Monaco GP talking points: Remembering Niki Lauda and Mercedes perfect start under threat

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Niki Lauda.

The world of Formula One will be remembering Niki Lauda in Monaco this weekend following his death on Monday.

The Formula One paddock parks up on the French Riviera this week for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton holds a seven-point lead over Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas in the world championship, while their Mercedes team is 96 points ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ standings.

Here, Press Association looks at the key talking points ahead of the sixth round of the season.

Lauda remembered

The race on Monte Carlo’s famous streets will be played out against the backdrop of Niki Lauda’s death. The three-time Formula One world champion and non-executive Mercedes’ chairman died in Vienna, aged 70, on Monday. Mercedes are set to pay tribute to Lauda with a re-branded livery this weekend, while a moment of silence is expected before Sunday’s race. Lauda, who won titles at Ferrari and McLaren, underwent a lung transplant last summer and was absent from the grand prix paddock for almost a year until his passing.

Will Mercedes’ perfect start end?

In Lauda’s absence, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes wrapped up the drivers’ and constructors’ honours last season. This year, they have recorded five one-two finishes in as many races – unprecedented for the start of a season in the sport’s history. Yet the Silver Arrows will face the fiercest challenge to their perfect start at the unique Monte-Carlo street circuit. The slow-speed track is the least engine-dependant venue on the calendar, and Hamilton has won just once here (2016) for Mercedes.

Could Verstappen be Mercedes’ biggest threat?

Red Bull’s strong chassis has put them in the driving seat to win in two of the last three years. A pit-stop blunder ruined Daniel Ricciardo’s chances in 2016 before the Australian held off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win last season. Max Verstappen was the favourite to take the victory before he put his Red Bull in the barriers in final practice, meaning he was forced to miss qualifying, starting the race from last. The Dutchman, third in the standings after an impressive start to the year, will be desperate to make amends this week.

McLaren in the dock

An embarrassed McLaren will be keen to brush their miserable Indy 500 outing under the carpet after Fernando Alonso was too slow and failed to qualify for Sunday’s showpiece race. McLaren’s American chief executive Zak Brown will be in the firing line this week following their disastrous return to arguably the world’s biggest motor race. Brown has poured huge McLaren resources and investment into the Indy 500 but following Alonso’s horror show, admitted his team were under-prepared. He will have some explaining to do when thrust in front of the world’s media on Thursday.

Pressure on Monaco to deliver

The Monaco Grand Prix is one of the biggest sports events on the planet – the rich and famous descending on the principality for the blue-riband race. But the track is not conducive to a good spectacle. Indeed, last year, Hamilton described the race as boring. Rain is on the radar this weekend which could be the obvious saviour to spicing up Sunday’s show.

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Lewis Hamilton pays tribute to his “buddy” Niki Lauda

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Lewis Hamilton has paid an emotional tribute to his “buddy” Niki Lauda, who has been hailed as the bravest driver in Formula One history.

Nine months after a lung transplant and following complications from influenza he contracted while on holiday in Ibiza in January, Lauda died with his family at his bedside in Vienna on Monday. He was 70.

The grand prix roadshow will mourn the loss of its triple world champion, and the non-executive chairman of Hamilton’s Mercedes team, when it arrives in Monaco on Wednesday.

Alongside an image of the pair embracing, five-time world champion Hamilton wrote on Instagram: “My buddy, I am struggling to believe you are gone. I will miss our conversations, our laughs, the big hugs after winning races together.

“It’s truly been an honour working alongside you over these past 7 years. I wouldn’t have even been in this team if it wasn’t for you. God rest your soul. Thank you for being a bright light in my life.

“I’ll always be here for your family should they ever need me. Love you man. Your friend always, Lewis #oneofakind #gonetoosoon #youliveoninourhearts #restinpeace.”

Lauda stats

Lauda has been a virtual ever-present in the F1 paddock for five decades. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who used to travel to races with his Austrian compatriot, described him as irreplaceable and said the death will leave a void in the sport.

Lauda won two championships for Ferrari and another for McLaren – but he will be remembered for surviving a fireball inferno while racing at the Nurburgring in 1976.

So devastating were Lauda’s injuries that he was read the last rites by a priest on his hospital bed. Yet just 40 days on from the near-fatal crash, Lauda returned to his Ferrari cockpit to contest the Italian Grand Prix. It is considered one of the greatest comebacks in sporting folklore.

“Niki had a degree of bravery that I had never seen the like of before,” Sir Jackie Stewart, 79, told Press Association Sport.

“After his tremendous accident, he was back just six weeks later. I remember seeing Niki put his helmet on, and his wounds were still absolutely obvious.

“I thought to myself that with all the vibrations you get in a Formula One car at Monza, one of the fastest tracks in the world, that this can’t be right.

“To be brave enough to put on the helmet was amazing, but then he went out and qualified fifth. When he returned to the garage, he took his helmet off and I could see he was bleeding. Yet, the very next day, he raced.

“He was such a brave man to get over that accident. He will not go down as just one of the best drivers of all time, but one of the most courageous, too. Niki Lauda will be remembered forever.”

Former F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, whose Brabham team Lauda joined from Ferrari in 1978, told BBC Sport the Austrian was “loved all over the world”.

Lauda was appointed non-executive chairman of Mercedes in 2012 and convinced Hamilton to sign for them from McLaren.

Hamilton has now won five titles, while Mercedes are this season on course to record an unprecedented sixth consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships.

Mercedes are poised to pay tribute to Lauda at this weekend’s race. On Tuesday, Wolff addressed the team’s staff at their Northamptonshire bases in Brackley and Brixworth, while McLaren held a one-minute silence in memory of Lauda at their Woking HQ.

Formula One is also set to honour him in Monte Carlo, with a series of tributes under consideration.

Lauda’s close friend, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, Hamilton’s former Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, and Britain’s 2009 world champion Jenson Button were among a number of stars to acknowledge the Austrian’s death on social media.

In a statement, Lauda’s family said: “His unique successes as a sportsman and entrepreneur are and remain unforgettable.

“His tireless drive, his straightforwardness and his courage remain an example and standard for us all.

“Away from the public gaze, he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather. We will miss him very much.”

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Niki Lauda: How charismatic F1 champion rose from the flames

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Niki Lauda

Niki Lauda will be remembered for arguably the most remarkable and courageous comeback in sport.

At the 1976 German Grand Prix, Lauda was trapped in a fireball inferno. He had swerved off track at the Nurburgring, hit the wall, his car caught on fire.

But just 40 days after he almost burnt to death at the wheel of his Ferrari, sustaining injuries so catastrophic he was read the last rites in hospital, Lauda returned to his Formula One cockpit.

“I got so upset because of this incident with the priest, that I put more effort into not dying,” said Lauda, decades later.

Yet after contracting pneumonia while on holiday in Ibiza earlier this year, only months after a lung transplant, Lauda would not be able to deliver another miraculous fightback.

The three-time world champion and non-executive chairman of the Mercedes Formula One team died on Monday, aged 70.

Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born on February 22 1949 to his father, Ernst-Peter, and mother, Elisabeth, and into a wealthy industrial family.

Lauda was expected to follow in his father’s business footsteps, but, against his family’s wishes, he pursued a career in motor racing.

Lauda’s thirst for speed was unquenchable, but his grandfather Hans, a member of the supervisory board at an Austrian bank, vetoed a £125,000 loan to allow him to race for the Max Mosley-owned March Formula One team.

“I telephoned my grandfather and asked him if he could please f*** off interfering in my business,” said Lauda.

“But he said he wouldn’t and that no Lauda would ever be a racing car driver. I never spoke another word to him for the remainder of his life.”

Lauda then took an almighty gamble, securing a loan against his own life insurance to buy a ticket into F1. It proved inspired.

In 1971, he made his grand prix debut at his home race in Austria. Another bank loan followed, and two years later he scored his first points, finishing fifth for BRM in Belgium. Then came the breakthrough: a move to the mighty Ferrari.

Alain Prost and Niki Lauda

Lauda scored the first victories of his career in 1974, and a season later won five times to secure his first world championship.

But 1976 would prove the defining year of his life. Indeed, such was the theatre of the most talked-about season in F1 history, that Hollywood released Rush – a film which depicted the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt – the slim, calculated Austrian, nicknamed the ‘Rat’, versus the playboy Englishman.

Heading into the 10th round in Germany, Lauda looked set to defend his title, having amassed a 31-point lead.

But Lauda held grave concerns about the safety of the Nurburgring – a 14-mile circuit so feared it was nicknamed the Green Hell – and he wanted to boycott the race. He was voted down by his fellow drivers, and on lap two, Lauda’s Ferrari was in flames.

Lauda lost control of his car at the embankment, crashed into a wall, and as he slid back across the track, his Ferrari caught on fire. Four passing drivers stopped to drag him out of the burning wreckage.

“The main damage to myself, was from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds,” said Lauda, many years later. “It was something like 800 degrees.”

Lauda had breathed in toxic gases, suffered third-degree burns, and fell into a coma.

He lost most of his right ear, his eyebrows and his eyelids, and would carry the scars from the accident for the remainder of his life – Lauda’s red cap to hide his partial disfigurement would be seen in Formula One paddocks around the world for the next 40 years.

Yet miraculously, he missed just two races, returning for the Italian Grand Prix six weeks later. He finished fourth, ending the race with his balaclava stuck to his face such was the extent of his unhealed facial wounds. It was a remarkable moment of sporting bravery.

The title went to the wire at a rain-hit Fuji. Lauda, who led Hunt by three points, retired from the race blaming the awful conditions. Hunt raced on, and despite dropping down the field after a dramatic late tyre problem, crossed the line in third to take the title. The contest between Lauda and Hunt ignited the popularity of Formula One around the globe.

Lauda would win the championship in 1977, and then for a third time for McLaren in 1984, beating team-mate Alain Prost by just half a point. He would hang up his helmet with a hat-trick of titles, 25 victories and 54 podiums from 171 starts.

A consultancy role at Ferrari would follow in the 90s before he became non-executive chairman at Mercedes in 2012 – his first act persuading Lewis Hamilton to join the team the following year, ensuring Lauda’s stamp on Formula One for five decades.

Lauda is survived by his second wife Birgit, and his children, Max, Mia, Mathias, Lukas and Christoph.

Provided by Press Association Sport

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