Niki Lauda

He bought his way into Formula 1 racing and very nearly paid for it with his life. Given up for dead after an appalling accident he recovered by what the medical profession called sheer force of will.

On February 22, 1949, Nicholas Andreas Lauda was born in Vienna into a prominent Austrian business and banking dynasty. Paper manufacturing was how Niki’s father made his fortune, though none of it would be made available for a contrary son who would surely bring the respected Lauda name into disrepute by playing at being a racing driver. To further educate himself in this field Niki forsook university and enrolled himself in racing’s school of hard knocks, paying for it with money borrowed from Austrian banks. Starting in a Mini in 1968, he crashed his way through Formula Vee and Formula Three and in 1972 he bought his way into the March Formula Two and Formula One teams with another bank loan secured by his life insurance policy. The uncompetitive Marches meant Niki was unable to prove his worth as a driver, let alone stave off pending bankruptcy. With no qualifications in any other line of work he had no choice but to keep on racing.

Ferrari, who hadn’t had a champion since John Surtees in 1964, was impressed by the skinny, buck-toothed Austrian’s self-confidence and no-nonsense work ethic, though rather taken aback by his brutal honesty. After his first test in the 1974 Ferrari 312 Niki informed Enzo that the car was «a piece of shit,» but promised him he could make it raceworthy. Now in the spotlight as a possible Ferrari saviour, the media noted Lauda’s cool, calculating clinical approach and nicknamed him ‘The Computer.’ However, The Computer’s driving still had some glitches and he made several costly errors in 1974. Niki said that learning from mistakes was the fastest way to improve, corroborating this theory with a first Formula One victory in Spain, then another in Holland.

In his 1975 Ferrari 312/T Niki stormed to victories in Monaco, Belgium, Sweden, France and the USA to become World Champion. All of Italy rejoiced at Ferrari’s first driving title in over a decade, though the glory meant little to the unsentimental new hero. Claiming that his mounting collection of «useless» trophies was cluttering up his home in Austria, he gave them to the local garage in exchange for free car washes.  By mid-summer 1976 he had won five races and seemed a shoo-in to repeat as champion. Then came the German Grand Prix at the desperately dangerous Nurburgring. On the second lap Lauda’s Ferrari inexplicably crashed and burst into flames. Four brave drivers and a marshal plunged into the towering inferno and hauled out the smouldering body. In hospital, with first to third degree burns on his head and wrists, several broken bones and lungs scorched from inhaling toxic fumes, Niki Lauda was given up for dead and administered the last rites by a priest.

In his 1978 season with Brabham Niki won twice and finished fourth in the championship. The next year, in an uncompetitive car, he had scored only four points prior to the penultimate race, in Canada. There, after the first practice session, he walked away from Formula One racing, saying he was «tired of driving around in circles» and would now start his own airline.

He had seemed indestructible, but the valiant Austrian’s health deteriorated. He underwent transplants: twice for kidneys and in 2018 for a lung damaged in his nearly fatal accident. On 20 May, 2019, 70-year-old Niki Lauda passed away peacefully in hospital. His funeral in Vienna was attended by many drivers and dignitaries who paid solemn tribute to one of the sport’s greatest heroes.

Ayrton Senna

He streaked through the sport like a comet, an other-worldly superstar whose brilliance as a driver was matched by a dazzling intellect and coruscating charisma that illuminated Formula One racing as never before.

Ayrton Senna da Silva was born on March 21, 1960, into a wealthy Brazilian family where, with his brother and sister, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He never needed to race for money but his deep need for racing began with an infatuation for a miniature go-kart his father gave him when he was four years old. As a boy the highlights of Ayrton’s life were Grand Prix mornings when he awoke trembling with anticipation at the prospect of watching his Formula One heroes in action on television. At 13 he raced a kart for the first time and immediately won. Eight years later he went single-seater racing in Britain, where in three years he won five championships, by which time he had divorced his young wife and forsaken a future in his father’s businesses in favour of pursuing success in Formula One racing, where he made his debut with Toleman in 1984. At Monaco (a race he would win six times), his sensational second to Alain Prost’s McLaren – in torrential rain – was confirmation of the phenomenal talent that would take the sport by storm.

Deciding Toleman’s limited resources were inadequate for his towering ambition, Senna bought out his contract and in 1985 moved to Lotus, where in three seasons he started from pole 16 times (he eventually won a record 65) and won six races. Having reached the limits of Lotus he decided the fastest way forward would be with McLaren, where he went in 1988 and stayed for six seasons, winning 35 races and three world championships.

In 1988, when McLaren-Honda won 15 of the 16 races, Senna beat his team mate Alain Prost eight wins to seven to take his first driving title. Thereafter two of the greatest drivers became protagonists in one of the most infamous feuds. In 1989 Prost took the title by taking Senna out at the Suzuka chicane. In 1990 Senna extracted revenge at Suzuka’s first corner, winning his second championship by taking out Prost’s Ferrari at Suzuka’s first corner. Senna’s third title, in 1991, was straightforward as his domination as a driver became even more pronounced, as did his obsession with becoming better still. Some of his greatest performances came in his final year with McLaren, following which he moved to Williams for the ill-fated 1994 season.

Beyond his driving genius Senna was one of the sport’s most compelling personalities. Though slight in stature he possessed a powerful physical presence, and when he spoke, with his warm brown eyes sparkling and his voice quavering with intensity, his eloquence was spellbinding. Even the most jaded members of the Formula One fraternity were mesmerised by his passionate soliloquies and in his press conferences you could hear a pin drop as he spoke with such hypnotic effect. His command performances were captured by the media and the world at large became aware of Senna’s magnetic appeal.

Everyone marvelled at how he put so much of himself, his very soul, into everything he did, not just his driving but into life itself. Behind the wheel the depth of his commitment was there for all to see and the thrilling spectacle of Senna on an all-out qualifying lap or a relentless charge through the field evoked an uneasy combination of both admiration for his superlative skill and fear for his future.

He drove like a man possessed – some thought by demons. His ruthless ambition provoked condemnation from critics, among them Prost who accused him of caring more about winning than living. When Senna revealed he had discovered religion Prost and others suggested he was a dangerous madman who thought God was his co-pilot. «Senna is a genius,» Martin Brundle said. «I define genius as just the right side of imbalance. He is so highly developed to the point that he’s almost over the edge. It’s a close call.»

Even Senna confessed he occasionally went too far, as was the case in qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, where he became a passenger on a surreal ride into the unknown. Already on pole, he went faster and faster and was eventually over two seconds quicker than Prost in an identical McLaren. «Suddenly, it frightened me,» Ayrton said, «because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding. I drove back slowly to the pits and did not go out anymore that day.»

He said he was acutely aware of his own mortality and used fear to control the extent of the boundaries he felt compelled to explore. Indeed, he regarded racing as a metaphor for life and he used driving as a means of self-discovery. «For me, this research is fascinating. Every time I push, I find something more, again and again. But there is a contradiction. The same moment that you become the fastest, you are enormously fragile. Because in a split-second, it can be gone. All of it. These two extremes contribute to knowing yourself, deeper and deeper.»

His self-absorption did not preclude deep feelings for humanity and he despaired over the world’s ills. He loved children and gave millions of his personal fortune (estimated at $400 million when he died) to help provide a better future for the underprivileged in Brazil. Early in 1994 he spoke about his own future. «I want to live fully, very intensely. I would never want to live partially, suffering from illness or injury. If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs my life, I hope it happens in one instant.»

And so it did, on May 1, 1994, in the San Marino Grand Prix, where his race-leading Williams inexplicably speared off the Imola track and hit the concrete wall at Tamburello corner. Millions saw it happen on television, the world mourned his passing and his state funeral in Sao Paulo was attended by many members of the shocked Formula One community. Among the several drivers escorting the coffin was Alain Prost. Among the sad mourners was Frank Williams, who said: «Ayrton was no ordinary person. He was actually a greater man out of the car than in it.»

Lewis Hamilton

The 30th Formula One World Champion was the youngest ever, taking the title in the most dramatic fashion – on the last corner of the last lap of the last race of one of the most scintillating seasons. The sensational triumph of the sport’s first black driver, in only his second year at the pinnacle of motorsport, was a welcome human interest story that focused unprecedented international attention on Formula One racing. His prodigious talent and pleasing personality made Lewis Hamilton an inspirational role model and ideal ambassador for his profession..

Lewis Carl Davidson Hamilton was born into a mixed race family on 7 January 1985, in Stevenage, a quiet English town north of London. His father Anthony, whose parents immigrated from Grenada in the West Indies in the 1950’s, and his mother Carmen divorced when Lewis was about two years old. He lived with Carmen until he was 10 then moved in with Anthony, his wife Linda and their three-year-old son Nicolas. Remaining close to his mother, Lewis also formed a strong bond with his stepmother and credits them both with contributing to the caring, considerate side of his nature. He finds the cheerful bravery of his stepbrother, who suffers from cerebral palsy, inspirational. «I only have to think of Nic to feel motivated and put a smile on my face.» His steely ambition and iron resolve come from the head of the family. «Even though he always told me to be courteous and polite, my focus and determination comes from, and has always been driven by, my dad.»

Anthony Hamilton, his mentor and manager, worked day and night for years (at one time he held three different jobs) to further his son’s racing career, which effectively began when eight-year-old Lewis was given a well-used go-kart that cost nearly as much as the family’s modest monthly income. Soon the Hamiltons – Anthony, Linda, Nic and Lewis – were a fixture at karting events and the boy racer, wearing the familiar yellow helmet chosen by an anxious Anthony to better keep track of his speedy progress in crowded kart fields, began winning races and championships.

In 1995, a 10-year-old kart champion, wearing a borrowed suit and shoes, picked up two trophies at a motorsport awards ceremony in London. Brandishing an autograph book prepared by his father, he approached Ron Dennis, boss of the McLaren Mercedes Formula One team. «I said ‘Hello Mr. Dennis, I’m Lewis Hamilton and one day I’d like to race for your team.’ I asked him for his autograph and his phone number. He put them in my book and also wrote ‘Call me in nine years.'»

The call was made just three years later and it was the Hamilton household’s telephone that rang. It was Ron Dennis who presented Anthony with an offer to financially support his son’s career for the forseeable future, with the proviso that Lewis should keep working hard at school. Lewis: «I just went upstairs to my room and got on with my homework. It was so unbelievable. I struggled to take it in.»

While the family’s financial struggle was over it put extra pressure on McLaren’s teenage protege to meet ever higher expectations. As well as having to respond to envious critics who claimed he should be winning all the time, given his funding, it was imperative that Lewis continually prove himself worthy of his benefactor’s investment. The need to achieve undoubtedly accelerated his progress through motorsport’s ranks. After winning eight championships in six years of kart racing, he went on to win three major single seater titles, the most prestigious of which was the GP2 championship, where in 2006 he took five victories from 21 starts. But it was the young British charger’s several spirited comeback performances, from the back of the pack to the podium, that particularly prompted McLaren to promote him to the Formula One team.

Certainly he was well prepared, though no one was prepared for the astonishing ease with which the precocious youngster stormed through the 2007 season. Consistently out-performing his celebrated team mate Fernando Alonso (who had won the first of his two driving titles, with Renault, when he was just 24), Lewis Hamilton barged onto the podium a dozen times, won four races, led the championship for five months and lost it by merely a single point in the final race to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

Their new recruit’s dazzling debut was the only bright spot in a turbulent year for McLaren, whose two drivers became bitter adversaries. Their feud, exacerbated by Alonso’s resentment of the British-based team’s apparent focus an English upstart he had presumed would be his understudy, culminated in the slighted Spaniard’s angry departure from a team already troubled by a notorious ‘spy scandal.’ Found guilty of possessing Ferrari technical secrets, McLaren was fined $100 million and stripped of all its points in a Constructors’ Championship it would otherwise have won.

On assuming the role of team leader in 2008 (when Alonso returned to Renault) the boy wonder became even more of a marked man. En route to carving out five victories and scything his way to the podium on six other occasions, he incurred the wrath of several overtaken rivals who accused him of arrogance and dangerous driving. Hamilton insisted his hard-earned self-belief was wrongly interpreted and that his driving was firm but fair. But it wasn’t without flaw and a combination of miscues and mishaps meant the championship was far from a foregone conclusion prior to the final Grand Prix, in Brazil. There, if Hamilton failed to finish at least fifth, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa could take the title by winning his home race.

The grand finale, on a serpentine Interlagos circuit made more treacherous by rain, produced arguably the most thrilling climax in the annals of any sport. Local hero Massa mastered the chaotic conditions perfectly, crossing the finish line first and scoring the points necessary to become champion – which he was for the 38.907 seconds that passed before his title rival took the chequered flag in the fifth place he needed to finish on top of the world. With this final flourish, having overtaken another car with about 300 meters to go, Lewis Hamilton, aged 23 years and 300 days, became the youngest World Champion.

«Shoot!», he exclaimed while celebrating tearfully with his nearest and dearest, among them his glamorous pop singer girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger. «I’m ecstatic, very emotional, very thankful for my family, my team and everyone who has supported me in this fairy-tale story.»

In the following seasons, though he continued to be one of the most aggressive drivers and a race winner, Hamilton failed to regain his championship form. His McLaren was not always a world-beater but in 2011 Hamilton blamed distractions in his private life (mainly a breakup with his girlfriend) for a loss of focus that he vowed to regain. In 2012, with his private life running smoothly, he drove hard and well and finished fourth in the standings with four wins. Before that campaign was over he announced he was leaving McLaren, the team that had been so much a part of his racing life for so long, and would in 2013 replace the retiring Michael Schumacher at Mercedes. In his new environment he was a regular frontrunner, securing several poles and podiums (including a race win) and finished a respectable fourth in the 2013 championship.

In 2014, when major regulation changes featured new hybrid power units in chassis with reduced downforce, Mercedes dominated the season, winning 16 of the 19 races and easily securing the Constructors’ Championship. Mercedes’ policy of letting its drivers race each other enabled team mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to engage in an enthralling season-long duel for the driving title. Adding extra human interest to the drama was the fact that Hamilton (champion in 2008) and Rosberg (whose father Keke was champion in 1982) had been friends and rivals since their karting days as teenagers. Now, as 29-year-old protagonists competing for honours at the pinnacle of motorsport, the intensity of their rivalry strained their friendship and tested their strength of character.

The championship, with Hamilton leading in points and Rosberg still in contention, was finally settled in the last race of the season, at Abu Dhabi, where double points were awarded, though the race winner and new champion didn’t need them. Rosberg, who started from pole (and won the inaugural Pole Position trophy) but finished out of the points with a car problem, was gracious in defeat, acknowledging that his team mate’s tally of 11 wins to Rosberg’s five meant Hamilton deserved to be the 2014 champion.

Clinching his second driving title (as well as becoming the most successful British Formula One driver, with 33 victories) was an emotional occasion for Lewis Hamilton, whose family and girlfriend shared his tearful triumph at Abu Dhabi. Struggling to put his feelings into words, he summed it up succinctly: “This is the greatest day of my life.”

Days of greatness were far from over for a driver yet to reach the peak of his powers. Off the track he relished his celebrity status, embraced pop culture, dabbled in music, became a style icon, hob-nobbed with the rich and famous.

His fame transcended his sport but the high-flying, tattooed hero with diamond ear studs never lost his driving ambition, his hunger to win. He worked hard at self-improvement, added a thinking dimension to his hard-charging instincts, made fewer mistakes and became an unstoppable force in 2015.

He dominated the season, making full use of his Mercedes F1 Team’s car advantage and capping it off with a triple crown triumph secured via a storming victory in the 16th of the 19 races – an action-packed, drama-filled United States Grand Prix at Austin, Texas. On a wet to drying track wheel-to-wheel battles raged throughout the field, beginning with Hamilton pushing aside his polesitting Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg on the opening lap. Many driving errors were made but Hamilton never put a wheel wrong in winning his 10th race of the year – an historic 43rd career victory that vaulted him into third place in the all-time winners list behind Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost.

His third world championship – matching the tally of his boyhood hero Ayrton Senna – confirmed that Lewis Hamilton had joined the ranks of the sport’s greatest drivers.

The three-time champion lost none of his natural speed (he had the most poles and wins) yet lost the 2016 championship (by five points) to his hard-trying Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg. Their huge car advantage and the team’s policy of letting them fight freely led to a sometimes acrimonious title battle. Hamilton had more mechanical problems and made some driving errors that suggested a wavering focus caused by his continuing pursuit of a celebrity lifestyle. He denied this, saying “I probably drove with more heart his year. It took a lot more heart and courage to face the challenges”.

Lewis Hamilton’s fourth Drivers’ Championship earned him a place among the top five most successful drivers of all time. He equalled the number of titles won by both Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel. Only Juan Manuel Fangio’s five championships and Michael Schumacher’s record of seven rank higher than the 32-year-old Englishman who in his 11th season came to be regarded as the best driver of his era.

His 2017 title triumph was the product of Hamilton raising his game and performing at a consistently higher level. He demonstrated superior speed (with 11 pole positions he extended his career total to 72, a F1 record), unerring precision (his only notable crash came during qualifying at Interlagos), relentless aggression (pushing himself with a deep-seated self-belief that he was unbeatable), exemplary racecraft (remaining steadfastly composed and controlled under pressure) and remarkable efficiency (he scored points in all 20 races, winning nine of them and finishing on the podium 13 times). Moreover, his tremendous pace and stylish verve behind the wheel were exciting for the sport.

It helped that the Mercedes F1 WO8 was generally the best car, and the well-managed team again functioning like a well-oiled machine won the Constructors’ Championship for the fourth season in succession. Hamilton and his easy-going new team mate Valtteri Bottas, replacing the retired reigning champion Nico Rosberg, were allowed to compete with each other. His defeat by Rosberg in their acrimonious 2016 battle bolstered Hamilton’s resolve to re-establish his superiority, which he did convincingly. Bottas won three races and finished third in the standings. That their relationship remained harmonious was a further example of Hamilton’s newfound serenity and contentment.

He derived satisfaction from his racing accomplishments and took obvious pleasure in embracing a colourful celebrity lifestyle that made him an even more popular personality. He cultivated a high profile presence on social media, remaining humble and profusely thanking his fans for supporting and inspiring him. His multitude of followers left little doubt that Lewis Hamilton’s fame exceeded that of any other F1 driver. Beyond that, as his former team mate and rival Nico Rosberg observed, “Lewis is one of the best of all time.”

His magisterial performance in 2018 elevated Lewis Hamilton to the highest echelons of the pinnacle of motorsport. His fifth World Championship equalled the decades old milestone established by the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio. At the age of 33, Hamilton’s records to date – 73 wins, 83 poles and 134 podiums in 229 Grands Prix – left him well-placed to pursue the seven driving title achievement of the great Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s superlative season – his 11 wins, 11 poles and 17 podiums in the 21-races – not only led Mercedes to a fifth consecutive Constructors’ Championship (his winless team mate Valtteri Bottas finished fifth among the drivers) but firmly confirmed his status as the team leader. Against stronger opposition from Ferrari (6 wins) and Red Bull (4 wins) Hamilton led by example, setting a scorching pace on the track and taking it upon himself to motivate the Mercedes personnel to even greater effort. They found his tremendous inner drive inspirational. His continual expressions of gratitude strengthened team spirit.

Mercedes got better and better as the season went on, following Hamilton, who overpowered Ferrari’s dispirited Sebastian Vettel to take the driving title with two races to go, then scored victories in the final two events to vanquish Ferrari and seal the team championship for Mercedes.

His outstanding season, the product of greater understanding of the value of teamwork as well as his focus on continual self-improvement, was especially satisfying for Lewis Hamilton. “This is the highest point of my career,“ he acknowledged, “in terms of my performance and how I perform with the team.”

His winning ways endeared him to yet more fans. He never failed to thank them for their support and kept his multitude of social media followers informed about his busy off-track life that now included designing a new line of high fashion clothing and news that his pet bulldog Roscoe earned $700 a day as a model.

In the 13th year of his F1 career Lewis Hamilton secured his sixth world championship (one less than Michael Schumacher’s record seven), thus confirming his status as not only the driver of the decade but convincingly securing his place among the select few considered to be the greatest of all time.

The 2019 driving title (his fifth in six years) was hard earned in a field that featured several ambitious youngsters intent on dethroning the 34-year-old superstar. While his Mercedes team secured a sixth consecutive Constructors’ Championship their car, though still the class of the field, was less dominant than before.

During the 21-race season Ferrari and Red Bull each won three races but were undermined by uneven performances. Mercedes, superbly organised and cohesive with a strong team spirit united in a common cause, tallied 15 victories. Lewis Hamilton led the charge, outscoring his improving team mate Valtteri Bottas 11 victories to four and leading the league in terms of consistently delivering points. He was the only driver to score in every race, finishing on the podium in all but four events.

Hamilton’s impressive efficiency combined with his habitual hard charging confirmed his superiority behind the wheel. He relished the cut and thrust of close combat and was invariably a fierce but fair fighter. His driving was nearly faultless. When he made a rare mistake he was quick to admit it. He confessed staying on top was sometimes a struggle. “Only athletes at the top of their game can relate to it. Weekend after weekend you can’t drop the ball.”

The sport’s best driver remained humble and honest, wearing his heart on his sleeve and showing more of his sensitive side. Describing his season “an emotional rollercoaster,” he dedicated it to his late friend and mentor Niki Lauda. He mourned the loss of FIA F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting, expressed shock after F2 driver Anthoine Hubert was killed in Belgium.

Beyond excelling in his risky profession Hamilton continued to develop himself personally, furthering his interests in fashion and music, as well as exposing his social conscience. A vegan of several years, he increasingly spoke publicly of his environmental and animal welfare concerns, and helped launch a plant-based burger restaurant in London. More than ever he focussed on using his popularity as a force for positive social change.

Recognising his responsibility as a role model for young people striving to make their way in troubled times, Lewis Hamilton the social media star encouraged his millions of supporters in ‘Team Hamilton’ to follow their dreams and never give up, a philosophy that took him to the top of the world.