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Estonian journalist remembers Niki Lauda

Niki Lauda in 1983, while he was driving for McLaren.
Niki Lauda in 1983, while he was driving for McLaren. Source: imago images/Sven Simon/Scanpix

Sports journalist Are Eller appeared on ERR's Vikerraadio, reminiscing about his personal experience with Austrian triple Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda, who died on Monday. One anecdote saw Eller and his Estonian companions, involved in one of the lower formulae, hitching a ride with Lauda in a jet run by his own airline.

"Niki Lauda and Formula One are inseparable – when you say Formula One, you think of Niki Lauda, and vice versa," Eller said.

"He was from the same generation as I was, and so had a very different image from the young drivers of today. Certainly, as a person, he was extremely tough, consistent and verbose. What he said carried weight with all the teams and drivers, which is crucial. Connecting all these things together is not easy, but he did it well," Eller continued.

"What was also very important was that he was extremely loyal to the teams he worked or drove for," Eller added.

"He was very much appreciated by the drivers, as he fought hard to improve safety. After his horrific accident at the Nürburgring in 1976 (where Lauda nearly died after a fuel fire engulfed his Ferrari-ed.) he would have understood this better than most."

Of his own personal contact with Lauda, Eller explained how Estonian driver Rain Pilve started driving for a British team in the Formula Vauxhall/Opel Lotus events, a now defunct series which ran in the 1990s and included the EFDA Nations Cup, where drivers against competed in similar cars, representing their nations.

"One year, the Formula Vauxhall/Opel Lotus races were the 'warm up' at Formula One Grand Prix events," Eller continued.

"The teams were divided up at many of the new circuits, and it just so happened that the British team got to use the Ferrari Formula One team's facilities, before the races Pilve entered. In 1993, Lauda made a return to Formula One as a team adviser, to Ferrari, so we were able to get close to him and the Ferrari crew," Eller said.

"I remember once we were in Zeltweg, for the Austrian Grand Prix, and after the race we were deliberating how to get to the airport, as we were taking different flights to England, where the next stage was to take place at Silverstone the following week," Eller continued.

"Lauda also needed to take some guests there. Lauda Air, his airline, was in its halcyon days at the time, so when we heard he was planning to take the VIPs to the UK, we asked if there was room to squeeze in two or three more – and so there was."

"This great Austrian's response to we little Estonians ended up being a huge boost for us. He smiled, and in a flash we were in this very salubrious little plane, flying like kings, to England," Eller said.

"We arrived in good time, which was also crucial for us to get the cars ready for the next stage. All in all, Niki Lauda was a very human example of a great man," Eller concluded.

Lauda died on Monday at the age of 70, at the University Hospital of Zürich, following a period of ill health. He was Formula One World Champion three times, in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari, and in 1984 with McLaren. The story of his wheel-to-wheel battle for the 1976 title, eventually won by Briton James Hunt in the season Lauda had the accident, which scarred him for life, has been the subject of various documentaries and one blockbuster movie.

The original interview (in Estonian) is here.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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