On Nov 25 Interlagos hosted one of the most thrilling and closely-fought title finales in decades and saw Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel outscore Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso by just three points to take his third successive drivers’ crown. One man who knows all about close competition is three-time world champion Niki Lauda, who won his 1984 title by just half a point from team mate Alain Prost. Speaking at an interview, Lauda hails the 2012 season…
Q: Niki, it’s been an amazing season, but as someone who has been in the sport for over 40 years, have you been blown away by this year’s championship too?
Niki Lauda: Yes, this season has been outstanding. It couldn’t have been better in terms of these ups and downs for the tyres and the cars. This has been the most entertaining season I have seen since I was racing, because when you are racing you have a completely different perspective.
Q: In terms of the teams, the title contenders only became clear very late on. Why do you think that was?
NL: We have heard so many times before that team performance is cyclical. And it is so simple. If you put on the wrong tyres, the wrong wings and the wrong aero then you are heading downwards. This season we’ve seen a lot of cycles in terms of team performance. Red Bull have been up and down, Ferrari have been up and down, even McLaren have been up and down. The smarter you are, the shorter the cycle.
Q: Why was Red Bull able to turn it around in the end?
NL: You’d have to ask them, but I would say it is because they were the smart ones! (laughs)
Q: Is it all down to chief technical officer Adrian Newey?
NL: Most likely. But let’s be frank,this is common knowledge now.
Q: What happened at Ferrari?
NL: I have no idea. This is Formula One. Some get around the edge in one season and others don’t. That happens in every sport. There is nothing to explain from the outside.
Q: A few weeks ago you hailed Fernando Alonso as the most complete driver on the grid and later said that the podium in Austin featured three of the best - Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. Who would you consider the first among equals?
NL: Again, it’s a simple one. It’s the one who won the championship - Sebastian Vettel. And he did it with all the odds running against him. What he showed on Sunday in Brazil was the sheer will to succeed. If you cave at such a moment you are not the right stuff. But I also believe that Alonso is the most gifted racer under difficult circumstances, even if the car is not that quick.
Q: Alonso was so disappointed after being so close. Even Christian Horner spoke of his admiration for the Spaniard who always seems to end up on the podium…
NL: If you have the experience and the speed of Alonso you will always be up there. He will be strong again next year again. If he can do it once, why shouldn’t he be able to do it again? He knows how to do it. He knows how to get better every year and in this sport you need to get better every year.
Q: So, outside of the big three teams, have Lotus been the biggest success story?
NL: There’ve been quite a number of success stories this season, mostly drivers. For example, Pastor Maldonado who won the Spanish Grand Prix, and, of course, Kimi Raikkonen. He was outstanding and there you have your connection to Lotus.
Q: There was a much-talked-about Formula One documentary shown in Austin about the sport’s ‘dangerous years’. You were one of the main focusses. It used to be very risky back then…
NL: …and bred different characters. When you left home for a race weekend you could never be sure that you would return on the Sunday. We had to have no fear at all and that’s why we could race. Fear and risk are no longer parameters in racing. And thank God this is so. But you also cannot compare these old times and its heroes with the present.
Q: You joined F1 racing because of the fascination with danger and speed. Would you join today?
NL: Of course I would. What a question. I would earn ten times what I earned back then, with a negligible risk. Believe me, I would have appreciated that. (laughs)