By Alan Baldwin

MONACO (Reuters) - Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton was exempted from media duties at the Monaco Grand Prix on Wednesday as teams and drivers came to terms with the death of triple world champion Niki Lauda.

A team spokesman said they had asked for Hamilton to be excused on the grounds that he had "lost a very close friend in Niki".

Lauda, who died on Monday aged 70, won in Monaco with Ferrari in 1975 and 1976 but was latterly the Mercedes team's non-executive chairman and shareholder with principal Toto Wolff.

 

Formula One said a tribute was in the works, with details to be confirmed. A minute's silence is likely before the race.

Hamilton, a five-times world champion, had paid an emotional tribute to the Austrian on Instagram on Tuesday night.

"My buddy, I am struggling to believe you are gone," he said.

While he made an appearance in the harborside paddock, arriving on a motorcycle and waving to fans, the Briton now has no official media commitments until after Saturday's qualifying.

Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas spoke to reporters instead.

"He (Lauda) was a key member of ours in the race team and factory, a big part of the Mercedes family and was a massive motivation for everyone and myself as well," Bottas said.

Mercedes said team members would wear black armbands from Thursday and the cars would have "Danke Niki (Thanks Niki)'" and the Austrian's signature on the nose of the cars. One of the stars on the engine cover will be painted red.

Lauda wore a trademark red cap to cover the burns he suffered in a fiery near-fatal crash at the Nuerburgring in 1976, the year of his title duel with McLaren's James Hunt.

Ferrari and McLaren, the teams Lauda won his titles with, will also carry stickers on their cars celebrating his achievements.

Lauda won the 1975 and 1977 world titles with Ferrari. He then made a comeback from retirement to take his third title with McLaren in 1984.

TRUE CHARACTER

"I think there's a lot of people that are not the way you see them on television, I think they are growing in numbers quickly, but Niki wasn't one of them," said Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.

"He was who he was and never pretended to be anything or anybody else...very outspoken, a true character, a true racer, passionate for the sport, said a lot of things people respected. He's leaving a big gap we won't be able to fill."

Photographs and television footage of Lauda's famous 1976 duel with rival and eventual champion James Hunt were being played constantly on screens in the Ferrari and Mercedes hospitality units.

British rookie George Russell, a Mercedes-backed driver who was the team's official reserve until securing a race seat with Williams, recalled how he and Lauda used to watch MotoGP races together.

"He just loved everything racing really," he said.

"I remember at Silverstone when I won my first or second GP3 race and he was down at the podium with Toto and I couldn't believe it really.

"I'd only been part of Mercedes for half a year and there's Niki Lauda congratulating me at the podium. He was just an amazing person."

Formula One managing director for motorsport Ross Brawn, who worked with Lauda at Mercedes in 2012, said the Austrian had been key to Hamilton's move from McLaren, particularly in persuading the Mercedes board to part with the money.

"Niki’s loss is of huge significance to Formula One," said the Briton. "Ours is a sport that revolves around larger than life personalities and Niki was one of racing’s most formidable characters.

"His presence in the paddock was a reminder that Formula One is a sport of heroes, an arena for competitors who push past common limits of fortitude and endurance and find an elevated plane beyond the ordinary. Simply, he was a legend."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris and Ed Osmond)

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