Lunch with... Alex Wurz

Tall men are not meant to make top racing drivers, yet he had a busy 12-year career as F1 racer and tester. Now his heart is set on a third Le Mans win
By Simon Taylor

Alex Wurz looks like Hollywood’s idea of a racing driver: alert, clear-eyed, charming yet steely, wiry and very fit. And tall. But, as we know, in real life the most successful racing drivers tend to be little guys. It’s not just that weight is the enemy: in the heat of battle, a modern Formula 1 car’s dimensions and cockpit-shrinking frontal area are much easier to cope with if you’re small. Alex is well over six foot, and broad-shouldered with it.

Yet his F1 debut was very nearly like a Hollywood movie. On a Wednesday afternoon in 1997 a phone call from Benetton, for whom he’d been doing some testing, told him that regular driver Gerhard Berger was ill. A frantic transatlantic flight deposited him at a circuit he’d never seen in time for practice for the Canadian Grand Prix. In the race he got up to fifth place: then a driveshaft failed. A month later, before Berger’s return to fitness demoted him to test driver again, he out-qualified team-mate Jean Alesi at Silverstone, and drove a stellar race to finish on the podium.

His Le Mans debut the previous year was even better. At almost the last minute he was drafted into a year-old Joest Porsche – and beat the works cars to become, at 22, the youngest-ever winner of the 24-hour classic. He has since gone on to win Le Mans a second time. But his Formula 1 career never fulfilled its early promise. His refusal, at a key moment in his career, to play the game of F1 politics with the man who wanted to manage him may have had quite a lot to do with that.

Today he is still contracted to Peugeot for long-distance racing, and in June he’ll be aiming for his third Le Mans win. He works hard in his various businesses, and divides his time between homes in Monaco, his native Austria and the south of France. We meet in his weekend house perched high above the Mediterranean at La Turbie, a name famous for hillclimb events in the pioneer days of motoring and later as a Monte Carlo Rally stage. Alex met his English wife, Julia, when she was head of PR for the Benetton F1 team; she and their three sons are in Monaco today, because it’s a school day. So his Italian housekeeper rustles up potato cakes with mozzarella and zucchini, chicken wrapped in Parma ham, and pears in hot chocolate. Alex cares about the inner man: for a while he owned a 150-year-old restaurant in Vienna, and another of his projects is a firm importing Italian delicatessen and wine into Austria.

He was born into a motor-sporting family: his grandfather competed in a BMW 328, and his father Franz was three-times European Rallycross Champion. “Rallycross really got started during the 1973 oil crisis, when the climate wasn’t right for long-distance rallying, so all the top guys like Stig Blomqvist and Björn Waldegård switched to rallycross. My dad built up a very special VW Beetle – 400kgs, Porsche power, a real little rocket – and won the 1974 series. Then he won it again in a works Lancia Stratos, before retiring to concentrate on his driver training business. But Audi brought him back in 1982 with a Quattro, which gave him his third title.

“As a child I was into every type of sport. At the age of nine I was driving an old Beetle through the forests, sitting on a pile of cushions so I could see over the dashboard. Karting wasn’t very strong in Austria then, but every kid in the world had seen the film ET, with that famous biking sequence at the end, and so every kid in the world was into BMX bikes. I started doing competitive BMX seriously, and when I was 12 I entered the World Championship, which was in Italy that year: a three-day shootout, ending with an extreme race over jumps and obstacles. It was all very serious – I had a real trainer, and a sponsor who paid for everything, and my school was very supportive and gave me time off. But basically we were just a gang of kids travelling all over the world, hanging out, having fun, eating ice-cream. And at the end of it all I was the winner, I was World Champion.

“I defended my title the following year, but it was a disaster. By now I’d hit puberty, and it’s hard for a kid to perform when all that is going on. I really struggled, and I didn’t even make the final. But it was a good lesson for me, learning to accept that you can’t always be the winner. Of course four wheels had always been the aim, so now I scraped together the funds for an old second-hand kart. I had no mechanical help and had to look after it myself, and I was always having blow-ups. And I was already too tall and too heavy, which was something I was going to have to learn to get used to in my life. I used to long for rain, because in the wet my weight wasn’t such a handicap and I could win races. I had a better kart for my second season, but the other kids were ballasting to get up to the 115kgs minimum weight limit, and I was running at 130kgs.” Alex omits to mention that he still managed to finish second in the 1989 Austrian Championship. Then, at 17, with the help of Walter Lechner’s racing school and a little sponsorship from the Austrian national club, he moved into Formula Ford.

“I raced in Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia, won the Austrian junior title and a round of the German series. Over the winter I went to New Zealand with two other FF racers to do the Peter Jackson Series. I was quick, but I was totally stupid, got too excited, had a lot of crashes. I was still only 17. I spoke no English then, and of course our money ran out completely. We were using the prize money from each event to pay for our meals and hotels, but in the last round I crashed again and earned nothing. So we couldn’t pay our final bill. When we checked out we gave the hotel manager what little we had left, but he was totally furious, he really lost it, and threw us out without any breakfast. By the time we got to Christchurch Airport for the flight home, we were starving. We pooled our small change and it was enough for one Big Mac, which we divided very exactly into three.”

That New Zealand trip taught young Alex a lot of lessons. On his return he put together a serious attack on the 1992 German Formula Ford Championship. “In those days it was the most hard-fought FF series outside the UK. I had 26 poles and 21 wins, and with three races to go I had won the title. I also did some Opel Lotus races, and I got a ride in the Nürburgring 24 Hours in a two-car Porsche team. It was wet, windy and foggy, and I still had a sprint race mentality, so I crashed the first car in the race. Then I switched to the team’s other car – Hermann Tilke, the circuit designer, was one of my team-mates – and we won the class. More lessons learned.”

For 1993, now 19, Alex moved into F3 with Helmut Marko’s team. “We were using the Fiat engine, and it was a character-building year. I didn’t have much success: well, I did win the Austrian F3 Championship, but to be honest that didn’t mean much. For 1994 I was in the second Opel factory team, and I had a season-long fight for the German F3 title with Jörg Muller. In the Saturday race at Diepholz at the end of the year I was leading Norberto Fontana, and he slipstreamed past me on the straight. I should have thought of the championship and let him go, but I wanted the win. So I attacked, and we tangled and crashed. My car was too badly damaged to do the Sunday race, so Jörg won the title. After that I couldn’t find any more money. I wanted to move up to F3000, but it was out of the question, and I had to face giving up racing altogether. I did manage to get another F3 drive, but I had a frustrating year because the equipment wasn’t very good. At Hockenheim after a blow-up I borrowed Ralf Schumacher’s spare engine. I couldn’t believe how much power it had – and it was only his spare!

“For 1996 Opel came to my rescue, and signed me to do the International Touring Car series. I loved ITC. In Germany the different grandstands were all rooting for their favourite cars – Mercedes, or Alfa, or Opel – like a football crowd, so when you overtook somebody they all cheered. Then came a key moment in my career. Joest were short of one driver for their two-car Le Mans team of Porsche WSC95s, and called me to Paul Ricard for a test. I got there at 8pm, they made me a seat, and by midnight I was in the car. I’d never seen the track before, and of course it was dark, but my third lap was quicker than the other guys they were testing. I’ve no idea how I did that. Reinhold Joest was impressed, and gave me another test, and for Le Mans he decided to put me in their number one car with Manuel Reuter and Davy Jones. Then, two weeks before the race, Reinhold calls me up and says he needs me to bring 30,000DM [about £12,000 at the time]. Maybe his private jet needed refuelling. Of course I hadn’t got it. I should have refused, because I think he’d have given me the drive anyway. But I rushed around, persuaded half of it out of a benevolent sponsor, and borrowed the other half from the bank.

“And then we had a perfect race. The Porsche factory team couldn’t understand how we could go one lap more than they could without refuelling. We basically led the race from the second hour to the end, none of us made any mistakes, not one spin. My only problem came during the night when I had a bad cramp in my legs, because I was too tall for the cockpit. So I came in and handed over to Manuel, because I didn’t want to try to be a hero and make a mistake. Having had crashes and lost championships before, at the grand old age of 22 I’d learned the importance of driving to finish. It was a great win, because we beat all the big guys: the works Porsches finished second and third, with the McLarens behind them.

“A few weeks before that, my ITC sponsor had fixed me a meeting with the big bad boss of the Benetton F1 team, Flavio Briatore. He wasn’t remotely interested in me, just said, ‘Who the f*** are you?’ I said I was an F3 and touring car driver, and I was about to do Le Mans. So he shrugged and said, ‘If you win Le Mans, I’ll give you a test.’ I suppose he thought he was pretty safe saying that. But then when I won the race, I called him. He kept his promise, and offered me a two-day test at Estoril. Of course, not only had I never driven an F1 car, I’d never been to Estoril. I thought to myself, ‘What do I have to do to make this one chance work for me?’ So I went to David Sears, who was running the Supernova F3000 team, and asked him how much it would cost to get an F3000 car down to Estoril and do 30 laps. He quoted me a very reasonable price, so I scraped that together by borrowing from my father and friends, and got my 30 laps in a Lola-Judd. It wasn’t F1, but I learned the circuit, and the car had enough performance to teach me something.

“Then I did the test, up against Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Vincenzo Sospiri and Paul Tracy from America. Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger were the Benetton drivers then and Jean was there, and straight away I got pretty close to his times. At first Pat Symonds was a bit worried, I think he thought I was crazy. But the F1 car seemed so smooth, everything worked so well, after the jerky power delivery of the F3000. The engineers were trying power steering, which I’d been using in the ITC car, and I was giving them feedback on the radio to help them find solutions. On day two there was a software problem with the hydraulic diff, the pressure changes were too sudden, and what I was telling the engineers agreed with the data. So I think they felt they could work with me.

“After Alesi left I ended up third quickest in the test, behind Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren and Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari. But Benetton kept quiet about my time, because they didn’t have me under contract. Only one Italian journalist was there on the last day, and he reported it in his magazine. A week later Benetton contacted me and offered me a testing contract for $10,000. And, at almost the same time, Mercedes came up with a contract, at proper factory money, to race the CLK in FIA GT races for 1997 alongside Bernd Schneider. So I was able to pay back the loans to my father and friends.

“All through ’97 I did a lot of testing for Benetton, and became really familiar with the car and the engineers. I was so keen and worked so hard, making notes about each session and writing reports for them, I think they sometimes thought I was going over the top. But they used me more and more. I thought, what a dream. I am working in an F1 team, and these guys are listening to me.

"Then in June I suddenly had a phone call: ‘Flav wants to see you in London at once.’ I thought it was about a Benetton energy drink project I was putting together with a friend of mine, so I said, ‘I can’t come just now, I’m on a job for Mercedes.’ Then Flav came on the phone: ‘Get the f*** over here, now.’ So I flew to London, got there that evening and went to his flat – I won’t describe the scene there, I’ll leave it to your imagination – and he said, ‘Berger’s got sinusitis and can’t drive. Get on Concorde and go to Canada.’ At Heathrow I bought Autosport, which had a Canadian GP preview with a circuit diagram showing gearchange points, and I memorised that on the Concorde flight to New York. Then I flew on to Montréal, and got there on the Thursday.”

He qualified 11th quickest, 0.4sec slower than team-mate Alesi. In the race he was up to fifth place by lap 15. At half-distance he was briefly third before his routine pitstop dropped him to sixth. Then a driveshaft broke. “It wasn’t an easy race, the fire extinguisher went off and the radio failed, but Pat Symonds was pleased with me. After the race Jean Todt of Ferrari took me to one side and said, ‘What contract are you on?’ Suddenly I was on everybody’s radar.

“I did two more races for Benetton, which meant missing two FIA GT rounds for Mercedes, but Norbert Haug released me and was very supportive. In the French GP I qualified seventh, faster than Alesi, and ran ahead of him in the race, but they left me out on slicks when the rain came and I spun off. Then Silverstone. I followed Jean for most of the race, but he used his fuel more quickly, so he stopped two laps before me. When he came out of the pits behind me I was told not to hinder him, so he came by and we finished second and third behind Villeneuve in the Williams. I’d signed a three-year contract with Benetton, but then Flav was sacked, and now David Richards was running the team.

“I had a good working relationship with David. And Pat Symonds was always great. For 1998 my team-mate was Fisichella. It was very much a McLaren- and Ferrari-dominated year, but I scored five fourth places, and set fastest lap in Argentina.” One of the fourth places was in Canada, taking the restart in the spare after he’d cartwheeled into the gravel at the first corner. At Monaco he showed his toughness – in only his ninth F1 race – by having a wheel-banging battle for second with Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. He came off best, only to have a big accident in the tunnel. “Fisico and I got on well. My way was always to share information with my team-mate, and then try to beat him fairly on track. I wasn’t into team politics.” The ’99 season was less successful: David Richards had gone and Rocco Benetton was now heading up the team, and Alex’s only points finishes were at Monaco and in his home race at the A1-Ring.

“The 2000 car was overweight by around 15kgs. On a typical circuit 10kgs is worth about 0.3sec per lap. The lightweight qualifying car, which had a smaller fuel tank, was always set up for Fisico, and it wasn’t until the final round in Malaysia that Pat Symonds offered it to me. I qualified it fifth and Fisico was 13th, so I think that proved a point.” But by now Flavio was back at Benetton, and lost no time replacing Alex with Jenson Button. After qualifying in Sepang one magazine quoted him as saying maybe he’d fired the wrong man. But Alex explains the politics: “Flavio wanted me to sign a driver management contract, and backdate it. I refused. Because of Flav’s influence with other teams, all that was available to me then was a McLaren test contract. So that’s where I went – for the next five years.

“Even though I wasn’t racing, I was very happy at McLaren. They are extraordinary people, and Ron Dennis is a true visionary. Some of the things he does don’t seem to make sense in the short term, but in the long term they turn out to be far-seeing and logical. You can always learn from Ron. I had other offers during that time, but there were always good human reasons to stay.

“But the test programme was incredibly exhausting. McLaren had two test teams, their own and the Michelin one. I was doing up to 20,000 track miles a year, and I was in an aeroplane constantly, going from test to promotion to simulator and back to test. It was very, very hard work and in the end I was totally finished. When I went down with a virus they realised they had nobody else to stand in for me, so at my suggestion they hired Pedro de la Rosa to work alongside me.”

From the start of his time at McLaren, Alex was officially the nominated reserve in case one of the contracted drivers, initially Häkkinen and David Coulthard, was unable to race. During 2001 it became clear that Häkkinen was going to retire from F1 at the end of the season, and Alex was led to believe that he would be in line for the vacant race seat. But, just before Monza, he found out that Kimi Räikkönen had been signed. “That was a character-building moment. But there are some things in life you just have to accept.”

For the 2005 season the F1 rules allowed McLaren, which had finished outside the top four in the ’04 Constructors’ Championship, to run an additional driver in the Friday sessions of Grand Prix weekends. But from the start of the year Alex had to cede that task to de la Rosa, because he simply could not fit in the new MP4-10. Then, just before round three in Bahrain, Räikkönen’s new team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya injured his shoulder.

The official story was that Juan Pablo hurt himself playing tennis, but in fact he’d fallen off a motorbike. “Just after that we had to do a promotion appearance in Russia, and at dinner he could barely bend his arm to hold his fork. When I saw that, I felt sure I was going to get at least three races. But when I drove the car on the Friday in Bahrain – and I was quickest in the session – it was physically impossible. I had to drive several corners with one hand, because I could not keep both hands on the wheel going to full lock. So Pedro drove it in the race. McLaren set about making a longer cockpit for me, and it was ready three weeks later for Imola. That was my first Grand Prix for four years. In qualifying substitute drivers had to go out first, but on a green track I still qualified seventh. In the race I finished fourth behind Alonso, Schumacher and Button. Then Button was disqualified because the BAR was underweight. So, although I didn’t get to stand on the podium, I was third in my comeback race.”

But, despite five years and thousands and thousands of cockpit miles, it was to be his only Grand Prix for McLaren. Two weeks later the recovered Montoya was racing again, and for Alex it was back to Friday sessions and testing.

“At the end of 2005 Frank Williams called. His drivers for ’06 were Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg, and he said he wanted a test driver who could bring some extra technical input. I went to Didcot and met with Frank, Patrick Head and Sam Michael, and we talked for a couple of hours. Frank said, ‘Leave it with us. We’ll get back to you.’ I went to Tesco’s, because Julia needed some vegetables for our Christmas dinner. I was just buying parsnips when my phone rang. It was Frank, with an offer.

“I’d always wanted to drive for Frank Williams. Like everybody says, he’s a racer. I remember in 1996 doing the Silverstone ITC round for Opel, just a touring car race, but he came to watch. I’d been called to the stewards about some wheel-banging incident, and he waited around for ages to say hello. He’s a petrol-head. Patrick too, he’s a full-on racer. So I was their test driver, and at the Grands Prix I did the Friday sessions for them, which was really cool. Patrick always wanted my feedback. He told me to call any time, day or night, if I had any thoughts to pass on.

“Inside Williams the driver had more input than any other team I’d worked with. You’d suggest, say, some radical suspension rethink, and they wouldn’t say much, but a week later there it’d be, ready for you to try. I enjoyed every second of my work with Williams. They used me a lot, and I was comfortable with the responsibility. I feel proud that in the two seasons I was there they went from eighth in the Constructors’ Championship to fourth, because some of that was down to good chassis development.

“While I was at McLaren I was always desperate to race, and in the end I got mentally frustrated. I was getting down to competitive times in testing, but I couldn’t show the world what I could do. But when I joined Williams I started to get the fire back.” And in 2007 Alex, now 33, got to be a full-time Grand Prix racer again, alongside Rosberg. His best race was Canada – Montréal was always a significant track for Alex – and his tenacious one-stop drive on soft rubber rewarded him with a podium. At the Nürburgring, in torrential rain, he was a superb fourth, almost catching Webber at the line, and he got into the points at Monaco. Nevertheless, as the season went on Alex was not satisfied with his own performance.

“I was having real problems making the front Bridgestones work to my style. I wasn’t qualifying where I thought my performance should put me, and it was doing my head in. I wasn’t happy inside myself, and I thought maybe it’s time to stop F1, time to move on. Peugeot had contacted me in 2006 about their sports car programme, but Frank did not see it as a possibility alongside my testing work for Williams, and in ’07 I was doing a full F1 season. But I had always loved the idea of sports cars. When I was a teenage karter and people asked me what my ambition was, I didn’t at that time say F1, I used to say long-distance sports car racing. And for 2008 I said yes to Peugeot, so that’s where I was.”

But F1 hadn’t quite finished with Alex. “Nick Fry at Honda sent me a text message suggesting I joined them as a tester. Steve Clark, an engineer I’d enjoyed working with at McLaren, was now there, and of course Ross Brawn was at the helm. So I couldn’t refuse. Ross is seen by everyone as a technical genius, but I see him as an organisational genius. He makes no compromises, which in Formula 1 is exactly how it should be. Beneath his apparently gentle demeanour he is tough, hard, totally focused. Every meeting, every discussion is carefully structured. He is a brilliant manager of the people on his team, he knows how to give them the freedom to think and act for themselves. And politically he is very clever, too.

“So that winter I was testing for Honda, and for Peugeot. A typical week would be a two-day endurance test for Peugeot at Ricard, then a friend would drive me to Barcelona while I slept in the back of his car, then a three-day test for Honda, race distance each day, then back to Ricard for another two-day endurance test.

“The Peugeot team is a family. Most of the mechanics and engineers have been there since the rallying days, and everything is very open. I don’t speak French, but when I’m there they are happy to do all their talking in English. They’re extremely serious about what they do, but they are always up for a bit of fun too. At Le Mans in 2008 we were dominant: I was with Stéphane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy, and we started from pole. It was only my second Le Mans, and of course I wanted to make it two out of two. Our car was leading by a long way after three hours when we had a problem which lost us six laps – a manufacturing fault in a small part in the gearchange mechanism – which was bloody frustrating.” More time was lost later with a battery problem and a minor accident in Lamy’s hands, and in the end the No 8 car was fifth.

“But in 2009 we won, and Peugeot had beaten Audi at last. I was with David Brabham and Marc Gené this time. We had a trouble-free run and our No 8 team-mates [Franck Montagny/Sébastien Bourdais/Sarrazin] were second, a lap behind us.”

The 2010 season started well, with Alex waging a great battle with Peugeot team-mate Bourdais in the final laps at Sebring, and taking the flag 13sec ahead after 12 hours’ racing. Things were looking good for Le Mans. “Compared to the Audis we were better on pace, better on fuel consumption, better on brake wear. But in the race our car was crippled by a tiny problem that had never shown up in all the endurance testing we’d done. A small amount of condensation from the air conditioning unit leaked into the electrics.” The stop to find and fix that cost three laps, and thereafter Alex and team-mates Anthony Davidson and Gené were playing catch-up. At 11am on Sunday Alex, now up to second place, went past the leading Audi to unlap himself. But a few minutes later, after over 3000 miles’ racing, the engine failed. This year, his fourth with Peugeot, he is hoping for better fortune.

For much of his career, Alex stood out around the world’s paddocks not only because of his height, but because he wore racing boots of different colours. “That goes back to the Formula Ford trip to New Zealand when I was 17. One of my team-mates hid one of my shoes as a joke, so I had to borrow one, and I won the race. So I carried on with one red boot and one blue. Everybody assumed it was a superstitious thing, but I’m not particularly superstitious: it was more a sort of motif, a bit of branding if you like. I stuck with it until I went to McLaren. They said no. Different-coloured boots certainly didn’t fit in with the McLaren image. They even wrote it into my contract that my boots had to be the same colour. Then in 2009 my kids found a picture of me with one blue boot and one red, and they thought it was funny. So to please them I went back to it. Peugeot think it’s fine, they certainly don’t mind.”

Always one to cram 24 hours into every day, Alex remains very occupied with various enterprises. Chief of these is Test & Training International, the company set up by his father which claims to be the world’s leading provider of road safety tuition. Alex is evangelical about this: “You can develop safer roads and safer cars all you like, but 90 per cent of all accidents are due to human failure. It’s a matter of education. And it’s the developing countries that are most in need of good driver training.” Test & Training plays an advisory role to countries in Europe, South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. A current project is a huge training centre in Egypt, not a country noted for its road safety, with courses covering cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles, focusing particularly on young people and public workers. Alex also heads up training and selection for the FIA’s new Academy, which will be concerned not only with developing young racing drivers but also extending their careers beyond racing.

And he remains addicted to extreme sports: kite surfing, white water rafting, rock climbing, canyoning, mountain biking. “While I was at McLaren I set up a professional mountain bike team which became the world’s best. We had a big sponsor and a lot of success. I ran it for four years and then sold it on. I do a lot of that stuff, plus I run at 6am every day, then help Julia get the children to school, do a morning’s work, and then swim for an hour. You can squeeze it all in if you stay organised. But I don’t have a plane. I did have one, but I decided it was a waste of money, so I sold it. Anyway, small planes frighten me.” This from a man who, for relaxation, jumps off the top of a high waterfall hanging from a kite.

He remains in close touch with F1 through his work as a commentator for Austrian TV. “It’s a lot of fun. Our style is to take the mickey a bit, but all the technical information is correct because F1 was my daily life for so long, and I understand all the permutations of strategy. I’ve been an FIA steward as well, in Shanghai and Suzuka. I told Max Mosley that one of the stewards at each GP should be a recent F1 driver. When you need to examine the data to use it as evidence, and you have to make decisions quickly, that can be difficult for a non-racer. In Singapore in 2008 I drove the medical car. You have the F1 doctor, Gary Hartstein, with you in the front, and a local doctor in the back. After 12 laps we were told on the radio that Nelson Piquet Jr had crashed at Turn 17, and it sounded quite bad.” That, of course, was the notorious deliberate accident cooked up by the Renault team. “So I had to get the medical car there quick. In fact Piquet had got out of the car and walked away. Then we had to get back to our position just as quickly, so I was pushing quite hard. In the back the local doctor started to vomit…

“After 14 years in or close to it, Formula 1 is still fascinating to me. But I have to admit it’s an ice-cold business now, rather than a sport. When I came back into sports car racing in 2008, I thought: this is great. This is what motor racing was like for me when I first started. So I’m really looking forward to going back to the 24 Hours in June.” No doubt his friends at Peugeot will have ensured that the 2011 version of their swoopy, all-enclosed 908HDi Le Mans contender still gives Alex enough leg and elbow room to do his job.