Columns -

Hamilton and Lauda


Maybe by the time you read this, we will have been put out of our misery after someone decided how many millions Lewis Hamilton will be paid next year. And, more importantly, by whom.

The story has become the bore of the age, not least I suspect, because the world at large, struggling to make ends meet in a massive recession, really doesn't want to know about whether a 27-year-old can struggle through 2013 on £10 million as opposed to the £15 million he might earn elsewhere. (I made those figures up because, like most journalists, I don't know the exact numbers. But they somewhere in that region. Give or take the odd million.)

I wrote in this column a couple of weeks ago that McLaren is the only choice for a driver who wants to win races and championships above all else - allegedly. McLaren's highly unusual mechanical failures in Monza and Singapore notwithstanding, that view has not changed. With one small exception.

A couple of recent stories have suggested Mercedes might be discussing a role for Niki Lauda. I'm not sure precisely where the triple World Champion would fit into a managerial hierarchy made up of some excellent technical people. But I do know I would give Lauda the principal role of dealing with Hamilton should Lewis decide to break free from half a lifetime spent with McLaren.

I can't think of anyone better qualified to tell Lewis what he doesn't want to hear in respect of his racing. And life in general, come to that. Lauda's greatest ability is to apply searing common sense to every problem, no matter how intractable it may appear.

I've had the pleasure of conducting many interviews with Niki over the decades and the line that amuses me most is his frequent opening phrase in reply to what you feel certain is a difficult or tricky question. Almost without hesitation, he'll bark: "It's very simple." And then proceed to break down the contentious subject into such a clear-cut form and solution that you find yourself muttering: "Why the hell didn't I think of that?"

Lauda's world is a very straightforward place. As it would be, I suppose, when your priorities and values have been established, not just by a near-death experience at the Nºrburgring Nordschleife in 1976, but also by a harrowing eight months trying to discover why one of your Boeing 767 aircraft had crashed in Thailand, killing 223 passengers and crew. Niki's extraordinary story about how he finally got Boeing to admit to the failure is worth a column in itself. But the point in this context is that Lewis Hamilton's worries about staying in a 'happy bubble' would be placed in proper perspective by a 63-year-old who has seen and experienced enough for several lifetimes.

Lauda has had F1 managerial duties before, of course. I never did fully understand his consultancy role with Ferrari in the 1990s, except for the world travel fitting neatly with his need to visit foreign countries and promote LaudaAir.

The spell with Jaguar between 2001 and 2002 was a much more hands on affair, one that was ultimately brought to its knees by the Ford Motor Company. Not even the pragmatic Lauda could overcome the corporate logic espoused by the lumbering monolith from Michigan. He recently gave me a small example of the inflexible thinking that dominated everything, including the will to live, never mind win.

"The finance guy at Jaguar called me over on the first day and said: 'Look, I have to give you this book. This is the Ford Compliance Rules. Whatever you do, it has to comply with these rules.' So I asked for an example. He said: 'An example is when you take out a water with soda from the hotel mini bar, you have to pay for it. But if you take one out without soda, you don't have to pay for it.'

"I said: 'Are you serious?' When he told me he was, I said: 'Keep the book. I don't want to know. Why? Because you will never find one invoice from me in your system. I will pay for these things myself.' Which I did, out of my private bank account. When this thing (with Jaguar) was over and we were arguing about the pay-off, suddenly Ford of America people ran into Jaguar, asking to see the account for Lauda. When the guy at Jaguar says there are no accounts, the Ford guy says: 'What do you mean? He must have expenses!' The Jaguar guy says: 'No. He has no expenses.' You can imagine, can't you? They were looking for this f***ing mineral water!"

I don't know what you're thinking right now, Lewis. But it's worth listening to a man like Lauda. You might not win many races at Mercedes, but his stories would be worth the admission price alone.

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