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26 February 2024

Lauda: No amount of money is worth getting killed for

By Joy Chakravarty


Niki Lauda, Former FI driver and entrepreneur


Lauda (pictured above) has enjoyed success both on and off the track. He retired from F1 in 1979, thinking he had achieved all by winning two world titles, and started his own airline, Lauda Air. He sold it to Austrian Airlines in 2001.


In 2003, he started AirNiki, a low-cost airline. He now has nine Airbus and has tied up with Air Berlin.


And then there is Lauda Motion, a car-rental company, which Lauda says “was born out of a crazy, crazy idea, but has worked very well for me”.


Lauda Motion has 550 Smart cars, and customers can rent them for just one euro a day. But a contract has to be signed that it will be driven for at least 30km in the city area. These cars have adverts on them, and the main revenue comes from that.


Niki Lauda remains one of the most amazing stories in sport. A born millionaire, he paid his way to a Formula One seat instead of joining the family business. His critics were soon eating their words as he blazed a trail of glory on the track, winning two world titles. He retired to start his own airline business, only to come back three years later and win another world championship. But Lauda will always be remembered for his heroic recovery from a life-threatening accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix at Nurburgring. His condition was so bad a priest administered him the last rites. Five weeks later, he was back on the track and lost the world title by just one point in the final race. He made up for that with his second title in 1977. Lauda, 58, was in Dubai for the official launch of ACI Real Estate’s Niki Lauda Twin Towers. Business 24|7 spoke to him about his foray into the property market and safety in F1.


How does it feel to have a building named after you?

I am very excited. I’ve never had a building named after me, so I would like to thank ACI for that. I like the idea of branding buildings. Giving a name such as mine, [Michael] Schumacher’s and [Boris] Becker’s… I think it distinguishes the building and increases its recall value.


Will you have any design input?

No. But I believe ACI is planning to incorporate some of our characters into the buildings. For example, there is going to be a lot of red in Schumacher’s building – signifying his association with Ferrari.


Your views on the 2007 F1 season?

It was a very good year for F1 from a publicity point of view. There was so much bad news, but then any news is good news. And the outcome in the final race was great. Everyone was thinking that two guys [Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso] will win, and then a third guy [Kimi Raikkonen] comes and wins. It was good drama.


What do you think of Hamilton?

He is an outstanding driver who nearly won the championship in his first year. This has never happened before. And I think he is going to become even better after all the experience he has gained.


What major difference do you see in F1 today, compared to your days?

Safety is the major change. When I drove, every year at least one or two drivers got killed. We drove cars with aluminium bodies, with no guard rails. Today, thank God, F1 has enhanced safety features, and [Ayrton] Senna was the last guy killed almost 12 years ago.


Do you think Nurburgring 1976 would have never happened if you were driving today?

If I was driving today, I would have made hundred times more money and would never have been at risk.


But you never drove for money?

Well… No amount of money is worth getting killed for. But yes, in my days, you raced mostly for love and passion.


You paid for your own seat at F1?

Well, you have to get sponsorship even today. What happened then was that my sponsors from Formula 2 agreed to back me in F1. But my grandfather, who was in the supervisory committee of that bank, ordered them to stop the funding fearing that I was taking too much of a risk. But I had signed the contract, so I had to go to another bank, get a loan, and pay. To secure the loan, I had to take a life insurance of the same amount, and make the bank beneficiary. I never talked to my grandfather after that.


Did the priest actually read the last rites after your accident in 1976?

He did. It was really touch and go because of my lung damage. I was sitting in 800 degrees for 55 seconds, inhaling the flames and the burning plastic.


And you were back behind the wheel within five weeks?

Thankfully, the lungs recovered. All I needed to do was overcome my fear. But once you feel that you can control the situation the fear disappears.


Were you a changed man after the accident?

My wife says I was a complete egocentric before. I don’t know why she married me knowing that! I was so consumed by the urge to perform on the race track. But after the accident, I realised how quick you can die and the fact that there is so much more to life than just racing. She enjoyed the benefits of it.