Book review: To Hell and Back

Just over a year ago we lost a true great, the three-time Formula 1 world champion, Niki Lauda. A legend of the sport and a business man through and through. During the end of his “first” F1 career (he retired once and came back) he started his own airline company, Lauda Air. They still fly today and have done so since the ‘70s. I just finished his autobiography, To Hell and Back, here is what I thought. 

The book To Hell and Back was first released in 1985. The version that I read was released this year, and is updated with an introduction and postscript written by journalist Kevin Eason. Its original language is Austrian – since I’m only familiar with Schwarzenese I had to get a translated copy. Niki Lauda was never a personal hero but he has achieved great things in and out of Formula 1, something I find admiral, and the fact that his comeback to Formula 1 was a successful one, adding a third championship title to his total. 

So far, I’ve notched up quite a few driver’s autobiographies. This book is perhaps the “thinnest”, in the way that it feels like it’s only touching the surface. If that has to do with his personality, that he doesn’t like talking about himself (Jackie Stewart’s book is the total opposite), might be the case. Or, perhaps the book was done too close to his final retirement from racing, giving him no time to reflect? It probably wouldn’t have hurt to have a book done a few years later with a bit of distance. 

Translated books are tricky, this translation came out in 1986, a year after the book’s original release. It’s not bad, and it manages to capture Niki Lauda’s humour and dry wit. And the racing lingo is fine as well (which is something racing fans always notice if it’s wrong). 

The cover art is a picture of Lauda looking past the camera in his McLaren racing suit, with his scarred face, reminding everyone of what happened in the first part of his Formula 1 chapter. 

Niki Lauda is famous for always wearing a red cap, a cap he wore to give himself some sort of privacy, which also became part of his trademark. He turned his red cap into a sponsorship deal, something that stayed with him all the way. As Kevin Easton points out in the introduction, “The cap is my protection from stupid people looking at me stupidly”. That attitude shines through in his book; he simply has no time for nonsense, or people that potentially will waste his time. 

Yes, he does bring up the accident that scarred him for life, that race at the Nürburgring in 1976 that would give him lasting burns on the top of half of his head. The way he brings up this life changing accident in the book is so interesting – almost as business as usual. He doesn’t think of it as anything remarkable. He also mentions an occasion when journalists bring him back to the scene of the accident, hoping Lauda will become emotional and give value to some piece that the journalists are trying to put together. Lauda basically comes to the scene, and very matter-of-factly looks at the area as if it were raining. In other words, that area has no meaning to him. It’s as unimportant (or important) as all the other corners and straights. My point is that it’s in the past and doesn’t mean anything to him anymore. 

To Hell and Back is now a window back to the ‘80s. Reading about how he describes some of his peers in the sport is pretty remarkable. He mentions Ayrton Senna on page 178 as “Probably the greatest talent to emerge in the recent years”. And don’t forget when this book came out; Ayrton was in only his second F1 season in 1985. I also found it fascinating to read about his troubles with Ron Dennis, team principal at McLaren, and that they almost couldn’t stand each other at times. 

“I’ll never forget the look of consternation on Ron Dennis’s face. That was when it became clear to me that he was on [Alain] Prost’s side and I began to sense a strange sort of hostility towards myself that, at the time, I couldn’t explain”

Something that really stuck out was a passage in the post script. Kevin Eason describes what was most probably the biggest tragedy of his life, when one of his commercial airliners went down, heading for Vienna from Bangkok in 1991. Lauda was so eager to find out what went wrong that he spent hours and hours in a simulator (yes, he was a pilot), just trying to figure out how this plane could go down, killing more than 200 people. Lauda personally investigated the crash site, looking for any clues. He had to get to the bottom of this, which wasn’t an easy task fighting with a giant like Boeing. Boeing were potentially facing huge costs if it turned out to be a mechanical failure, which meant they would have to modify a large portion of their aircraft being used around the world. 

What was a huge tragedy turned into an off-putting, political fight, between Lauda and Boeing. I won’t spoil it, but Lauda was born a winner, which he proved in more cases than just on the F1 tracks around the world.  

“Boeing executives warned, however, that their lawyers might need three months to sort out the correct legal wording of any statement, anxious not to concede that the 767 might have a crucial fault, but Lauda could not countenance delays when he and the bereaved families needed answers.” 

In a whole, I enjoyed this book. Probably mainly because it felt like a look back into the ‘80s, and less as a well written autobiography. The post script is very well put together, and Lauda’s original book, between the introduction and post script, is naturally the most interesting part. The introduction, however, was almost useless. It felt thrown together and wasn’t really necessary. 

Song of the day: Queen – One Vision

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