How Lauda got the top job in Mercedes F1

It’s the old tale of ‘not what you know, but who you know’ that matters in life. I was extremely puzzled when I read about Niki Lauda’s involvement in mediating between Mr. Bernie Ecclestone and the board of Daimler Benz.

As I’ve previously documented, Daimler and Ecclestone were at loggerheads following the draft Concorde agreement as published before the start of this season. Such that Mercedes the car manufacturer was seriously threatening to pull out of F1 for good, or until Ecclestone was gone. (link)

Ecclestone in turn dismissed them as having “done nothing in F1” which poisoned the chalice further.

Such was the heated animosity between the parties you would think it was time to call upon one of history’s enigmatic peacemakers; one who had attained Alfred Nobel’s greatest honour; the like of Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi.

As these 2 are unfortunately no longer with us, we must look to the land of the living and would probably settle on someone with the political nuance of Kofi Annan and the humility and wisdom of the Dalai Lama.

Enter the dragon’s den – Niki Lauda!

Yes former 3 times world F1 drivers’ champion, entrepreneur and TV pundit rides into town to mediate between one of the global giant car manufacturer’s and the multi-billionaire mafioso like F1 boss.

For those of you who know little about Niki Lauda’s personality, one of his biographers describes him perfectly in his description Lauda’s final F1 retirement.

“Lauda did not hang around long after taking his third championship. His second and final departure from F1, at Adelaide in 1985, was typical of his whole approach to racing and to life – quick, with no frills and no glance over the shoulder. One moment he was flying his McLaren down the long straight. The next his front brakes had failed him and he was skittering into the runoff area and up against the wall. The next after that he was out of his car disappearing behind the barrier without a look back and with the next flight out of town on his mind.”

Patience and longsuffering are not associated with Niki. He has a very much ‘say what you think’, stuff political manoeuvering and ‘get the job done’ kind of attitude. This could be exactly the approach required with 2 super heavyweight businessmen, a cracking together of heads.

Again, I am left asking the question, how did Lauda get involved in all of this?

Niki Lauda’s post F1 career is well documented, he set up an airline. To establish a venture of this nature and to keep it in the air (metaphorically) you need to have many diverse connections, and it is from amongst these contacts that Niki found himself as negotiator in chief between the F1 warring super powers.

Last September Lauda was appointed “global brand Ambassador” for Aabar Investments PJSC, the Abu Dhabi Investment company – read the Abu Dhabi ruling family and Sheik Zayed’s giant cash fund that needs constant multiplication.

But we need to travel back a little further in time to understand all of the connections. Ross Brawn following his successful year as principle of the F1 Brawn team drivers’ and constructors’ championship winning year in 2010, decided to sell 70% of the team to car manufacturer Daimler Benz. In reality Aabar Investments acquired 30% and Benz 40%. Aabar Invetsments also own around 10% of the global car company.

The mists begin to clear. As part owner in the car making business and part owner in the F1 team, Aabar promoted Lauda as the man to deal with Bernie Ecclestone. To be fair the motor racing roots of the pair are from a similar era and I can easily see them chewing the cud over the good old days, thus calming troubled waters with nostalgic reflection.

Another “badge on the Lauda cap” was the signing of Lewis Hamilton to the Mercedes fold. Niki’s no nonsense attitude to all matters in life may also have been quite appealing to Lewis Hamilton, particularly following his recent tensions in what many describe as the controlled corporate culture of McLaren, his home for 14 years.

The dramatic result of Lauda’s intervention over the past few days for Mercedes is that Concorde is signed and Lewis is recruited. All of this I get, but surely its time for champagne all round and a huge thank you ($$$) to Niki.

But no. Surprise above all surprises, Niki Lauda has now been promoted to chairman of the Mercedes F1 team. (Non exec chairman to be precise).

What possibly could the board of one of the greatest global car companies have seen in their abrupt, to the point, big hitting negotiator that would suggest he possessed the precision touch and skills to steer an F1 team?

Legend has it that when one of his Lauda Air 767s suffered an “uncommanded thrust reverser deployment” and plunged into the jungle killing a couple of hundred or so lives, Lauda rushed from Austria to the crash site buried deep in the Thai rain forest. The story has it that, plowing around through aircraft pieces, bodies and undergrowth; he single-handedly discovered the mechanical evidence pointing to the faulty reversers.

Maybe following the debacle that has surrounded the mechanical issues Mercedes AMG F1 have suffered this year (particularly on Schumacher’s car), the Benz board were influenced by this inspirational jungle tale of persistence and determination. Niki was now their intrepid hunter to search out the problem of under performance in their F1 division and eradicate it.

The only blot on the landscape is that Lauda’s only previous experience in F1 management was 10 years ago. He then was also employed by a global car manufacturer, Ford. His remit to discover the reasons for their F1 division – Jaguar racing’s under performance. Déjà vu?

He was sacked for not having the depth of technical knowledge to capably perform the role.

Ok, I accept there may be have been touch of lyrical license utilised to describe what could have been a dry and rather dull  series of corporate connections, but the serious matter is how will this affect merceds F1, Ross Brawn and Norbert Haug who are two of the most shrewd and successful F1 operators of all time?

The German tabloid press have jumped all over the Lauda appointment and used descriptive language to describe him as “the enforcer” and “strong man”. To be fair to Niki he has attempted to play this down (fairly unsuccessfully).

He is quoted as saying, “I have to make sure that we [Mercedes F1] spend a lot less money without losing competitiveness. I was in the factory in Brackley over the few last days and have already seen things that we need to change”. Mmm, I’m Not sure Mercedes yet attained competitiveness, and further one has to wonder if Lewis knew all of this when signing up for 3 years.

In one of Lauda’s more moderate of comments to ‘Osterreich’ (translated ‘Austria’ – not that he spoke to the nation – it’s a national newspaper) he says, “I’m something like the link between the racing headquarters in the UK and the company headquarters in Germany”.  Phew, that’s a relief!

Brawn, Haug and Frey can now sleep like babies, they have just had thrust upon them someone appointed and remunerated by the Benz board who is merely there to report back on how its all coming along. I believe our American friends use the term ‘point man’ to describe this role.

More likely Lauda will be ferreting around leaving no stone unturned to discover ways to improve things and justify his existence to his paymasters in Stuttgart; and if his observations and suggestions are not met with complete enthusiasm – then what?

It should be entertaining for the rest of us regardless.

Please comment and enter the debate – whether you agree or not.

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10 responses to “How Lauda got the top job in Mercedes F1

  1. With Ross Brawn telling us, that he now has everything in place, to move up to the front of the grid, one has to wonder what things Lauda thinks needs changed. I think we can assume, he is not talking about changes like, moving the Company vending machine from one side of the canteen to the other, so it leaves a number of possibilities, that may include Brawn’s recent signing of multiple managers, which to even many outsiders, appears to make them, a little top heavy, for a team trying to succeed, ( in F1 terms ), on a relatively tight budget. If, over the course of time, Lauda is going to, in effect, reverse some of brawn’s decisions to date, then I expect sparks to fly. Brawn will then feel he is expected to succeed, with one hand tied behind his back. Which side of the fence Norbert Haug would stand on, in such a situation, would be interesting, and would perhaps be instrumental in shaping Brawn’s desire to continue with the project.

  2. Merc have thrown 200 mil on the 2014 engine. Everything rests with that. Brawn’s and Lauda’s future, whether Lewis stays for more than 3 years, whether Merc pull out in 2020 (they’ve signed 8-yr contract now), etc. All the rest, are pointless, only success counts.

    • Good point – but Ferrari, Renault and supposedly PURE too will also be investing in the new engines. So 2 of the 4 engine manufacturers don’t have works F1 teams.

      • So, PURE haven’t pulled out? Who knows, they might make McLaren their works team just as Renault have done with Red Bull. I still find it funny that last year’s Renault F1 pay for their engines this year and Red Bull don’t.

      • Last year they were still group Lotus, or whatever it was, and were actually owned by Genii, a Russian venture capitalist group iirc, and sponsored by (effectively) Proton .

        I also remember Pollock not long ago stating he had a meeting with Mclaren, which they refuted.

        Mclaren have a commercial agreement with Mercedes until 2015, so I cannot see them not using Mercedes engines in 2014, as this would break the agreement, and I would find it hard to believe Mclaren would want to break that, unless someone like VW/Audi got involved.

        Mclaren do not have the staff or expertise to design their own engines, for road or F1 cars.

      • McLaren cannot built an F1 engine…yet. They just built one for the road car though. Dennis’ vision is to make McLaren into a Ferrari, financed primarily by road car sales and not heavily dependent on sponsors.

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