to improve my car. Because then, by rights, things would get easier for me. It was only when I got to the highest level that I learnt to squeeze every last drop out of myself with the crazy risk-taking that we needed back then. That was the talent then, on top of all the rest.

Why is Mercedes so much better than everyone else in Formula 1 right now?

Because, three years ago, we designed the best engine after the big changes in the regulations, and we came up with the best car.

Formula 1 was virtually reinvented back then and all the teams found themselves in unknown territory. A lot of decisions were taken haphazardly. There was no way round that as there was no experience to work with. When things develop that way, how much depends on luck? And how much is actually ability and know-how?

It has nothing to do with luck at all: you can’t create a Formula 1 engine with luck. In Formula 1, what matters is the brainpower and technical quality you have in your team. Firstly, you need an incredible number of engineers. And they have to know exactly what it is you have to do to build an engine and a car and constantly improve on it. That’s their job. 

© Julio Alvaro // Youtube

But the other teams also have a huge amount of clever people…

You have to find the right people, get them on board, help them grow over years and train them into your own system. So that means people who’ve already made a name for themselves, top engineers and youngsters, too. You need potential for a range of input. The more you have, the easier things get done.

So, at the end of the day, what matters in Formula 1 is your staff policy? Is it as simple as that?

It’s about putting together a group of qualified, motivated people who work together in such a way that they will come up with a better engine and better car than anyone else. That’s the main reason it’s so hard for new Formula 1 teams. In our case it took three years until we had our 1,000 people together.

“Formula 1 is a collection of self-centred people who are constantly on TV and are very often misguided in their attempts to throw their weight around”

You’re basically the boss of those 1,000 people. If I may ask a theoretical question: say you stood up at the end of the next race, left Mercedes and went straight to another team… how would that change Mer­cedes? And how would it change the new team?

In the short term, it wouldn’t change things at all. Mercedes will hopefully win the world championship this year, whatever happens. Then either someone else takes my job and nothing happens in the long term either, or no one replaces me and things gradually begin to go downhill. At the new team, it would be the same but in reverse: things would go uphill. Then again, you’d need time, because you can’t bring in new people overnight. Everyone has a contract, after all. And the new people you’d need also have contracts. There’s nothing you can do about that. 

Not even if your name is Niki Lauda?

Nonsense. I can’t do anything on my own.

No one else has had as much success at so many different levels within Formula 1. What are the pervasive success factors in Formula 1? What makes someone successful in the sport, regardless of their position?

That’s fairly easy to explain. Formula 1 is a collection of self-centred people who are constantly on TV and are very often misguided in their attempts to throw their weight around. A lot seem to just pose rather than do any actual good work. If you come at it differently now, if you’re aware how they all tick and you do the opposite of what everyone else does, then you’re in a very good position.

Can you give us an example?

First, just take care of the basics, the facts, and ignore all the paddock chatter and rumours. If someone comes and tells me that Red Bull have just found another 50HP somewhere, I instantly think the opposite must be the case. Ninety per cent of the time I’m right.

But 50HP is a lot…

So then I go and have breakfast with Christian Horner and ask him if it’s true about the 50HP

But he’s not going to tell you…

He will. I can go anywhere and ask questions: Ferrari, Red Bull… I have a certain reputation in Formula 1 now.

Err... nope! We have no idea either... Caption ...

Err... nope! We have no idea either... Caption competition?

But people aren’t going to betray secrets to the Mercedes boss. That would be stupid…

They do, because I do it back. I’m open in the exact same way and don’t talk rubbish. It’s black and white. Facts.

I thought Formula 1 was totally secretive, with espionage and all that…

It is in the winter. But once the first race is done and dusted, the cloak-and-dagger stuff is over. Everyone can see what’s going on straight away. The winner won, the person in second came second. All the chatter that had gone before simply turns to dust. Or it turns out to be true if they were right, but that’s the exception.

So, to sum up, you’re saying that you shouldn’t get tied up too much in gossip if you want to be successful in Formula 1?

Just keep your feet on the ground. That’s the most important thing.

But we’re talking about the elite class of motorsport…

Stay realistic. Winning is winning and losing is losing. I’ve either screwed up big-time or I’ve won. Stay pragmatic. You don’t have to be in the papers all the time. Don’t let your brain get distracted from the job at hand. That’s the only thing that works for me.

“Winning is winning and losing is losing. I’ve either screwed up big-time or I’ve won”

It’s almost a bit of a disappointment that it’s all so straightforward…

But it isn’t straightforward! It just sounds like it is. Take a look at the world. All around there are zeroes doing zero. I read in the paper this morning about a guy locked up in America who’s good-looking, and now he’s the world’s sexiest prisoner or some such nonsense and he’s going to be released. That sort of thing makes me angry. How crazy have we become? Not him, us! How can it be that you get into the papers because you’re a better-looking criminal than the other criminals! And young people take it all as if it were normal. They grow up with this madness. And then, of course, there’s this growing need to play to the gallery. 

But who cares about that?

Maybe you don’t, but I do. Because every day I see that people can’t perform because they’re distracted by constantly having to put on airs. The performance is no longer the focal point, because everyone now wants to be that themselves. And that goes all the way up to Formula 1.

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So your advice is: don’t worry what others think about you, just improve your own performance? 

Absolutely, 100 per cent. 

Does not caring about what others think help one get on?

Definitely! And another thing… if 100 hundred people tell me that such and such a thing is right, I do the opposite. I’ve always done that. Try it yourself some day. Just do the opposite of what everyone else is doing and you’ll be at least 95 per cent right.

“If 100 hundred people tell me that such and such a thing is right, I do the opposite”

But isn’t that rather arrogant, Mr Lauda?

I don’t understand what’s arrogant about doing the right thing. Do you know the excuse book? (The Racing Driver’s Book of Excuses, that only exists in motorsport folklore)

No…

But it’s well known. It contains everything that can possibly be to blame: the tyres, the steering, the engine, the clutch, you name it. It’s a bestseller in the world of motorsport. But I’ve never been interested in that. Because I’ve always said, “Think of yourself first, you fool.” Look for the mistake in yourself first of all. Always. That’s the only way you’ll move forward.

But what if the tyres really were bad?

Rejoice, then, because a burst tyre is the most convenient thing. You’re still great. You’re not in the least bit to blame. Everything’s wonderful. The only problem is, you’ll never be successful that way. It’s your job to keep your eyes open. What could I have done to win, even with a sub-par tyre? That’s when things start to get difficult, when I analyse deep within.

So if the tyre is to blame, do I have to compensate for that error?

Yes, if you want to achieve anything. You have to ask yourself, “Why didn’t I drag it round to the end of the race, the damned tyre?” Only in sport do you learn to think this way.

What still fascinates you in Formula 1?

It’s very simple: the fact that if you’ve been world champion twice, you can be world champion a third time. Because the longer you’re out in front, the harder it gets for you and the easier things get for the others. Ferrari, Red Bull… all they have to do as they pursue you is copy you.

© Leisepeter // Youtube

I actually meant more generally. Because you and Formula 1 can’t do without each other, can you?

It was a coincidence that Dieter Zetsche of Mercedes asked me if I wanted to come on board three and a half years ago. And now I have fun doing it. But I’m not obsessed with Formula 1.

A lot of people mourn for the old days of Formula 1. You probably don’t, because you’re not much into sentimental stuff.

You’re right, I’m not.

And if I ask whether you prefer the Formula 1 of today or that of 30 years ago, you’ll say it’s not a valid question, because the comparison is pointless.

Exactly. It’s pointless. It’s like talking about the weather. Sometimes my wife gets all het up about the weather. “Awful weather today,” she’ll say. I switch off immediately. Do you know why? Because there’s nothing I can do about it. And things I can’t do anything about don’t bother me. What’s the use of being bothered? But I’ll tell you anyway: I like Formula 1 today more.

“Look for the mistake in yourself first of all. Always. That’s the only way you’ll move forward”

Really?

Because I could never be a positive part of it if I was constantly thinking back to how wonderful it all was back then. That’s why.

That’s rather pragmatic for you…

But you wouldn’t believe me if I went on about how great it was at the Nürburgring back in the day, and how there was real action then. Hooray. And today things are so dull because nobody goes up in flames any more. [Laughs.] 

No, but seriously, what I really don’t understand is how you manage to remain so emotionally detached from everything…

Well, I just ignore my emotions.

That’s exactly what I don’t understand. We can’t ignore our emotions…

I have something inside me that says I need to get to the finish line as fast as possible. If I’m sitting around somewhere and someone engages in small talk and goes on about the weather, I go completely crazy inside and try to get away as quickly as I can because he’s wasting my time. People often moan at me for being so direct…

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Wrongfully?

Of course wrongfully! Say I ask you the last time you shaved your head and how you do it so that there’s a millimetre of hair left evenly all over your head – I’m interested because I shave my head too. My wife doesn’t understand that and always says, “But you can’t ask him why he shaves his head!” But I say, “Of course I can, because I’m interested!” And if I ask in a direct way – politely, of course, that goes without saying – then maybe I’ll also get a straight answer. So tell me, how do you do your hair? You’ve sheared it all off!

With an electric shaver but no attachment…

Pretty good. I always do it wet. But then it’s all gone. What millimetre setting do you use?

I don’t. I just go over it without an attachment. 

You see! Now I have my answer. I was interested, I asked, and now I know. I’ll buy an electric shaver and try it myself. That’s the way things work. And was I impolite?

No, not at all. Is there anything else you want to know about my haircut?

No thanks. Let’s move on to the next question, please. 

“Now is the best time ever to be a racing driver”

Would you actually like to be a Formula 1 driver today?

No. I’ve done enough driving. I’ve been through enough. But if you ask me if I would have preferred to drive now compared to back then, I’d say yes, of course. I’m not stupid, am I? Today, hands down. I’d earn 50 times what I earned back then, without any of the risk. Now is the best time ever to be a racing driver.

But a lot of people say that the sport was more exciting back then…

Nonsense. It’s still the same thrill. With all the technical support, you come even closer to your physical limits. The driving is more extreme. The only difference is that when you went flying back then, you ended up looking like I do now, if you were lucky. But the driving challenge is still just as fascinating.

Which of today’s drivers would you have feared as a rival back in the day?

Vettel, Hamilton or Rosberg would have been just as good back then as they are now.

Would you have beaten Hamilton back then?

Yes.

Will he be happy to hear that?

There’s no way I can answer that question in the negative!

© EuropaSman // Youtube

You mean that desire to beat everyone is still in your head?

Of course. You learn to think that way when you’re a driver. You can’t allow yourself to think any differently. So you don’t. It’s as simple as that.

Is logic the universal remedy as far as you’re concerned?

Of course. Start, finish, the shortest route in between, use your time efficiently – that’s what it’s all about. I don’t waste time, because I want to have time for myself to think about new things or to do nothing with. No, not to do nothing with… but for my own personal freedom. That’s the most important thing, my freedom.

What is freedom?

Being able to pick your own job and make your own decisions. Not being dependent on others. That means I can get up at six or seven at the latest, regardless of what time I went to bed. Then I begin to work through my day as quickly as I can. That gives me an hour or two in the afternoon when I have no plans, so they are just for me. Isn’t that wonderful? 

How long do you sleep?

I need a good eight or nine hours. Today I have a terrible day ahead of me, because I have to fly to Milan at six in the evening. That means I’ll only get home at one in the morning. But that’s just the way it is. It’s no use me moaning about it. 

Science has it that emotions guide the mind…

Really?

 

Lauda Montezemolo Ferrari

Niki Lauda in 1974 with Luca di Montezemolo and Enzo Ferrari

© Imago/Milestone Media

Yes, our emotions guide and our mind executes. But that’s not how it works in your case…

You joke, but with me it’s the other way round. Honestly. First I understand something, then my mind decides, and then my emotions come on board. I’m often accused of acting with much too little emotion. The cold fish – that’s what Birgit [Lauda’s second wife, mother to his six-year-old twins, and the woman who donated him a kidney] always calls me. The cold fish!

You play on your image of being mean, inapproachable and heartless, but you’ve softened up a lot in recent years. Everyone says that… 

Indeed, but sometimes Birgit doesn’t get my self-deprecation at all! Cold fish! Cold fish! [Laughs heartily.] 

“It can be the biggest pile of nonsense and all of a sudden there are tears streaming down my face”

But your wife is joking, surely?

I think it’s funny, but she doesn’t! [Laughs heartily again.] She says it in all seriousness! I always say, “Don’t you get me? That was a joke!” And she moans, “That wasn’t a joke!” I’m telling you, that’s how it is at my house.

But you don’t give the impression of someone who’s unhappy…

You’re right, I’m not. 

But you cry at sad films… 

No, no, at funny ones!

Your book says you cry at sad films… 

I couldn’t care less what the book says, because now I cry at them all – the funny ones and the sad ones.

You’re not being serious now, are you?

I am. If it’s well acted, it can be the biggest pile of nonsense and all of a sudden there are tears streaming down my face. But only for a minute. Then I say to myself, “Are you mad? You’re sobbing because of this nonsense!” Then I start wondering what I’m like, and then it’s over.

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But you weren’t like that at 25 or 30…

No, I wasn’t. Thank God. It’s only appeared with time.

Is that better?

It is for those around me, yes.

But isn’t it better for you, too? I mean, doesn’t it decrease tension?

No one’s decreasing tension when they sit in front of the telly crying like an idiot.

I meant that now you can show sides of yourself that you might have always hidden in the past… 

In the past, I was so focused on staying alive that crying was impossible. If you were sad because your dog had been run over, say, you wouldn’t have been able to race. You’d have fallen apart for sure. Back then, I was just programmed to focus 110 per cent on selfishness, the need to survive and winning. If I hadn’t been, I would have died, definitely. There was no room for anything else.

 

“I think God meant for us to work out 90 per cent of our lives by ourselves”
Niki Lauda über seine aktive F1-Karriere

Does that happen unconsciously, I wonder, because the situation is so extreme? 

No, it’s conscious. If someone has an accident in front of you and you run to see what’s happened and he’s got the crash barrier sticking out of his stomach, then you have to do something without anything clouding your thinking. And we had to deal with that sort of thing all the time. I saw one or two of our guys go down every year. So you had to learn how to deal with the situation.

You wrote in your book that it was a moment of joy when you woke up in hospital after your accident. Your first thought was, “Now I’m one of the two for this year, but I’m still alive”…

Yes, that’s how it was. When you’re confronted with drivers who you spoke to just five minutes earlier and who have gone on to have an accident, you build up a defence mechanism. You don’t let yourself be influenced negatively, you don’t drive more slowly, but you take greater care. I always said to myself, “I will never let the mistake that he just made happen to me.” 

But what if his wheel suspension went when he was going at 280kph?

Then that’s just tough luck. You have to accept it.

Do you know fear?

Basically, I don’t. I’m not scared of anything. Because I know that you can work anything out.

But you’ve got children. Surely you can’t help worrying about them?

That’s what I mentioned earlier, the thing with the weather and how I don’t like to talk about it because it makes no sense. Do you remember? I think God meant for us to work out 90 per cent of our lives by ourselves. That’s your duty, both to yourself and to others.

And what about the remaining 10 per cent?

I have no control over that, so I don’t even think about it, because there’s no point.

© KinoCheck // Youtube

But most people devote 90 per cent of their attention to that 10 per cent. They’re scared that something might happen to their kid, or that they might lose their job or get sick. But with you it’s the other way round. You say you focus fully on the 90 per cent that you can affect and don’t bother with the other 10 per cent. That sounds a very enviable, carefree approach…

I just don’t even speculate as to whether something might happen to my children – that’s the difference. I take all the precautions I can, then that’s my 90 per cent done and dusted. And if something still happens, it happens. Then it would hit me even harder, because I’m actually not a cold fish. But that’s another story. In any case, it’s wrong to fantasise about something you can’t control, because then if nothing does happen, you’ve worried about something for no good reason. That’s not clever, either.

Do you know Dominic Thiem?

The tennis player? Not personally. 

Yes you do. You’ve met. He pulled up next to you at traffic lights late one night on the Vienna Beltway after he’d played a match at a tournament in the City Hall. He recognised you and then drove all the way round the Beltway after you, stopped you, knocked on your door to ask for an autograph and then invited you to come to his match at the City Hall the next day. But you didn’t come…

But I hope I gave him the autograph?

You did. He still has it. How often do you get people driving after you? 

Often. Very often.

“I’m forever half an hour early, so things always work out”

Marcel Hirscher says that at one point things got so bad that he ended up barricading himself in his house…

But he has to learn to deal with it. Because the more successful you get, the more it’s going to happen.

He said that people had driven after him on the motorway, followed him to the loo, filmed him taking a wee and then posted it on YouTube…

I know all that. That’s how it is. Anything can happen. But you do have a duty to people. Even to those who film you taking a wee. If that guy wants an autograph, too, you have to give it to him – after you’ve washed your hands, of course – because it’s arrogant to say that you don’t have the time. You can’t do that when you’re famous.

Do you really give everyone an autograph?

I do, because it’s the most elegant and efficient way out of the situation. You want to take a photo? Of course. Come here. Be quick. Then you tell the people not to hold the camera the wrong way round from sheer nerves, and then click and it’s done. Recently, a guy in a res¬taurant got in such a muddle that I said, “You come and sit with me and give my wife the camera,” and Birgit took the photo.

But what if there was an occasion when you really didn’t have the time?

They still wouldn’t understand! They’d say I was being arrogant. Anyway, I’m forever half an hour early, so things always work out.

What if you need to get to your plane and time is tight?

The other guy couldn’t care less about that. He sees me once in his lifetime and I fob him off? Imagine! Then he’d say that Lauda wouldn’t let me take a photo with him, the arrogant pig.

Do you still drive fast every now and again?

I’m a very disciplined driver. Recently I got flashed in the middle of the night on the South Motorway going at 160. I berated myself for two days after that. How stupid of me not to just go at 150 as normal, then nothing would have happened.

 

Could you drive a current Formula 1 car?

Of course. It’s not that difficult. I’d just be 10 seconds slower. Anyone who can more or less drive could.

You going to race a BMW M1 against Gerhard Berger and Hans-Joachim Stuck at the Grand Prix in Spielberg. Are you looking forward to it?

These races are fun. There’s this click and it’s all like the old days. It was fun when they put us in the old Formula 1 cars in Spielberg in years gone by, even though it was stupid of me to squeeze into the cock¬pit and I could hardly get back out again. But the best thing was that the second you got in, it all came flooding back. You knew your way around the car. You knew where the switch for such and such a thing was, the fuel pressure, everything, even though it was so long ago.

What will happen if Berger overtakes you?

Then I’ll try and get back past him, of course. Prost is the worst, though: he drives like a total idiot when he’s ahead of you. I go up to him after and say, “You’re mad. You could have hung around a bit, we could have gone wheel to wheel, outmanoeuvred each other,” but he doesn’t get it.

So once a racing driver, always a racing driver?

Indeed. I still don’t like to be behind anyone, even now.

And what if someone overtakes you in traffic on the Vienna Ring Road on a Friday afternoon?

I don’t care about that. What should I do, outbrake a 70-year-old granny in front of the parliament? But there are really stupid drivers, I must say, who provoke you, cut you up and do really idiotic things. You might flash your lights at them and then they’ll sit there deliberately and not move. I’ve seen it all. And if someone really annoys me deliberately, then there’s going to be a traffic situation they won’t forget. And when they’re least of all expecting it, I’ll be right there in front of them, making sure they look at me. And then I’ll be off. [Laughs.]

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