Lewis Hamilton takes time out after death of ‘close friend’ Niki Lauda

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• Hamilton excused from F1 media duties before Monaco GP • Pair grew close after Lauda persuaded Briton to join Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton in the paddock yesterday ahead of this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix. Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton has curtailed his pre-race activities before the Monaco Grand Prix as he comes to terms with Monday’s death of his friend Niki Lauda. Lauda was the non-executive chairman at the Mercedes team and had been instrumental in persuading the British driver to join them. Hamilton was withdrawn from the FIA press conference in Monte Carlo before it took place on Wednesday and did not speak to any media.

On Tuesday Hamilton issued a heartfelt tribute on Instagram to the three-time world champion, who died aged 70, and although scheduled to speak to the press on Wednesday Mercedes requested that he was allowed to miss the conference.

“We asked for Lewis to be excused earlier today following Niki’s death,” the team said in a statement. “We ask for your understanding in the circumstances that Lewis lost a very close friend in Niki fewer than two days ago.” Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, replaced him at the press conference.

Lauda had been an integral part of the Mercedes team since 2012, when Michael Schumacher was driving for them. At that point, however, the team had won only one race in the three years since they returned to F1 in 2010. Impressed by Hamilton, then with McLaren, Lauda went out of his way to persuade him to join Mercedes.

“If Schumacher couldn’t get the Mercedes team running up front for three years and you [Hamilton] next year are doing much better it makes a huge impact on your personality and people will rate you much higher,” Lauda later said of his discussions with the British driver. “In the end it convinced him that the challenge is what he wants to do.”

The pair became increasingly close over the following seven years as Mercedes went on to enjoy remarkable success, securing five consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championship doubles, with Hamilton taking four titles. Lauda’s death has had a big impact at Mercedes. The team principal, Toto Wolff, also rescheduled a press conference he was due to give and the team said he would not be in present on Wednesday.

Drivers across the paddock paid tribute to Lauda in Monaco, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel reflecting the feelings of all that the Austrian would be sorely missed. Vettel had also been close to Lauda, who had been touched to receive a letter from the German when he was recovering from a lung transplant operation last year. Vettel explained in Monaco that he had written the letter as a mark of his respect for Lauda.

“It is a big loss for F1, for the sport. He was an icon we lost, and will be impossible to replace,” Vettel said. “He was very outspoken, a true character, a true racer, passionate for the sport, all things people respected. He is leaving a big gap that we won’t be able to fill.”

The Mercedes team members will wear black armbands from Thursday and display a tribute to Lauda on their cars this weekend. ‘Danke Niki and Lauda’s signature will be on the nose and one of the stars on the engine cover will be red in his honour.

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