Niki Lauda’s message to Mercedes should give Lewis Hamilton even greater drive at Monaco GP

MATT MAJENDIE
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Niki Lauda’s message to Mercedes should give Lewis Hamilton even greater drive at Monaco GP

Toto Wolff last spoke to Niki Lauda after last month’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The message, as ever, was straight and to the point: “Keep going, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Mercedes duly obliged at the subsequent race in Spain for a record fifth one-two of the season, but there are the first signs of fragility to the team in 2019 — understandably so in the wake of the Austrian’s death — as they go for a sixth in Monaco on Sunday.

Lewis Hamilton spoke about losing a “bright life in his life”, while team principal Wolff said since news broke on Wednesday of the 70-year-old’s passing he had felt like a zombie, reduced to tears by the merest reminder of the team’s non-executive chairman.

Lauda may not have been so hands-on for Mercedes since a litany of health problems, dating back to a lung transplant in July, but he remained a core heartbeat of the team.

The impact of his death remains to be seen. There are parallels to Ferrari, whose chairman Sergio Marchionne died in July after a shoulder operation went wrong. Tellingly, the team have won just one race since: the Belgian Grand Prix, just a few weeks after his passing.

Looking back on the tragedy at the end of the season, Sebastian Vettel said: “The passing of our chairman obviously had an impact and was tough. The day-to-day business continued but it was a big loss. As a team we tried to respond and just to continue.” One could argue on the basis of results that Ferrari still have not recovered 10 months on.

Mercedes’ signature tribute to Niki Lauda on their cars Photo: AFP/Getty Images

So, quite how will Lauda’s death impact on Mercedes? In Thursday’s practice, Hamilton topped both sessions. The gap to Ferrari and Red Bull was sizeable, the message being it was a case of business as usual in a quest to further stretch the team’s dominance.

The Lauda impact could yet be felt beyond this weekend, however, and whether the emotive effect will in any way derail the team as a whole remains to be seen.

Key in that is Hamilton, who was grieving to the extent he was given special dispensation to miss his media duties before the race weekend. Evidence from practice would suggest he is harnessing it, as he has done in the past.

In October, he kept it close to his chest that his grandfather had died, just three days before the Mexican Grand Prix that saw him claim his fifth world title. Only after the chequered flag did he reveal the extent of that week’s emotional rollercoaster.

Sir Jackie Stewart grew accustomed to having to take to the cockpit after fellow drivers and fellow friends had lost their lives, and the three-time world champion backed Hamilton to be as resolute as ever behind the wheel.

Niki Lauda with Lewis Hamilton in 2014 Photo: EPA

“I suspect Lewis will handle it in exactly the same way I would have done,” said the Scot. “Mind management is what I lived with and is why I am alive today. Jochen Rindt was a close friend. I was crying when I got in the car 45 minutes after his death. I was crying when I got out, but I put in the fastest lap that I had ever done at Monza. It is not about not caring. It is just you have got a job to do and you do it, and Lewis has got all the skills and talent to do the same.”