Lewis Hamilton pulled out of his media duties on Wednesday, saying he was too upset by Niki Lauda’s death to talk about it – a no-show that Lauda’s friend and former team-mate John Watson called ‘pathetic’.
Hamilton was due to attend the FIA press conference ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix but, after discussion with his Mercedes team, decided to miss the set piece. Mercedes then asked the FIA for an exemption, which they granted.
Despite his last-minute absence from media duties, Hamilton had earlier seemed fine when he rocked up in the paddock on his MV Agusta motorbike and signed autographs for fans.
Lauda, in his role as non-executive chairman, played a big role in tempting Hamilton to join the team. Writing on his social media, Hamilton called the Austrian, ‘the bright light in my life’.
But Watson, who raced alongside Lauda at McLaren in the early Eighties, believes Hamilton should have faced the press. He said: “It’s pathetic. I would like to know how Lewis can justify this.
“I know he was friendly with Niki, but I find it bizarre that a man of his stature would not be able to face people and tell them what Niki did for Mercedes and give him his due credit for the role he performed. He should have spoken out of respect. To be so upset that he apparently cannot discuss his admiration for how Niki helped him – that’s pathetic.”
“Lewis has not had to deal with tragedy in his motor racing career the way previous generations had to. Niki’s life was not cut desperately short as some drivers’ lives were. He died peacefully with his family around him. What a life: champion driver, airline owner, team manager. And his personal life was worthy of a movie in itself. I don’t think he had any regrets.”
“If the roles were reversed, Niki would have been in there telling the press in his typical blunt way what a great driver and what a fine world champion Lewis is.” Watson, 73, holds the distinction of having come from further back on the grid than any modern Formula One driver, 22nd at Long Beach in 1983, to win a race during which he competed against Lauda for the victory. The two kept in touch after the triple world champion’s lung transplant in August.
Lauda, who created his legend by coming back to win his last title after nearly burning to death in his Ferrari in 1976, was aged 70 when he died in Zurich University Hospital. Hamilton’s press conference place was taken by his team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who explained the request to fill in was conveyed to him by Mercedes’ marketing team that afternoon. Of Hamilton’s condition, Bottas said: “He seemed OK.”
The paddock is being decked out with various tributes to Lauda. As well as footage of him being broadcast in hospitality units, the helmet he wore while winning the 1984 Austrian Grand Prix, during his championship season at McLaren, will be displayed.
Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who wrote a letter to Lauda while he was ill, said: “The reason the cars are as they are today is partly down to him, particularly in terms of the safety. I feel extremely privileged not just to have known him but to have chatted with him regularly. His sense of humour was very straight — sometimes you couldn’t tell whether it was a joke or just a statement.”
“You don’t come across people like him very often, not just inside Formula One but in general. He was unique.”