Racing Royalty Niki Lauda's Need for Speed

Niki Lauda has been chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team since 2012. The Austrian racing veteran wants less regulation and more powerful cars – and dismisses the electric Formula E series out of hand.
Living legend Niki Lauda thinks Formula E won't survive.

Racing legend Niki Lauda, 66, is immediately recognizable by his visor cap. Today he is sitting in a corner of the café of the Vienna's luxury Hotel Imperial, where he has breakfast almost every day. The non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team discusses the patriarch of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, the crisis faced by the racing series, and why everything happens too slowly for him.

 

Handelsblatt: Mr. Lauda, will Formula One have a new owner soon?

Mr. Lauda: I'm not aware of that.

Will former Kirch Media vice president, Dieter Hahn, play a role in the future – or even replace the powerful Bernie Ecclestone?

Dieter Hahn and Bernie Ecclestone have a non-relationship, in the wake of the legal disputes that ended to the detriment of Mr. Hahn in Great Britain. Bernie Ecclestone has been running this crazy sport for decades. He knows exactly what he is doing and he has an idea of where the journey is supposed to be going. He plays his chess game in such a way that his opponents never know what his next move will be. I have absolutely no complaints about him.

Why don't patriarchs as old as Ecclestone simply step down? The Briton is turning 85 this fall.

The reason they don't stop is that they are very successful in their own way. Bernie Ecclestone still has things firmly in control at Formula One. He is a businessman and he will decide for himself when to step down. But this decision will come sooner rather than later.

One solution would be a takeover by the Emirate of Qatar. Under the proposed deal, Mr. Ecclestone would step down after a two-year transition period.

I don’t believe in the global solution. In my opinion, financial investor CVC, as a major shareholder in Formula One, is very satisfied. It continues to earn a 10-percent return and recouped its initial investment long ago through partial sales of its shares. CVC currently has nothing to complain about.

Formula One is in crisis, with fewer TV viewers and fewer fans at races, as was recently the case at the Austrian Grand Prix. What needs to happen now?

It isn't clear yet. It will certainly take time to make it attractive once again. We at Mercedes are working hand-in-hand with Bernie Ecclestone to find a solution. But no matter who decides to invest, he needs to recognize that the Concorde Agreement will stay in place for another five years…

…the agreement that determines the distribution of revenues to the racing teams and the rules at races…

It isn't yet clear what the new agreement will look like. I think it's not easy to go into this blindly and pay a horrendous amount for blocks of shares. This is a bad time to get involved in Formula One.

What exactly needs to be done so that Formula One can electrify the masses again?

Young people have different interests compared to old people like us. They don’t want to spend two hours watching a Grand Prix on TV. They would rather be doing five things at once. There is also a glut of sports in the media. We can't change that. The question is: Is Formula One losing more than other sports? There are no answers to that question yet.

Is that an adequate explanation?

Formula One is being talked to death. It started last year in Australia at the very beginning of the season. After that, we were constantly hearing new pieces of bad news, and part of it was Bernie Ecclestone's doing. Then there was overregulation, which takes away the fun from racing. A Flensburg-like point system is counterproductive. Formula One has become an overregulated monster.

What is your conclusion?

All the rulebooks need to be thrown out. Drivers need to be given more responsibility for the way they drive.

Are the racecars even attractive anymore?

No, they're not – because they have narrower tires and are less aerodynamic. This is wrong! We have to make the cars more aggressive. They need to become real monster machines. If they can go five or six seconds faster per round, only the very best drivers will be able to handle them.

But that can’t be achieved overnight, can it?

There is a plan to start building cars in 2017 that will be much faster and equipped with wider tires. Look, in my day, when you came out of the box and stepped on the gas pedal, you would literally shit yourself. It's all computers today.

Has Formula One become boring because Mercedes is always winning?

Our problem in Formula One is that everyone thinks only of himself.We need a common plan in this crisis.

Video: Niki Lauda vs James Hunt, 1976 German Grand Prix, Nürburgring.

Does Formula One suffer from the fact that races are no longer held in Germany, but in small countries like Bahrain?

You can't abandon the origins of Formula One, like Monza, Monte Carlo, Spielberg, Hockenheim and the Nürburgring.

Should we be worried about Formula One? Only half as many fans as last year turned up at the latest Grand Prix in Spielberg, in your native Austria.

Everyone knows that there are fewer fans in Spielberg the second time around, after a long break. You can only evaluate the Austrian Grand Prix in three to five years to assess if the famous track is still working.

Do the Gulf States have to be the hosts?

We at Mercedes have a contract to fulfill. If Bernie Ecclestone negotiates Djibouti, then we race in Djibouti. After all, he is the one who needs to raise the money so that CVC, as the majority owner of Formula One, and we as a racing team, can get our money's worth. That's why we are also in Sochi and Baku. It doesn't bother me.

Aren't you being a little cynical, given the conflict with Russia?

It isn’t our place to comment on decisions to hold individual races.

Why isn't Germany a venue?

The Nürburgring bankruptcy is at fault. In the past, races were held in alternating years at the Nürburgring and in Hockenheim. But Hockenheim can't handle a Formula One race every year. It's too bad. There are venues, like in Silverstone or Montreal, that manage to put on a show that justifies the high ticket prices.

Aren't ticket prices off the charts? A ticket for a seat in the stands at Spielberg costs €500 ($555).

I've never organized a race, which is why I'm not in a position to give advice. But I have developed two airlines, and that experience taught me that it’s best to start with low prices – and when the load factor increases, tickets become more expensive. On balance, I end up with a decent price.

Mercedes is the only German car brand to participate in Formula One. How would you feel if VW were to compete with one of its brands?

That would be nice, of course. But it isn’t up to me to evaluate Mr. Winterkorn's strategy. However, the question arises as to why Audi and Porsche compete with each other at Le Mans. Couldn't Porsche stay there and Audi go to Formula One? Then they could pit themselves against Mercedes, Honda, Renault and Ferrari. It wouldn’t cost much more than the 24-hour race and it would be a fantastic challenge.

Distribution of revenues is a bone of contention, with small teams fighting to survive while big teams get more and more.

That will be on the agenda in 2020. But now we have contracts, and you can't just change them retroactively. After all, everyone has a budget. The big teams– Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull – that  have done so much for Formula One, receive more money from Bernie Ecclestone. By the way, we at Mercedes were the last ones in this regard.

Mr. Ecclestone refuses to give more to the back-benchers. Do Sauber or Lotus even need it?

Clearly the field has to be filled. There have always been small teams that have tried to beat the big ones. And it's happened again and again, which is what makes it so exciting.

Can the electric-car series, Formula E, replace Formula One?

I don’t know what will happen in 40 years. But today they are giving away tickets and the attendance figures are small. The concept isn’t working. There is nothing attractive about the cars. After half a race, the drivers have to change cars because the batteries don’t last. I don’t think much of Formula E. It isn’t contemporary and it will go belly-up.

There is a sport that's more successful than Formula One: soccer!

Sure, everyone can play soccer, but not everyone can drive a Formula One car. But even with soccer, aside from huge events like the World Cup and the European Championship, attendance figures have declined.

You have been active on or next to the racetrack for half a century. How much longer do you want to stay in the game?

My contract with Mercedes goes until 2017. My goal is to be world champion every year.

In other words, you are actively doing your part to keep Formula One boring. Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz is already threatening to leave because he's always behind.

In the past, Michael Schumacher won for Ferrari year after year. After that, Red Bull was racking up victories. It's only been Mercedes's turn since last year. I simply do not understand all the whining about how boring Formula One supposedly is. The cards are reshuffled every year. For instance, Honda is a new player and will make its mark. They just need a little more time.

What motivates you personally?

Formula One is a lot of fun for me. We, that is Mercedes Executive Director and I, have brought together the right people and have provided them with the right strategy. Everything works at the moment – from our drivers down to the last mechanic.

So you're a happy man?

I'm never happy. I'm constantly saying "come on kids, more, more, more! We have to be even faster."

 

Joachim Hofer is Handelsblatt's Munich correspondent. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is the paper's Vienna correspondent. To contact them: [email protected], [email protected].