Exclusive Q&A - Lauda on Button, Mercedes, Schumacher and more 25 Nov 2009
Three-time world champion Niki Lauda always has a keen eye for what's going on in Formula One racing. He is full of praise for Ross Brawn and his achievements - and for Mercedes decision to take a majority stake in the Brackley team. And yes, Jenson Button is a worthy world champion - simply because he's the champion. Lauda knows what he is talking about: half a point made all the difference to his third title in 1984
Q: Niki, lets start with the 2009 drivers championship. Jenson Button clinched the 60th title in Formula One history, but some questioned whether the right guy won, citing his relatively lacklustre midseason spell. What is the opinion of a three-time world champion?
Niki Lauda: Worthy or unworthy is the wrong approach. A world champion is a world champion. You might argue about the manner in which he won, but history has shown that in some years you have guys who win everything, and then you have guys - and I count myself among these - who win with a half point lead in the last race. There are many ways to win a championship. He put in a good season: starting very strong at the beginning to forge ahead and then keeping the lead through difficult times of constantly losing points, but still staying in front. Yes, the 60th Formula One world champion is a worthy champion.
Q: Would you say the second half of the season proved Buttons strategic prowess, or was it simply the nail-biting scenario his critics would like to suggest?
NL: He was nail biting himself to the title - at least from the outside. It is hard to say why he was losing out to Rubens (Barrichello) - someone running on the same equipment - in the second half of the season. In the end its a pointless discussion because he was not the only one running on a bumpy performance curve: Sebastian (Vettel) also had his share of poor results. In that scenario of ups and downs, Jenson was able to keep enough points to maintain his lead - thats why he ended up as champion and not somebody else.
Q: Brawn GP were one of the three teams that introduced the double diffuser at the beginning of the season, leaving others to play catch-up for the first couple of months. How crucial was that to Brawn taking both titles?
NL: You can argue back and forth about Jenson, but one thing is undeniable: what Ross (Brawn) formed out of the bankrupt Honda estate, in a cloak-and-dagger operation, to dominate all the big boys in the paddock, was truly phenomenal. That has never happened before in Formula One. That is the real sensation of the season and their winning the constructors championship is highly deserved.
Q: Other teams had to swallow the bitter pill of their parent company pulling out of Formula One racing. What do you see as the main reasons for BMWs and Toyotas withdrawal?
NL: I see commercial reasons behind these decisions. The global car sales have suffered, and as Formula One is part of the companies marketing concepts - and marketing costs have been severely downgraded - in the case of BMW and Toyota it meant the withdrawal from F1. Probably this years performance was just the last straw.
Q: What else springs to mind when you reflect on the 2009 season?
NL: Insane KERS was introduced, and all the big teams - Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and especially BMW - jumped on it in the hope that when pushing the button, three-tenths (of a second per lap) would be the gain. From the very beginning that gain seemed too little in my view, because three-tenths was the ideal scenario - when the car was perfectly balanced and set-up. Instead, what became clear almost from the first test was a situation where all the KERS followers faced weight distribution issues causing aerodynamic problems. It was as though that massive technical armament meant they couldnt see the track any more. That is why the Brawns and the Red Bulls dominated - because they gave KERS the cold shoulder and concentrated on racing. The first team to bounce back was McLaren-Mercedes in mid-season. They then won two races, but didnt play any role whatsoever in the hunt for the championship. If you think about that, this madness of KERS being abolished in 2010 is a shame for all the money invested.
Q: Two of your long-time companions in the paddock vanished in the course of the season: Ron Dennis and Flavio Briatore. Do you miss them?
NL: Long-time companion is over-egging the pudding a bit. I once drove for Ron and won a championship with him and Flavio I know only on a personal level. Their departure from the paddock had completely different reasons: Ron was fined a $100 million penalty due to copyright violations - is that the politically correct term? Flavio had to go because of that Singapore incident. And that incident was one of the worst things that can happen in racing. Does their departure serve them right? Well, Ron played it too hard with (former FIA President) Max Mosley and what Flavio is accused of was a real stab against the sport - Singapore clearly was one step too far. Formula One folks have always been sort of frontier runners, but both Ron and Flavio exaggerated things and have been punished for it. Its that simple.
Q: While two car manufacturers pulled out, another - Mercedes - invested heavily by taking over Brawn GP to form Mercedes GP. If it didnt work for BMW and Toyota, how can it work so much better for Mercedes?
NL: Well, Mercedes made a very smart move by acquiring a majority stake in Brawn GP, to follow the concept of cost cutting that (former FIA President) Max (Mosley) had begun: to run a team with a reduced budget of $100 million per year by 2011. Brawn GP is the team already fit for that kind of financial downgrade, whereas many others will have a hard 2010 season being competitive on the track and simultaneously working their way down on the economic side. By reviving the real Mercedes Silver Arrows - which means an excellent marketing tool for the car manufacturer - Mercedes stays involved with F1 at a very reasonable cost-benefit ratio. Never forget, theyve got the world championship team!
Q: Nico Rosberg has been confirmed as the teams first driver. Rampant speculation surrounds the second seat: could Michael Schumacher really switch from red to silver, or will Nick Heidfeld get it, or perhaps even Iceman Kimi Raikkonen?
NL: The takeover of Brawn GP was a masterly achievement. Now it is important to proceed in this same manner by having a very close look at the important issue of the driver line-up. With the Button departure, Rosberg is at the moment their only driver - a good man for sure, but good men get even better with a team mate that gives them a hard time 24 hours a day. That is positive, performance and development-wise. They have to be very careful now in their selection, trying to get a top man for the second cockpit. Otherwise the advantage will be on Red Bulls and Vettels side - and they might find themselves riding on Red Bull's coat tails.
Q: And the Schumacher rumours?
NL: I dont believe that there is one single grain of truth in them, at least from all the signals that I get. There was a window of opportunity after Felipes (Massas) accident and had Michael been fit he would have taken up that chance to race for three or four races - to prove himself, get the adrenaline rush, and see where he stood in the pecking order. But I cannot believe that he would be up for a full season. Why then he did stop racing in the first place? But that is my personal opinion.
Q: Were you surprised by Jensons switch to McLaren?
NL: Not really. That was a true Ron Dennis move - to run a team with two British world champions. On the other hand, I am sure that Ross (Brawn) was not completely satisfied with Jensons performance in the second half of the season. But if Mercedes ends up with someone not as good as Jenson, then theyve drawn the short straw. I would not have an idea who they should take.
Q: Ross Brawn and Mercedes. How do you see this relationship working? Whos wearing the trousers?
NL: Ross Brawn and the team. Mercedes will sit on the board and be part of the decision-making process. And to use your term who is wearing the trousers - always those who delivered the success. Anything else would not make sense.
Q: Taking a glimpse ahead into 2010, when you look at the driver line-ups who do you think promises the best performance: Alonso and Massa, Hamilton and Button, Vettel and Webber - or Rosberg and whoever?
NL: Ferraris pairing of Alonso/Massa and McLaren with their two British champions will be very, very competitive. We have also seen how Vettel and Webber egg each other on to top performances, so the Silver Arrows will be confronted with competitors with top driver line-ups. In my opinion all the top drivers are already signed.
Q: Never in modern Formula One history have there been so many new teams in the making. Do you expect them all to show up in Bahrain?
NL: First of all there is what you might call the Sauber team - the leftovers of BMW Sauber. They have facilities, people and an investor willing to bankroll them, and yet it is not clear if they will get a (2010 grid) slot. On the other hand you have four teams that are difficult to judge. For me the most doubtful case is this American team. They seem to be nowhere. Campos seems to have the basics - at least their car was homologated by the FIA some days ago, which is a big step ahead of all the others. I have no idea where Lotus and Manor are. Fact is that they all applied for a slot because of the budget cap already in place for 2010. Now we know that this is postponed by one year and that might be a stumbling block for one or the other. The winter will show what is cooking.
Q: Novembers Abu Dhabi Grand Prix saw the last refuelling stop in Formula One racing. Running with full tanks is one of the biggest new challenges for the teams to come to terms with next season. A good idea?
NL: It is a good idea because it saves costs. On the other hand we had some attractive scenes surrounding refuelling. Just remember the little barbeque scene in Sao Paulo when Heikki Kovalainen was released from the pits with the fuel hose still on the car. But the refuelling ban is a real challenge, as the teams have to come to terms with cars that start the race with double the fuel load that they have now - some 170 or 180 kilos instead of the 80-something they have now. To find the right balance for the car will be an interesting task - and it will also be a new experience for the drivers. I remember very well how it was running with a fully loaded tank. Teams and drivers will have to set new criteria in how they strategically approach each race.