MONACO • Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said the death of three-time world champion Niki Lauda late on Monday had stripped Formula One of its heart and soul, leaving him feeling "like a zombie" and struggling to contain his emotions.
Speaking to reporters at yesterday's practice sessions for the Monaco Grand Prix, he paid tribute to his fellow Austrian, who was a larger-than-life figure on the pit wall, giving an insight into the team's state of mind ahead of the sport's blue riband showcase event.
Five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton topped yesterday's opening free practice session, clocking the fastest lap in 1 min 12.106sec to outpace Red Bull's Max Verstappen by 0.059 of a second to show why Mercedes, who have won the first five races of the season in one-two finishes, are firm favourites for a sixth straight success.
The session began amid poignant tributes to Lauda, including a solitary red baseball cap left hanging on his earphones peg, around the Mercedes team motor home and their cars.
The Silver Arrows also marked his death with a red star - his signature - and a message of thanks "Danke Niki" on their cars.
Ferrari, with whom he won his first two championships, had a decal on their SF90s cars, marking his time with them in the form of a replica graphic of his name as used on the side of the cars when he raced for the team from 1974 to 1977.
It was underlined in black as a sign of mourning, while the team's lead driver, Sebastian Vettel, wore a special helmet livery reflecting the famous red one Lauda used in his racing career.
Of the Mercedes non-executive chairman, who died at age 70, Wolff said: "As you can imagine, this is very difficult. Very difficult for the team, for all of us and, most importantly, very difficult as a friend.
"It's not an easy situation to try to go back to racing, especially not in Monaco with so much media attention in front of all of you, trying to keep it together emotionally in speaking about a friend."
Wolff not only mourned the loss of F1's "biggest icon", but also someone he considered a close friend and sparring partner, and whose first wife was also his cousin.
He added: "It's so difficult for me to try to talk about Niki, the icon of Formula One that he was. Because my emotions are so overwhelming as a friend.
"The last 48 hours were terrible. I keep looking at the pictures and find myself with tears in the eyes every half an hour because he's not there any more."
Hamilton was excused from media duties on Wednesday, instead choosing to post a moving tribute to his "buddy" on social media.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS