Book Review: “To Hell and Back” by Niki Lauda

This book had been on my wishlist for quite some time, but I held off on getting it. The main reason for this was a silly reason in many respects. One of my favourite films is ‘Rush’ (dir. Ron Howard, 2013) and it contains one of my favourite sequences from any film and I was worried that in reading Lauda’s autobiography that I would discover that the scene was a mere work of fiction. I so wanted to believe it was true. As I did with another scene. Autobiographies should be largely accurate (though even they will tend to have things which will be based on inaccurate memories or the author wanting to doctor how they or certain events will be remembered) – documentaries, dramatizations, and films of various sorts are much more likely to have elements of fiction (as I have discussed in other posts in relation to my research about the JL123 crash), even if they are largely accurate.

Two things came together, meaning that I finally got the book.

First, I listened to an episode of Take To The Sky Podcast – a podcast that I have referred to in a number of posts (see, for example, It’s The Journey, Not The Ending, That Counts, Being Prepared For An Accident, and All Accidents are Human Error) – that covered the Lauda Air flight 004 crash. This episode reminded me again – having seen a documentary covering the crash – what an amazing person Lauda was and what he did in striving to find the truth about what really happened. Having heard the episode, I again wanted to find out more about him. The second reason that I got the book was that it was my birthday recently and my son was looking for something to get me.

Let us return to the first scene I referred to in ‘Rush’. It is so great, it is of no surprise that someone has put it on YouTube. Please do watch it.

I just love everything about the part of the film – the scene and the way the parts of played – particularly those of Lauda by Daniel Brühl and Marlene by Alexandra Maria Lara. I can’t imagine ever getting bored of watching that scene.

As for the book… there is no mention of this scene and scenario… there is enough there to suggest that ‘Rush’ isn’t exactly how things played out, but there’s also nothing to say that elements of it didn’t happen. In fact, in the end, that is one problem with the book. In many respects the book is more like a biography with details about key moments and achievements rather than amusing stories and anecdotes (there are some, but there could have been more). Indeed the book contains a large section written about Lauda rather than by Lauda, with the parts by Lauda largely being a version of the book that he wrote in the 1980s, as well as details about his racing history. What is missing are more of the amusing stories. This brings me to another scene from ‘Rush’.

Again, this can be found on YouTube – you only need to see the first 30 seconds or so of this clip.

While his marriage is discussed, Lauda makes no mention of anything like the scene in ‘Rush’ in the book. But, based on what else you read about him in the book, it feels so believable.

I first got into Formula 1 around the time that Lauda made his comeback from his first retirement. I’m not sure when I had learnt of his infamous crash, but when he made his comeback I had first assumed that this was him returning to F1 after the crash, not an early retirement. I was soon put straight by my dad who had been following F1 since the 1950s. I wouldn’t say that Lauda was my favourite driver as I watched F1, but I was certainly delighted that he won another championship. I was even more delighted when he became an integral part of the Mercedes F1 team – an aspect that is covered in some detail in the biography section of the book. It is perhaps ironic or fitting (though essentially coincidental) that I stopped watching F1 since around the time that Lauda died.

Reading the book, there are so many elements of Lauda’s life, personality, and beliefs that are alien to mine – as much as I can relate to certain parts of the ‘Lauda system’ (particularly in relation to time management). Yet, it doesn’t matter and I enjoyed finding out all about him.

Returning to the Take to the Sky Podcast, in one episode there was a discussion about national heroes – with the hosts giving theirs, and listeners invited to comment on social media posts with theirs. I have two major problems with discussions like this. First, anyone who is in the frame for such discussions is likely to be a famous person – and, by default, that means a person where we only get to see, through the media lens, a distorted picture of who they are. Second, why do heroes have to be from your own country?

I don’t have a single hero, and definitely have no place for a ‘national hero’, but Niki Lauda would definitely feature in my list of heroes if I were to make one.

Perhaps the best way to sum up Lauda is with the Instagram post by Daniel Brühl following Lauda’s funeral. The words that accompany the picture are the closing paragraph of the book itself.

The bravest man, I’ve ever met, not only because he was an F1 World Champion in the crazy 70’s and had the most incredible comeback in sport’s history, but also because of how he treated people. Always honest, straight forward, blunt. Niki told you the truth to your face, no matter how uncomfortable. He was totally unpretentious and incredibely funny. I learned a lot from him and deeply admired him. I know how much you enjoyed flying. Race the sky in peace immortal Champ, we’ll miss you. Mach’s gut Niki.

When I first put my list of favourite films together, I had given ‘Rush’ a 9 out of 10. Upon reflection, I see no reason why it shouldn’t join the small band of movies and TV programmes that I have given a 10, so I’m making that change now.

As for the book. I did enjoy it. I’m glad I have it – I will undoubtedly read it again from time to time. But it left me wanting more. Perhaps that’s partly the story of Lauda himself. Although there’s more I wish I could have learnt about Lauda and although there’s much about Lauda and his approach that is different to me, there is still so much about him that inspires me. He was a true hero.

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