I’ve been through a lot and I realize the future can’t be controlled. I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties. – Niki Lauda
Overcoming a setback like a divorce or losing a job is very challenging. Overcoming and moving on after nearly being burned to death must be incredibly difficult. Niki has always been one of my heroes.
As the 2017 Formula One season winds down and Mercedes is on top it reminds me again of how one of my heroes dealt with his challenges. They were a pretty serious summons. One that would leave many trackside forever. What can we learn from someone else’s trials and tribulations?
In 2004, while attending the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, I met the three-time world champion driver Niki Lauda at the bar in Jacques Villeneuve’s restaurant. The restaurant name was Newtown. The restaurant name if you not familiar with the English French soccer ball which is Quebec is “Villeneuve” translated into English, “Newtown”. Jacques has a nice sense of humor. Meeting Niki was a completely chance affair. I was having dinner with Johanne and some friends and I went to the restroom. On my way back to our table—which took me through the bar—I saw a guy all dressed in red, Ferrari red from head to toe, including a hat. The patron standing at the bar all dressed in red was alone. I made my way in his direction out of curiosity.
For a Formula 1 fan there is no mistaking Niki Lauda. His looks are incredibly distinctive. He was severely burned and subsequently disfigured at the 1976 German Grand Prix in Nürburgring. The old German Grand Prix track was a monster 23-kilometer-long circuit. In the two weeks leading up to the race, the Austrian driver leads a group of drivers calling for the race to be boycotted due to safety concerns. With such a long track a driver is much more at risk from an accident because of the time it takes the safety and recovery people to reach the scene. A typical Formula 1 track is 4 to 6 kilometers long.
As fate would have it on the second lap of that race, Niki’s Ferrari crashed at the very fast left-hand turn before Bergwerk corner. His car swerved off the track, hit an embankment, burst into flames and made contact with Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford.
Unlike Lunger, Lauda was trapped in the wreckage. Drivers Arturo Merzario, Lunger, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl arrived at the scene a few moments later. Before they were able to pull Lauda from his car, he suffered severe burns to his head and inhaled hot toxic gases that damaged his lungs and blood.
Because Lauda was wearing a modified helmet, the foam had compressed and it slid off his head after the accident, leaving his face exposed to the fire. He suffered extensive scarring from the burns to his head, losing most of his right ear as well as the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows and his eyelids. Later, he chose to limit reconstructive surgery to replacing the eyelids and getting them to work properly. Since the accident, he has always worn a cap to cover the scars on his head.
At the time of the accident, Niki was leading the 1976 F1 driver points championship.
Niki was back in the car in six weeks, missing only three races. He returned at the Italian Grand Prix and still had the overall season points lead. By the last race of the season at Suzuka, Niki was still in the points lead by a scant three. The race was mired by incredibly hard rain at the beginning and the Austrian listened to his own safety concerns this time and retired after the second lap. With his eyelids severely burned and the tear ducts not functioning properly, he could not blink and he could not see. In retiring he lost the 1976 season title to his rival James Hunt by one point.
Niki’s relationship with his Ferrari team was severely damaged due to his decision to withdraw from the race. His decision cost Ferrari and Niki the driver’s title and that is a big deal. Eight years later he earned his third Formula 1 drivers’ title driving for Mclaren and then retired as a driver.
Back to the bar
I approached Niki, who was standing alone beside the bar, and we made eye contact. He smiled and I held out a hand. We shook hands and I told him I was a fan and how pleased I was to meet him. He thanked me and said, “Enjoy your dinner and the race tomorrow.” I left and returned to my table incredibly humbled by my experience. Knowing his story well and meeting him gave me a massive sense of inspiration. How can a person endure such pain and pressure and still be at every Grand Prix? He could have had a comfortable retirement. Even today, some 13 years after meeting him and over 40 years since his accident, he is once again the center of the F1 universe as the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team.
No matter what happens we can overcome the difficulties.
Just look at Niki and compare your struggle or challenges with his.
This is the best example I know of someone who trumps “the want to” every time over the “the how to.”
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