Saluting Alex Wurz

Saluting Alex Wurz

Formula 1

Saluting Alex Wurz


Measuring the newly-retired Alexander Wurz by his statistics is pointless. During a decade on the Formula 1 trail, the towering Austrian never threatened the record books with championships or wins. The 41-year-old was a perennial challenger in sports cars, finishing a career-best third in the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship with Toyota, but when it comes to earning titles, Wurz was rarely in a position to dominate in prototypes—or F1—to the degree his talent deserved.

And yet, in the absence of gaudy stats and metrics, Wurz earned the kind of respect normally reserved for heroes of the sport. He leaves the cockpit with two overall victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, arguably his career-defining accomplishments in almost 30 years of active competition, along with the unyielding esteem of those who raced against the man or worked alongside him.

It’s in the reverie expressed by the likes of Dario Franchitti, Allan McNish, Davy Jones, and recent teammate Anthony Davidson where that deeply-held regard becomes apparent. Franchitti and Wurz are close friends who rose from the European open-wheel ranks in the mid-1990s; Wurz and McNish are neighbors in Monaco, and as rivals in LMP1 – Allan with Audi and Alex with Peugeot and Toyota – the two were responsible for incredibly fierce racing. Jones and Wurz shared their first wins at La Sarthe with the Joest Porsche program in 1996, and Davidson raced against Wurz in F1 before they were partnered at Peugeot and Toyota.

The four men welcomed the opportunity to share insights about Wurz after his retirement was announced and together, they add even more depth to an individual who rates among one of the most talented drivers of his generation, not to mention one of the most cherished personalities in the sport.

DARIO FRANCHITTI on meeting Wurz for the first time:
“I first met Wurzy when I signed the DTM contract with Mercedes [for 1995]. I had to go up to the fitness camp in Austria. Everybody else was already there and I had to go later. I showed up at this hotel, and the next morning, I had my breakfast and I took the ‘stairs to the heavens.’ It’s 1000 stairs or something, and you had to run up and down it. I get there and there’s this tall gangly kid, who’s Austrian. Had a pretty good command of English, certainly better than my German. Here’s this statue, who walked up, looked down, and said ‘my name is Alex…’ I was like, OK…I didn’t know what to expect.

“I spent the next two days trying to keep up with this bugger running up and down these stairs; puking at the top. I watched him go from that kid who went from Formula 3 to DTM and then F1 in, like, three years. That’s pretty special on its own.”

ALLAN McNISH on meeting and getting to know Wurz:
“Going back, I’ve known Alex since I was involved in sportscars, actually, because my first-ever test with Porsche back in 1997 was at Paul Ricard and he was testing as well. Basically, I jumped out of the car, he jumped in, he jumped out of the car and I jumped in. That was a sight.

“Then he went off to Mercedes and I signed up to do Porsche with the GT1. So we bumped into each other quite a lot in our first foray into sports cars, which was quite a bizarre situation, really. I think there’s two sides to him. He’s a structured, Austrian-minded, prepared, workaholic racing driver. People recognize that he was the one that that made the difference winning Le Mans in 2009 (RIGHT), much to, I would say, the annoyance of Peugeot, who clearly wanted the other car with the French drivers to win. Alex was mastermind to get the most out of that situation and have success because he was that good, but also he was working every angle to win.

“The guy was always a little bit different as well. Even though he had that Austrian sort of straightforward mentality where he said exactly what he thought, in the clearest nonpolitical way, he also was slightly different in terms that he wore two boots of a different color, which, to be honest, I don’t get. And a balaclava with two eyeholes as opposed to the normal big open-face one the rest of us use. And just the massive enjoyment he would take in painting his own helmet. It was like the wires were connected a little bit different with him and they shorted themselves …” [laughs]

McNISH on racing against Wurz:
“He’s massively competitive. And he does dig deep when he needs to. There’s been occasions through the course of time where we had quite a few coffee mornings when it was just the two of us on a Sunday tearing through what we’d just gone through at a race.

“I remember us walking back together, actually, after a stint at Sebring, and he was like, well, that was a bloody s**t race. He goes into one room and I go into the other. We agree on Tuesday morning to meet up at the coffee shop after the school run. We dissected it all at the table and whatever else.

“And I appreciated that honesty of him. I could never ask him for more than a centimeter on the track, but I couldn’t ask for a better character off the circuit as well. Honest, direct. That is something I very much appreciated. When it was on the circuit, it was no quarter given; when it was off the circuit, it was like we never did any racing, there was no competitive element to it between us.”

FRANCHITTI on Wurz’s notorious parties:
“His 40th birthday was fun. That involved me losing my phone in the harbor in Monaco  …  that was a massive night! Wurzy is a fun guy, and I don’t know if fans got to see that side of him like we’re able to. He’s one of those guys when he is having fun, whatever he does he does 100 percent. His parties, whether it was his 40th or any of the ones that [his wife] Julia and him had at the house, it was 100 percent.”

FRANCHITTI on when Wurz isn’t partying…
“When he’s racing, he’s 100 percent serious. He’s an operator as well; he’s got so many fingers in so many pies now, the business side of the sport too. He’s the leader of the Grand Prix Drivers Association; he has his training business … Outside the sport, he’s the same type of personality: always working on something, always advancing something. Whether he’s driving or cycling or handling business, there’s no mucking about.”

ANTHONY DAVIDSON on Wurz’s pending retirement and eventual news:
“He was never going to lie to us if we asked him direct question, and I could just sense it as well, that he was not enjoying it as much and his mind was somewhere else. It wasn’t a massive surprise to hear the news. He did the right thing, as always, he let his teammates know before he let the world know. So that was cool. We all kept quiet and went along with it. Gave him time. He always does things the right way.

“He will be certainly missed as part of the immediate car crew. I’m not sure what he’s going to do, if he is going to stay around at the track or whatever. I’m sure he’ll decide in due course. That’s the one thing about him, he’s an honest guy, he says it how it is, whether you like to hear it or not, and he’ll do whatever’s best.”

DAVIDSON on Wurz’s height and his own lack of physical stature:
“He hates it. At least that’s what he tells me. Maybe he’s trying to make me feel good about all the height I don’t have! He’s always felt uncomfortable being so tall. Like a lot of tall people, they seem to become the center of attention whenever they are in a crowd. And I don’t think he’s that comfortable with it. But he uses it cleverly. Big person, comes across with authority … he uses it well, I would say.

“He always felt uncomfortable and he would look at a photo of us three at Peugeot, Marc Gene, me and him standing alongside each other, and say, ‘Oh, God, look how tall I look, that’s ridiculous.’ And I would say, ‘yeah, but look at how small I look, that is ridiculous!’ It was funny, we had a lot of fun with that.

“Just before qualifying once, we were about to go out, and the mechanics who had ballasted the cars up for set up, had one bag on the floor that said 25 Kg (55lb). I picked it up because I knew that was the difference between us two in weight. And I gave him the bag and said, ‘bloody hell, Alex, imagine that, that is the weight difference between you and I!’ He just threw it down: ‘I don’t need to be reminded … ‘ And we had a laugh. It was little things like that. We could joke about it and it was really cool.”

FRANCHITTI on Wurz’s … Austrian-ness:
“There was a situation where there was I think eight of us, out riding, a bunch of drivers of different formulas. A couple of pro cyclists. And this white van comes up and almost hits us, so Wurzy and our friend Harry tore off after the driver. I thought, ‘crikey, if they catch this guy …’

Anyway, we get to the top of the hill and they’re standing there out of breath. And Harry, the mad Irishman, was going to give this guy a punch. Wurzy was telling us no, that he was going to quote European law to him, that if a group more than six cyclists is together they have to ride side-by-side …

“I’m thinking, ‘right, Wurzy, that will terrify him’. I think Harry had the right idea, but Wurzy felt reciting laws of the road was what he really needed. We had a good laugh at him on that one. They make them different in Austria.”

DAVIDSON on having Wurz as a teammate:
“He was a really good. Whoever his teammate was, he totally was on your side. He would never fool with you, he was always on your side, defend you right to the end. If anything happened out on the circuit, it was never your fault, it was always a third party that got involved. He would never point blame at you. I learned a lot from him in that respect during my Peugeot days with him. I still abide to that today with Sebastian [Buemi] and Kazuki [Nakajima]; even with Nicholas Lapierre. Alex would never place blame, which is astounding.”

McNISH on the next generation of racing Wurzs:
“The area of Alex that I have always liked and enjoyed is he has a fantastic marriage with Julia. They’re kind of chalk and cheese, if you like, but they just work together. As a family, he will do anything with the boys. He’s got those three boys, they are little mini Alexes in terms of they’re massively outgoing.

One of them is 11 years old, he’s in the same class as [McNish’s son] Finley. I will tell you what, I went out with that kid and he is fast. He has a competitive little instinct. Like I said, it’s like mini little Wurzes. I’m pretty sure they will be starting to drive at some point, not too far away. I don’t know what he will be doing, but I think they will be around the circuits as the boys get older.”

FRANCHITTI on the news of Wurz’s retirement:
“It’s funny watching someone like that retire, from a personal point of view, because I’ve known him pretty much his whole racing career, and to see him retire is like, sh*t, I am getting old! We’re getting old!

“I would’ve loved to have driven at Le Mans last year [with Porsche] before I retired, but I’m completely happy. And I like the fact that Wurzy has done it on his own terms as Allan [McNish] did. Actually, one of them is 6 ‘5” and Alan is 5 foot nothing! Stature-wise, they are very different. But you might say they are very, very similar. In fact, they are neighbors and friends, which adds to it. They both have a very similar outlook to life. They both understand that there is so much more outside the cockpit.

“And I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him suited up and driving. I know he’s restoring one of his dad’s rally cars. Alex’s dad rallied a Lancia Stratos, which had a very special engine because Stratos is a V6 and was normally 2.4 liters, and this thing was bored out to three liters. I’m hoping to see Wurzy drive that at some point, and I think that would be part of his fun, go out and play on that as well.
“It’s a shame to see him stop on one hand, but it’s good to see him just doing it on his own terms.”

DAVIDSON on Wurz’s work ethic:
“That is one thing Alex had from word go. He was such a hard worker: people can see that from the outside, he’s such a hard grafter, the work he does with the GPDA, the way he uses Twitter and social media, he’s always active. He’s always thinking of how to improve some situation. Not even a situation he’s necessarily involved with. His brain is always ticking. It is quite clear to see he is a pretty shrewd businessman as well. A skill that many a race driver would never be able to learn, he’s got that. So he’s got this kind of business mindset.

“The two combined, him behind the wheel and the way that he could always see the bigger picture in terms of it was more than a sport, it was a business as well. That really made him quite unique. That is certainly a skill I do not possess.”

McNISH on Wurz’s talent as a F1 driver:
“I’m always reticent to rank people against others, but what I can say is that when he was coming through with the momentum he had at Benetton (ABOVE), I don’t think he could ever be in a winning situation, even if the car was good, because the politics of the team at the time with [team manager] Flavio Briatore.

“As a general rule, he didn’t get the breaks that he probably should’ve had. He was very loyal to McLaren through their time together, and I think that was a very positive part of Alex. He’s extremely loyal. And they were loyal back with the testing they had him doing, but it was something that I think he probably missed an opportunity in other racing roles because he wasn’t going to leave them first.

“When he came to Williams, the fact that they wanted to still keep him in different roles and guises said a lot about his value in Formula 1. They appreciated what he had brought to the party, and it went well beyond only driving. But, ultimately, the results he had didn’t herald the successes that his talent deserved.”

DAVIDSON on racing with Wurz and all it entails:
“I’m glad that he turned his hand to sports cars, that I had the chance to drive with him, and win races with him. We should have won Le Mans together. We won Sebring together. That was my first race in Peugeot. We won many individual races in the ILMC as well.

“I’m really glad I had the time to drive with him and to learn from him, and to have fun with them. There’s something people probably don’t realize from the outside, he comes across as a very astute, lanky Austrian. Feet firmly on the ground. But he is actually a bloody good giggle as well. Away from the limelight, he’s a bloody good giggle.

“And he’s very dry. He’s got a good handle on the British sense of humor. His wife is British, so he’s really got a good handle on the fine details of the British twisted sense of humor. And he can pick up on my humor as well, and react to it, whereas a lot of the other guys don’t.

“It’s constant, all day, if he’s in the right mood, which he normally is. But he can be quite grumpy, that’s one thing I think he openly admits. He can be quite a grumpy so and so. But that’s normally, ironically, when he gets the best out of himself in the car.

“He’s quite a complex bloke. He can be his own worst enemy, or it can completely work for him. It can be the making of him. And he’s such an analytical guy like I am. He’s constantly analyzing himself, and we analyze, sometimes we sit down and analyze him together, which is really cool. I’ve never been able to do that with a teammate, ever.

“I think it was after Bahrain two years ago, in 2013, when we were fighting hard for the victory, and I think he had an engine failure behind Sarrazin in the race so we went on to win that race on our car. He should have won in his, but didn’t. We came back and we had the winner’s trophy, doused in champagne and everything. Feeling pretty good. We walked into the driver’s room and he was in there, fed up, grumpy, like you would expect. But he was maybe a bit worse than normal, actually.
I remember saying to him, ‘come on, join us.’ He said some throwaway comment. And I said, ‘don’t be so grumpy.’ And he just looked at me and he said, ‘no, I am allowed to be grumpy, give me this time, please. I’m allowed to be grumpy!’ And I said, ‘okay, fair enough!'”

DAVY JONES on partnering with Wurz, the rookie, at Le Mans
“When I think of Alex I think of when we tested for the first time at Paul Ricard, around April, for Le Mans in 1996. It was all the drivers: Myself, Manuel Reuter, Michele Alboreto, Pierluigi Martini, Didier Theys, and Alex. My team was Reuter, Martini, and myself, and Alex was in the other. We were there a couple of days, I got to know him, he was young, and I was new to the Joest situation, but had been to Le Mans a bunch of times, and it was really great working with him at that test and feeling out how his mind worked getting ready for his first go at Le Mans.

“We’d talk about something on the car, and then he’d go right out and do it. It was really impressive how his approach was; he learned so fast. So I went to Mr. Joest and asked if he could move Alex over to our car because I thought we’d have a better chance of winning with him there. I’d done a lot of 24-hour races, and it’s about working together as a team, it isn’t about egos. It’s about making that car think the same person’s driving it for 24 hours, and to do that, all the drivers have to be on the same page and I knew Alex would help us do that. Mr. Joest understood that, he got that, and moved Alex over and put Pierluigi in the other car.

“Pierluigi put his car on the pole, and led early, but they hit trouble and it was up to us to win. Alex had never been to Le Mans before, but you’d never known he was a rookie. To realize you’ve shown the world your talent and ability in your first time there, to get a win, was something he deserved and he went on to do so much more.”

DAVIDSON on Wurz’s F1 career:
“It’s funny, we always play him up and we know that he had the most successful Formula 1 career out of the guys at Toyota. He scored multiple podiums in cars that shouldn’t have even been on the podium.

“He has always been, as a racer, able to survive in any tricky circumstance. The one that really stands out for me, because I was racing in that race, was Nürburgring in 2007 (BELOW), where it suddenly chucked it down with rain from out of nowhere. Everyone went off in Turn 1, and he managed to survive that. He was battling right at the sharp end for a lot of the race. He drove a great race there.

“Always in any kind of tricky situation he would normally come out of it okay. He was a bit of a survivor, really, in Formula 1. He had speed and he could turn that on quite quickly, effortlessly, without much practice. He definitely had natural feel, I would say, for where the grip was when he hadn’t had much time to practice.

“He would always be quick straight away. And still is today, he’s straight out-of-the-box fast; new circuit, he’s on it straight away. That is one thing he had in Formula 1. When he stepped into the McLaren at Imola in 2005 (ABOVE, as a replacement for the injured Juan Pablo Montoya), he got a podium from just stepping in as a reserve driver and being right on it. That’s what comes to mind with Alex; when he had a car, a proper car, he was up with the best in Formula 1.

“Races like Imola really stand out to me because I know – I’ve been in that position myself – how hard that is. Even though he knew the car from all his testing, it’s still not the same stepping into the thing when you’re halfway through a season and everybody else is in the full swing of things and you just jump in for one weekend. That’s not easy. To score a podium under those circumstances was a lot of pressure, and he would always seem to survive those pressured situations.

Clearly, there was a lot of skill there. I think apart from those McLaren days, he really didn’t have the equipment to show exactly what he could do.”

McNISH on the recent spate of sports car driver retirements:
“I think all of us are a similar age with a similar timespan in the sport. Myself, Tommy boy [Tom Kristensen], Dindo [Capello], and now Alex. I suppose there’s a point where you run out of energy. Alex said something that I can totally, I can 100 percent understand when he said, when he was leading last year – which was his year to win Le Mans again; he should have three titles. They were leading that one, lost it in cruel fashion, and he said that one hurt, which I can understand. Le Mans can take it out of you there.

“But I think that, ultimately, it becomes, it just becomes a point where has a very sane, logical view of his world and Alex and I are quite similar in this. He makes very clear and conscious decisions and you can take away the romantic emotional opinions and reasons to give it another go, or you can realize the time is now and decide to make that change now. And you also have got a lot of opportunity around the corner, and that is something I think Alex is well-equipped to have a very long career in the sport away from actually just wearing the helmet.”

DAVIDSON on how to extract the best performances from Wurz:
“I would always try to make him angry! Yeah, I would always try and wind him up, somehow. It wasn’t easy because he is quite cool, quite a cool cat. But if you could just make him … normally politics would wind him up. There was always some kind of political problem on the team or by the teammates; something someone said that would darken his mood.

“It was like, he would normally get himself into a real tiz, basically, because of some situation and then you would see fireworks from him. He wouldn’t even know where it came from.

So these kinds of moments were Wurzy at his best. I got to see that a couple of times. They really stood out. That was pretty cool to watch. I would always try to make him a bit angry. I kind of knew in the end, and even today as a competitor in the other car, I can see when he’s on it or when he’s going to be on it, sometimes even before he realizes that he’s going to be on it. He’s right there, and he’s glowing mad. It was brilliant.”

McNISH on Wurz’s achievements as he prepares for the next chapter:
“I’ll tell you what, he’s a multi-talented character, if you stop and realize he also painted his own helmet then raced with it. He was BMX champion, Le Mans winner, all the various other bits and pieces that he’s done. Never mind he’s not a bad husband by any sense of things, and a pretty bloody good father. He’s done all right for himself. Despite the fact that he’s Austrian, he’s done okay for himself.”

MX-5 Cup | Round 6 – Mid-Ohio