Niki Lauda: epic heroism in defeat

I have just completed Tom Rubython‘s satisfying re-telling of Formula One’s extraordinary 1976 season.  It’s one of the most the most incredible stories, in sports or otherwise, that I’ve ever come across.  No wonder Ron Howard and Peter Morgan are currently working on a big-budget Hollywood movie, not based on the book, but telling the same story.

In 1976, 27 year-old Austrian Niki Lauda was the reigning champion of Formula One racing.  Although people in the United States lack a taste for the sport, it is truly the most glamorous and elite version of auto racing on the planet.  Lauda raced for Ferrari and had the car and the skill to defend his title, a feat that would instantly cement his reputation among the greatest drivers of all time.

But the British McLaren team, with their flamboyant, pot smoking, playboy driver James Hunt, had other plans.  McLaren had a great car that year and, despite his extreme partying and womanizing, Hunt possessed extraordinary talent behind the wheel.  From the beginning of the season, it was all about Lauda vs. Hunt, with the Austrian having the advantage going into the height of summer.

Formula One racing, even today, is all about going to the limit, the limit of what the rules will allow, the limit of what the car is capable of, the limit of what the driver can manage without losing his mind.  A race course with straights and turns means constant breaking, accelerating and shifting.  Going into a turn, for example, a driver may gain an advantage by breaking later.  But if the driver breaks too late, the results could be fatal.  There are similar decisions countless times through the course of just a single lap as the driver tries to wring the fastest time possible from the car.

But, what happened to Niki Lauda in Germany that summer, may not have been about pushing too hard, driving recklessly, or an improperly engineered car.  It may have been any one of those things, but the cause of his magnificent crash remains largely unknown. What is clear is that Lauda was engulfed in flame, caused to inhale toxic fumes and nearly lost his life.  Because he was using an illegal helmet, the burns to his head and face were particularly horrifying.

It is impressive that Lauda survived.  But it is unheard of the he returned to the racetrack to drive in the Italian Grand Prix just six weeks later.

And that is why this story is so amazing.  Here is a case of a man who went up to, and then well beyond, the limit of his physical and psychological capabilities.  Lauda was so competitive and so possessed by the need to win that he further disfigured himself by donning his helmet (now legal) when his facial wounds were not yet healed.

If Lauda had won a second consecutive championship under such circumstances, we might talk about him the way we talk about Muhammad Ali, the greatest ever.  But the way he lost makes the story even more intriguing.  By coming back, he was able to maintain his lead over Hunt by the slimmest of margins, causing the last race to be determinative.  But the Japanese Grand Prix was drenched by a downpour and, after just a couple laps, an emotionally and mentally spent Lauda stopped his car and got out.  At the very end, after all he had been through, he simply could not go on in the rain.  He couldn’t see because doctor’s weren’t done reconstructing his eyelids, which had been burned off.  I shudder to think how he could have reeled himself in from the insanity that made him come back so soon, too soon, in the first place.  For me, that return to sanity, from so far beyond the brink, is the true heroism of this story.

The movie probably won’t get it right.  Ron Howard tweets about everything he’s doing to make it authentic, and he has what appear to be talented young actors to recreate this unique moment in the history of motorsport, but I will set my expectations low.  In the meantime, we have books and videos on YouTube and even Mr. Lauda himself, who is regularly on the F1 circuit as a consultant for Ferrari.  And while his insights into racing and his wily wit delight us, we will probably never know what really happened that year, the demons he faced, gave into, and then overcame.

F1 Driver-a-go-go; ALL CHANGE!!


The great story of this year is not even to the final chapter, and we’re already seeing massive upheaval in the driver ranks for next year.  This is a normal occurrence, but there are even more big names on the move than usual.  The extraordinary Joe Saward has a good rundown:

The suggestion in Japan was that Renault has now done a deal with Robert Kubica; that Nico Rosberg will move to Brawn GP with Mercedes-Benz behind him. Rubens Barrichello is expected to move to Williams and if he wins the World Championship would take the champion’s number 1 with him. The team is expected to name Nico Hulkenberg as its second driver, leaving Kazuki Nakajima out of work. He will probably get a ride with Toyota, if the team survives. Toyota has released Jarno Trulli and the word is that the Italian veteran will probably end up at the new Team Lotus, as he enjoys a good relationship with the new team’s chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne. Toyota has not taken up Timo Glock’s option. . .

Plus, it’s starting to look like Kimi will go back to McLaren.  Got that?  And today, Renault has confirmed my man Kubica for next year.  I like to see him as a confirmed ‘number one’, which will help his development and chances for more success and race victories.  I do, however, worry about Renault bringing itself out of the scandal and dishonor of the Singapore ’08 fiasco.  I also hop they do not make Robert drive around in that Ronald McDonald atrocity of an automobile.

So, the F1 drama will continue.  We will see if Brawn can maintain the dominance it asserted in its maiden campaign.  We will see if Red Bull can continue to come forward with the advent of the next great German driver.  Vettel is truly amazing and still so young, but he will forever be  compared to another German who dominated this sport unlike any other athlete in the modern era of competition.

And we will see if Kubica can get into a fast car and if Lewis and Kimi can play nice at a resurgent McLaren.  But first we will race the last two races and crown a new champion.

Oh, Flavio!


What he and his team have basically admitted to is just so amazing that I can’t believe it.  Renault was accused of intentionally crashing their junior driver at Singapore last year so that their senior driver could win the race.  That sort of conduct in F1 is beyond reprehensible.   When the rumors started to circulate a few weeks ago, I just had to tune it out because it was too absurd to imagine.  Even though no one got hurt, the risk to human life is off the charts given the speed and danger of the sport when they’re not trying to crash into each other.

Now, Flavio Briatore, the flamboyant playboy team principal of Renault is removed in disgrace.  He is guilty of the highest crime conceivable in this sport and he has to go, but he was one of the things that was great about F1.  His teams have one drivers and constructors championships.  He has shepherded the careers of numerous young drivers, as well as having worked closely with the best – Michael Schumacher.

After the sin he committed, he can not stay, but F1 will be far less for his absence.

F1 back in action this weekend


Well, we thought we’d be seeing Michael Schumacher, but with his decision not to race, the temperature has lowered considerably on this, the first race back after Summer holiday.  It’ll be interesting to see who has benefitted from the long break.  McLaren showed some signs of life last month, even though the team is out of the running for this year’s championship.  I’m still liking the push from Red Bull and young Sebastian Vettel (pictured above).

The future of the sport continues to be a bit of a question mark.  What will the cars look like next year?  Will there be a uniform budget cap?  Also, we’re starting to wonder who will be racing where.  We known that Massa is out for this race, at least, but will he be back this season, or even next year?  BMW has left, but the Sauber team may yet be bailed out, and there’s already talk of Ferrari power.  Yet, it is doubtful that a proven Kubica, a proven race winner and up-and-coming young driver, will stay with the team.  Where will he be next year?  And is Kimi bound for rally racing, leaving F1 altogether?

So, with all these murmurs and rumblings quietly roiling in the background, i think it will be nice to have an actual race to distract us form the mysteries of the future.  by this time tomorrow, we’ll know who is on pole for the street course in Valencia.

Michael Schumacher – The Return of the King


I just read a tweet by Lance Armstrong (who tweets way too much) about Michael Schumacher’s impending return to F1.  I don’t know how intense a fan Lance is; he seems pretty busy with other things (cycling, cancer, kids, lots of different girlfriends).  But even if Lance isn’t a diligent fan, he made an observation with which few could argue: ‘The greatest of all time!!’  When Lance is wasting his precious 140 characters on an extra exclamation point, you know there are strong feelings.

My purpose is not to debate whether the greatest is Clark, Fangio, Senna, or Schumacher.  That’s a debate for another day.  There is no question of Schumacher’s greatness, and his seven championships will never be equaled in F1.  That feat is an outrageous achievement that puts Michael in the rarified air of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and maybe Lance Armstrong (Lance doesn’t win championships, he just wins that one race.  It’s a bitch of a race, but it’s still one race and not a championship.  Sorry).

What was it about Schumi?  How did he become so dominant?  I can’t offer a full answer, but I can’t help but make a few observations.  It is one thing to be a perfect driver – to be able to go around a race track (a real track, not an oval) 50 or 60 times and do it perfectly every time, reaching speeds in excess of 200 mph and finding the fastest way through every turn and every corner.  That feat is hard enough, but it is only a small part of the equation that equals success.

There is also the matter of physical ability.  Many don’t understand the athleticism that is necessary for F1.  Although the physical demands are far different (and far less) than those of, say, the Tour de France, drivers are subject to brutal conditions for a period of up to two hours.  The cockpit is hot enough in a temperate climate, but in venues such as Malaysia and Bahrain, exhaustion can easily set in.  That’s not exhaustion like being tired, that’s exhaustion like you’re sweating so much that, no matter how much water you drink, you can not hydrate, and then normal body function, motor control, vision and cognition start to break down.  That can lead to mistakes in a sport where mistakes can be deadly.  The drivers must be supreme athletes to compete and succeed.

But there is more, much more.  There is that intangible aspect of competitiveness that (pardon the pun) drives these men to another level.  Schumacher’s competitiveness was like nothing I’ve ever heard of.  He would lie, cheat and steal to win.  He was so tough that he simply could not be intimidated.  But he could dish it out like no one else in the history of the sport.  Sometimes it seemed that his purpose on the track was to scare his competitors into submission.  He was not above driving into other cars, literally causing accidents, if there was some advantage to be gained from such conduct.  The word ‘ruthless’ does no justice to Schumi.  He was the Terminator, Jaws, Darth Vader, and Alien, all rolled into one, unstoppable winning machine.

He loved his team and worked tirelessly off the track to help everyone help him win.  He didn’t do it to become popular and he didn’t do it to become rich.  He lives quietly in retirement and gives away untold millions to various charities, without any of the fanfare that accompanies giving by certain American celebrities.  He gave everything he had during his years in racing and had unheard of results.  He seems to have done it simply to do it, simply because he could.

And now, after two plus years of retirement, he will come back to take over the Ferrari seat vacated by the injured Filipe Massa.  He will race on August 23, 2009, at Valencia, Spain, at a circuit that is unfamiliar in a car that is unfamiliar.  But this is not like Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong coming back.  This is not a false retirement where a sporting man finds he is unable to stay away from the arena where he was once so utterly and completely dominant.  Unlike those icons, Schumacher is at peace with his retirement.  He has never once threatened to return, and, even now, it appears he will only come back at the request of his beloved Scuderia Ferrari S.p.A.

Clearly Michael will be ready.  Even with testing bans, he will find a way to get to know this car and this course.  He will put every ounce of energy he has into this project because that is the only way he goes racing.  It is a moment, like so many others in F1 history, that is the stuff of legends.  The most revered and feared F1 driver alive and the most successful in the history of the sport will come to the aid of a flagging, though once, brilliant team.  He will race in the seat vacated by one of the most beloved and most talented young men in the sport.  Massa is the type of driver upon whom F1 should to build its future, if it hopes to have one.  Schumacher and Ferrari – two icons.

But Massa’s accident and the horribly tragic death of Henry Surtees in F2 reminds us, that even with all of the innovations and technology, this is still a perilously dangerous sport.  And all the romance and all the drama is only heightened by the fear and the horror that serious men, family men, put aside every time they get behind the wheel.  Viel Glück, Michael!

F1 – is BMW calling it quits?


An announcement is expected tomorrow, and it does not look like the news will be good.  The care this year is poor shite this year, which is so sad, because the team had made monstrous strides under the old rule formulation.  They were on pole and winning races.  I have great affection for Robert Kubica and hope he will find great success in the future, even if not with BMW.  There is no question that both Kubica and teammate Nick Heidfeld are capable drivers.  It sucks for them that the team has declined so quickly and is now being kicked to the curb by the German car manufacturer.  Let us hope that I have it all wrong and that the news tomorrow will not be so dire.

Amen, Mark Webber!


After seven years in the sport and over 132 races, Australian Mark Webber has won his first ever Formula 1 race at the German Grand Prix.  He qualified fastest yesterday for his first ever pole position and today he brought home the bacon.  When I started following the sport in depth a few years ago, Webber was thought to be the unluckiest man on the grid, victimized mostly by a substandard ride – but not with today’s Red Bull.

I have not yet  seen the race, but from the reports, Webber really dropped the hammer in the last laps before his second pit stop.  He would have been light on fuel and sensing his firs victotry was within grasp.  Just need to stay cool and drive really fast.  In the end, he outpaced his young teammate Sebastian Vettel (driving identical hardware) by nearly ten seconds, and Vettel finished in second place!  That’s a strong statement from the 33 year-old Aussie.