I was not that surprised when I heard that Ron Howard, the acclaimed American film director and the man behind such movies as Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, has now turned his attention to the story of Niki Lauda, the incredible Austrian Formula One racing driver who, having won a world title, all but died in a crash in 1976 that led to severe facial and head burns, and the loss of an ear.
A year later, having been read the last rites, he took a second world title and then, in 1984, a third title, making him one of the greatest drivers of all time, and this despite such horrific injuries.
The film promises to be a sporting epic and will remind me of the day I spent with Lauda a few years ago when he flew me from Vienna to Rome and back again on his own, Air Niki, chartered plane. Whilst the rest of the 150-odd passengers sat oblivious in the back, I sat up front in the cockpit with Lauda as he, a qualified airline pilot, steered his plane across the Alps and down to the Italian western coast and back again to the Austrian capital, with an hour’s changeover for passengers.
Lauda’s language is coarse and to the point, something he is entitled to be after his experiences. He has no time for sympathisers or people who stare. He knows how he looks and he is simply grateful to be still alive; so many of his contemporaries are not. He spoke of lying in a swathe of bandages resembling an Egyptian mummy as a priest read out the last rites. Unable to talk he thought: “Stop doing that. I’m still f***ing alive.”
Lauda recalled the moment when his great friend and fellow F1 driver, James Hunt, came to visit. “Everyone else had tiptoed around the issue of how I looked but James, being James, he said: “Well, it’s not all bad news, Niki. You’re a lot better looking now.” I laughed so much it hurt my face.”
He remembers first seeing his burnt head. “It was as wide as my shoulders.” And, when he presented himself to his neighbour back home. “Now he was a farmer, a country man, who was used to unseemly sights. When he saw me he had turn away. That confirmed how bad I looked.”
It was the first and only time I have ever conducted an interview with a man whilst he flew his own passenger airline. He talked of the worst moment of his life – not his crash, but the Lauda Air crash in Thailand in 1991 that saw over 200 people killed. “If I have an accident when I’m driving it’s down to me and it’s my choice,” he told me. “But those passengers were totally blameless. It was the worst moment of my life. I waited six months to discover that there was a fault with the plane and it had nothing to do with the airline. If it had I would have walked away from aviation. I would have walked away from everything.”
We ate that evening in Vienna as he introduced me to his circle of Austrian friends in the capital and, to this day, we always say hello if we see each other in the paddocks that adorn every Formula One race.
Niki Lauda deserves a film re-telling his story. He is one of the greats of motor sport, a man who defied death to become a champion again and, for that matter, a magnificent host on his own plane.