Lewis Hamilton too raw to offer Niki Lauda tribute ahead of Monaco GP

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A tribute to the late Niki Lauda is seen on the Scuderia Toro Rosso STR14 during previews for the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco
Legend of F1 Niki Lauda died earlier this week

As a mood of quiet mourning settled over the Monaco paddock on Wednesday, Lewis Hamilton was said to be too raw even to speak about the passing of Niki Lauda, the man who had first brought him to Mercedes. The five-time world champion, having this week described Lauda as a “bright light in my life”, was scheduled to give a press conference reacting to the Austrian’s death, but ceded duties at the last minute to team-mate Valtteri Bottas. “Really shocking news,” said the Finn, echoing a sentiment felt throughout Formula One. “He meant a lot to me, and to every team member.”

Sebastian Vettel, over at Mercedes’ arch-rivals Ferrari, knew Lauda better than most. Even though “the man in the red hat”, as he was affectionately known, would sometimes take Vettel to task for outbursts of petulance – he once accused him of “screaming like a child” – such criticisms never bred any personal spite. Indeed, the German was so fond of Lauda as an F1 patriarch that when he heard last year of his double lung transplant operation, he sent a handwritten letter to express his wishes for a rapid recovery.

Lauda, for all that he could be a blunt and deadpan character, would reflect that he was deeply touched by the message. Vettel, still absorbing the loss of Lauda at the age of 70, took the moment to tell his side of the story.

“The respect says it all,” he said. “As soon as I heard that he wasn’t doing well, that he wasn’t picking up the phone, I thought about a letter. What would you appreciate if you were in that situation? For me, it was a sign not just of respect but an acknowledgment of what he had done for the sport. The fact that the cars are as safe as they are today is partly down to him. If it wasn’t for people like him pushing the boundaries all the time, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

“I feel extremely privileged not just to have known him, but to have chatted with him regularly. His sense of humour was very straight – sometimes you couldn’t tell whether it was a joke or just a statement. You don’t come across people like him very often, whether in Formula One or beyond. He was a unique character.”

To honour Lauda, Mercedes are planning to run both their cars with a modified livery for Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix. One of the stars on the engine cover has been turned red, while the nose section is also emblazoned with his signature, alongside the words “Danke Niki”. Elsewhere in Monte Carlo, the tributes will be equally effusive: a minute’s silence is to be held before the race, and an array of Lauda memorabilia will be brought down to the Cote d’Azur from the FIA Hall of Fame in Paris. McLaren, with whom Lauda won the last of his three world titles, are featuring two stickers on his car and putting his race helmet on display, next to his trophy for winning the 1984 Austrian Grand Prix.

For Vettel, such gestures are the least Lauda deserves. “There are a lot of people who are not the way you see them on television,” he said. “They are growing in numbers, quickly. But Niki wasn’t one of them. He never pretended to be anybody else. He was very outspoken, a true racer, passionate for the sport. He is leaving a big gap that we won’t be able to fill.”

The gulf that Lauda has left at Mercedes is palpable. While chief executive Toto Wolff brought the urbane corporate image, Lauda, who never deviated from his race-weekend uniform of sweater and denim jeans, offered uncompromising candour rooted in harrowing experience. As the man who almost burnt to death at Nurburgring in 1976, only to step back inside a car six weeks later, he could be sure that whenever he spoke, his drivers would listen.

“He didn’t take different routes, he always said things directly,” Bottas reflected. “That made for some funny situations sometimes in meetings. My main memory, from when I had bad races, is of how supportive he was. He knew from his own life that you could have setbacks and still improve. That was a massive motivation for me.”

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