Lunch with... Karl Wendlinger

Such were his injuries that doctors considered any form of recovery unlikely, yet four months later he was racing again. It’s quite some story... 

Formula 1 drivers have to be extraordinarily fit: and a by-product of their fitness is that, if they have a serious accident, they are likely to recover much more quickly than ordinary mortals. And if one of them is unfortunate enough to have an accident that seems almost certain to result in death, and against all medical expectations manages to survive, that too can be because of a very high level of fitness. 

Karl Wendlinger’s racing career has lasted for nearly 30 years, and has included wins in sports car classics, championship titles in F3 and GTs, and 17 seasons of endurance racing and DTM. But Formula 1 will always remember him because of his dreadful accident in practice for the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix. It left him in a coma for almost three weeks, and it was a further 10 days before he realised he was in a hospital. Specialists said his brain injuries were so severe that he would never again be able to live a normal life, and might not progress beyond a vegetative state.

Yet miraculously, just four months after his accident, he was back in an F1 car. His team, Sauber, kept his seat open for him, and in March the following year he was on the grid for the opening Grand Prix of the season in Brazil. 

 But he admits now that he returned too early. His brain could no longer operate at the same pitch of intense concentration as it had done before his crash. After four races Sauber stood him down until the last two Grands Prix of the year. In the second of those, in Australia, he crashed in practice, injuring his neck. He bravely qualified the team’s spare car, but a few laps into the race he was in such severe pain that he had to stop. That was when he finally accepted that his Formula 1 career was over.

But his motor racing career certainly wasn’t. The following June he finished third in the Le Mans 24 Hours for Porsche, and he went on to become a busy professional racer in the FIA GT Championship. His current Mercedes-Benz contract has brought him races in the gullwing AMG SLS and historic outings in classics from the Mercedes museum. This is the man who, 21 years ago, was lying in a coma and not expected to live. 

I meet Karl in the charming little Austrian town of Kufstein, encircled by the mountains and lush fields of the Tyrol. It’s where he was born 47 years ago, and where he still lives. At 6ft 2in he is tall for a racing driver, wiry and clearly still extremely fit. We eat at the local hotel, the Alpenrose, where they know him well and serve us an excellent meal. But he is abstemious, taking only a small Wiener Schnitzel and three glasses of water.

His grandfather ran a small garage business in Kufstein, and in the 1960s did some hillclimbs with a little Steyr Puch. His father raced too, graduating from a Fiat to an Abarth 1000. “As a small boy I would go with him. There were no proper tracks in Austria then, but there were races on disused wartime airfields like Zeltweg, Innsbruck and Langenlebarn. I loved the atmosphere, I loved watching the cars, it became my world. By the time I was 10 my father had given me a stopwatch and I was his lap-timer. 

“In 1980 he was racing an Alfa Sud. One day a young guy walked into our garage and said he wanted to start racing, and could my father help him find an Alfa Sud? He was from a village about eight miles away, and his name was Gerhard Berger. My dad found a second-hand Sud, and the two of them decided to share costs. They bought an old truck, which took both cars on the back, and the three of us travelled to the races, had barbecues in the paddock, slept in a tent. Gerhard was 20 then, I was 11, and he became like an older brother to me.

“When I got to 14 –  the minimum age then for karting in Austria – my father bought me an old second-hand kart, and we went over the border to Munich for my first race. I said to my father. ‘Don’t you think we should do a little bit of practice first?’ He said, ‘Why practice? I never had any practice.’ So I did that first race, and I was hopeless. Very slow. The second race was better, the third race I got on the podium, the fourth I won, the fifth I crashed. So I was learning the lessons. The next year we followed the rounds of the South Germany Kart Championship, and I won that. But I had no ambition to be a racing driver. I could not see that far. I expected to spend my working life in the family garage.

“I carried on karting until I was 18. Now I was an apprentice car mechanic at another garage, and my dad bought a second-hand Formula Ford car, a Van Diemen. Gerhard was now in Formula 1 with Ferrari, and very famous in Austria, and he found us a couple of local sponsors to help us afford it. He did not need to help me, but he did. I owe Gerhard a lot.

“But I was not very successful in my first FF year. I was quite fast, but I made too many mistakes. I won the Austrian FF Championship, but there wasn’t much opposition. However, I had some good races in Germany, some pole positions, but I was usually too stupid to get to the finish. If I had been smarter it would have been cheaper for my father. 

“Now he could not afford to help me any more, but again Gerhard came to my rescue. He talked to Helmut Marko [the former BRM F1 driver turned manager, who had run Berger in F3 a few seasons earlier]. “Gerhard told Marko to take a look at a young guy from the Tyrol who was going quite well in Formula Ford. He came to watch me at the Salzburgring, and luckily I took pole position. Marko said, ‘OK, maybe this Wendlinger is not so bad.’

“So for 1988 a Formula 3 programme was put together. Helmut got a Ralt chassis and Gerhard, through his Ferrari connections, fixed up free Alfa Romeo engines built by Novamotor. But in the German F3 championship everybody had Reynards and Dallaras, and the engine to have was the Spiess VW. The first two Alfa engines I had were really underpowered. For my first race, which was at Zolder, I was slow. It was because my engine was so weak, but Helmut Marko said to me, ‘Wendlinger, one thing is certain, you are slow.’

So first race, Zolder, bad. Second race Hockenheim, bad. Third race Nürburgring, and the engine blew up in practice. That was good, because the spare engine turned out to be a bit stronger, and we were fifth on the grid. Marko said: ‘That was lucky for you. Another bad qualifying, and we would have stopped.’ After that things went better, and I won the Austrian F3 championship.

“For 1989 we concentrated on the German series. The opposition was strong, and it was a good fight all year, and in the end I took the championship by one point, with Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen tying for second place.  The race I remember was my home round at the Österreichring. It was raining heavily, a 32-car field, and I was on the front row with Schumacher. But going to the grid my gearbox jammed, and I had to start from the pitlane. On the first lap I passed 17 cars, and by the end I had passed 14 more to finish fourth. Michael won, Heinz-Harald was second, but my fastest lap was almost a second quicker than all of them. 

“Marko, who was now my manager, was also running me in an AMG Mercedes in the German Touring Car Championship, the DTM. Most of the rounds were at the same meetings as my F3 races, so I was jumping straight from a light single-seater to a big saloon with 300 horsepower and 1000 kilos more weight. Sometimes I didn’t even have time to change my overalls. And usually on the first lap in the Mercedes I’d leave my braking too late... but it was good training to be versatile in how you drive a racing car.

“In August that year I was summoned by Mercedes: ‘Herr Jochen Neerpasch, our Sport Director, wants to speak to you.’ I was not allowed to tell anybody. I went to the Mercedes headquarters in Untertürkheim, I was told to wait in the car park, and then Neerpasch came out with his assistant Dieter Glemser, and we went across the road to a small café where we could talk in private. He told me, ‘Mercedes is thinking of creating a junior team of talented young drivers, first to do testing only, and then maybe to drive in our Sauber team in Group C.’ There was no talk of any other drivers, and no indication that Mercedes’ long-term plan was to move with Sauber into Formula 1. 

“Some weeks later I was told to get myself to Zurich Airport, where there would be a private plane waiting to take me to a test in a Sauber Group C car at Paul Ricard. I get to Zurich, find the private plane – and when I step aboard I find Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. My Formula 3 adversaries. That was the first time I knew we were all together the Mercedes junior team.

“When we got to the track the test was a bit intimidating for me: 730bhp and 900 kilos after F3’s 160bhp and 550 kilos. I’d never met Peter Sauber before. He said, ‘Just try the car, don’t use more than 5000rpm, just find a rhythm. Don’t worry, we won’t even time you.’ But of course they did, there is always timing. But they didn’t tell us anything. They sent us out in the same car, one hour each, and then the same again, and the same the next day, to compare us.

“In F3 I’d never been friendly with Michael and Heinz-Harald, just said ‘hello’ to them as we passed in the paddock. That was what I was like in those days. I was shy, I didn’t want to get to know people. But at the hotel that night we became friends, we played pool, we went out for a pizza. On the track, of course, we were still rivals, like racing drivers always are.  

“So for 1990 we were all in the Sauber Group C team. I was 21 then, a boy from a small town in Austria, just three seasons on from Formula Ford. I did four races as team-mate to Jochen Mass, and our first race was Suzuka. I’d never been out of Europe before, and I was quite nervous. But it went well, and we finished second. And then we won Spa. Jochen was so good, treated me like his equal even after his long career, like an easy-going friend. In the evening over dinner he told stories about his motor racing life going back 20 years. 

“All the time I was learning lessons about endurance racing: like the importance of using your fuel intelligently, to keep a safety margin to your next pitstop, without harming your lap times too much. For example, if the braking point is 100 metres, you come off the throttle at 120 metres, let the car approach the corner on a trailing throttle, then hit the brakes at 90 metres.

“For 1991 my permanent partner was Schumacher, and we did the whole season together in the Sauber C11. That car had power, grip, downforce, everything you need. Michael and I had a good relationship, which you must have when you are team-mates in the same car, but of course you are still rivals. The first guy you get judged against is your team-mate. Michael was totally competitive, totally motivated, always very well prepared. Sometimes I was on his level, sometimes I wasn’t. We won the final round at Autopolis, we were second at Silverstone, but at Le Mans all the Saubers had problems and we were the only one to finish, in fifth place.”

All this time Karl had kept his single-seater career going with a Marko-run Formula 3000 campaign. “The F3000 Reynard and the Sauber C11 were not that dissimilar: the Reynard had more grip and downforce, the Sauber had more power and more weight. Also, I was still having some DTM Mercedes drives.

“Everyone now knew that Mercedes intended to go Formula 1, and Harvey Postlethwaite and Mike Gascoyne had joined Sauber from Tyrrell to work on the new car. It would be powered by Ilmor [the British racing engine firm which was ultimately bought by Mercedes] but at the end of 1991 Peter Sauber called the whole team together and said he had bad news. ‘I have just heard from Stuttgart that the Mercedes-Benz board have decided not to approve the plan to move into Formula 1. But I will try to keep everything together and carry on’.” In fact Mercedes continued to support Sauber in a lower-key way, and the first Sauber F1 car, the C12, appeared for the 1993 season.

Karl had already, with assistance from Mercedes, made his F1 debut with two outings for Leyton House in 1991. For 1992 Mercedes offered some financial help if he could get a drive with an Ilmor-powered team. “That meant either Tyrrell or March. So I went with Helmut to England to see Ken Tyrrell. Ken said, ‘Sure, you can drive for my team. You must bring $3.5 million, and none of your sponsors’ logos will be allowed on the car. And only one logo on your overalls, in a colour approved by us.’ Helmut turned to me and said in German, ‘I think we’ll leave now’.”

So Karl went for his first full F1 season to the impoverished March team, which had emerged from the ashes of Leyton House following the arrest on fraud charges of its owner, Akira Akagi. “There was no money, and how they kept the team alive I don’t know.” His best performance was a praiseworthy fourth in Canada, although with typical honesty he points out that a lot of the top runners retired that day. “Better was Kyalami, the first race of the season. I qualified seventh just behind Schumacher’s Benetton, and at breakfast in the hotel before the race Ken Tyrrell, who had hired Olivier Grouillard instead, came over to me and said, ‘If you want to drive for me in the future, let’s talk again.’ But in the race Martin Brundle’s Benetton clipped my radiator on the first lap, and I went out with overheating.”

The new F1 Sauber was ready for the 1993 season, with JJ Lehto as the other driver. The rain-soaked European GP at Donington was memorable. “I qualified fifth, right behind Ayrton Senna’s McLaren, and into the first corner I was third behind Alain Prost and Damon Hill in the Williams-Renaults, with Senna and Schumacher behind me. It was pouring wet and slippery, and of course we were all on cold tyres and full tanks. In the Craner Curves Senna came storming past me round the outside, bwwah, and past both Williamses into the lead. Then a couple of corners later Michael Andretti in the other McLaren drove into the back of me, punted me off. That was that.”

In an up and down year Karl finished in the points four times, with a strong fourth at Monza. So to 1994, with Frentzen joining Sauber as his team-mate. In the opening round in Brazil Karl was running fourth in the closing stages until a misfire dropped him to sixth. And then came Imola.

“First, Rubens Barrichello had that giant accident on Friday, which shocked everybody. But he was back in the paddock on Saturday, with just a bandaged arm and a swollen nose. Everybody said, ‘You see, Formula 1 is so safe now.’ Then on Saturday final qualifying had started, I was in my car ready to go out and saw Roland Ratzenberger’s accident on the screen. It looked bad, but we all hoped, of course. Then around 5pm the Sauber team manager, Carmen Ziegler, came to me and said, ‘Ratzenberger is dead.’

“Although Roland was Austrian I did not know him very well. He was a bit older than me, so we did not race together in FF or F3, but I had chatted to him of course. It was the first death in Formula 1 since Elio de Angelis in 1986, and before that Gilles Villeneuve and Ricardo Paletti in 1982. As the news went around you could feel a strange atmosphere in the paddock. But inside I did not allow myself to let into my brain the fact that he had died. I had to stay focused for the race the next day. 

“Then Sunday. On lap seven there were yellow flags at Tamburello, and as we flashed by I glimpsed a Williams in the barrier. As we came around we were stopped at the start line. I asked my race engineer, Tim Wright, what had happened. He said, ‘It’s Ayrton, but he seems to be OK.’ I don’t know if he just said that to keep me relaxed and quiet. We waited, the helicopter came, the helicopter flew away, and they said, ‘OK, go to your cars, the race will continue now.’ 

“I got up to fourth place and was catching Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren. Normally I would have pushed everything to try to get by him, but today I didn’t seem to have the mental energy. All the things that had happened, the race stopping and starting, everything in the back of my mind. Although I didn’t know what had happened to Ayrton, I was affected by it somehow. I was relieved when the race was over. 

“As I brought my car into parc fermé there was an Austrian journalist telling me there had been a very bad accident in the pits, and a Sauber mechanic was injured. [In fact a Minardi lost a wheel, and three Ferrari mechanics and one Lotus mechanic were slightly hurt.] I went into our pit and Peter Sauber was leaning against a pile of tyres, and he was crying. I said, ‘What’s happened?’ He said, ‘Ayrton Senna is dead.’ And now everything hit me. I sat down on the floor. My best friend from Austria had come to the race with me, and he said, ‘Two people killed in two days, you must stop this. Go home, stop racing.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t stop, I continue.’

“For me things went on as normal. I did a two-day test at Ricard on the Tuesday and Wednesday. Heinz-Harald, who was close to Roland after they raced together in Japan, missed the test and went home. I went to Austria for Roland’s funeral, and then back to my flat in Monte Carlo, to get ready for the Monaco Grand Prix. With all that had happened, it never occurred to me to stop racing. Some people said, ‘Wendlinger is cold, he shows no emotion.’ I wasn’t a guy who showed emotion, not then. But looking back I realise that my head was still completely confused, my thoughts were jumping around. 

“The last thing I can remember of that week was doing 45 minutes of jogging on the Wednesday with Heinz-Harald and our fitness coach, and watching a football match on TV before going to bed. After that, nothing. Of course I have read all the reports and seen the footage since, and put it all together in my mind. 

“My crash was in the final moments of Thursday morning’s session, at the chicane after the tunnel. According to Sauber’s telemetry I braked 13 metres later than I had on my previous quick lap – but that is no surprise to me, because I had just put on fresh tyres, and I would expect to do that. There is an escape road, so if you brake too late to take the corner you can just go straight on. But the Sauber was not that good over the bumps, the car would jump around a lot under braking, and it was bumpy there. Anyway, the car went sideways, and hit the Armco barrier side on. My helmet hit the barrier. The sideways impact was measured at 110mph. We had no HANS device then, or even a simple head support, so I don’t know why it didn’t break my neck.”

After the Imola tragedies there was already a worldwide furore about what the uninformed saw as criminal disregard for safety in Formula 1, with the tabloids calling for motor racing to be banned. The Wendlinger accident 11 days later, which most assumed would shortly be announced as a third fatality, further stoked the scandal-shouting headlines.

“Initially I was taken to the Princess Grace Hospital at Monaco, and then to the Saint Roche Hospital in Nice where they had a specialist in head injuries, Dr Grimaud. He was really the man who saved my life. They kept me in a coma for almost three weeks. I’m told that after 19 days I opened my eyes, but I don’t remember any of that. My girlfriend Sophie, now my wife, was there with my parents and they tried to talk to me, but although my eyes were open they said they were the eyes of a dead man, not seeing anything. 

“One of the medical team always came into my room to check on me before he went home each evening, and three days after I had first opened my eyes he heard me say, ‘I am Karl, I am 25 years old, I am from Kufstein.’ At once he called my girlfriend and parents, who were staying in my apartment. Whenever the phone rang they always thought it was the worst news, but he told them I had said a few words. They came straight in to see me, but I was lying there silent, with the same dead eyes. But two days later I suddenly said, ‘I am Karl, I am 12 years old.’ Sophie thought then, ‘It is not just a matter of whether they will save his life, because they don’t know what he will be like when this is all over.’

“Eventually they decided to move me to a hospital in Innsbruck. Gerhard lent his plane for the Innsbruck professor to fly to Nice and confer with Dr Grimaud. After I had been at Innsbruck for 10 more days I gradually began to surface and become capable of connected thought. I remember opening my eyes, looking around, and I saw a guy in a bed next to me. I thought, ‘Looks like I am in a hospital.’ 

“Then I moved my foot, and cried out with pain, because I had also hurt my knee very badly in the crash. But they had not worried about that too much while they concentrated on my brain. The next time Sophie came in I said, ‘My knee hurts. Have I been in an accident?’ The doctors told her to explain what had happened to me gently, step by step. They told her, ‘Within one year if he can live his life alone, without constant care, it will be a miracle.’

“Slowly I began to understand things more. One of the problems with a head injury is short-term memory. When they brought me a newspaper I only read the sports pages, and half an hour later I’d read them again, because I did not remember what I had read. I didn’t want to eat anything, and when they weighed me I was nine and a half stone. I told them their weighing scales must be broken, because my normal weight was more than 12 stone.

“On July 30 they let me leave hospital. I stayed with my parents for a few days, and then I went to Willi Dungl, the Austrian physiotherapist and fitness trainer who’d prepared Niki Lauda for his comeback. Dungl was a wonderful man [he died in 2002]. We started exercises and preparation, and at the end of August I drove a Porsche Cup car on the Salzburgring. To start with I was very slow – although it felt quick to me – but by the end of the day I was doing competitive times. But a Porsche is not a single-seater.

“At the end of September Peter Sauber summoned me to an F1 test at Barcelona, which is a very bumpy track. After a few laps my neck and my head, my brain inside, were hurting so much I had to stop. I told Peter, ‘I cannot do this.’ He said, ‘Well, in that case I do not know if I can offer you a contract for 1995.’ Peter is a hard man, but he had commitments, to his company, to his sponsors. My specialist at the hospital in Innsbruck said, ‘Listen, we released you from hospital because we thought you were ready to live a normal life. But to be under pressure to perform as a Formula 1 driver, that is not a normal life.’

“At the beginning of December there was another test at Barcelona, and Heinz-Harald set a target time to measure me against. Pedro Lamy was also testing for them. I found I could only do two flying laps, and by then there was so much pain I could not see clearly any more. The race engineers tried to get me to stay out for longer – I would be faster when the tyres were warm – but I could not do it. But my times were close to Heinz-Harald’s, and quicker than Lamy’s, so that confirmed that I still had some speed, and I got my Sauber contract.  Then I went back to Willi Dungl to do more work on my neck, and when I did my next F1 test in February I had almost no pain.

“I did a lot of training and my body fitness came back quite quickly, and I did the first four Grands Prix of 1995. In qualifying I was not too bad, and I finished the race in Barcelona. But my concentration had gone. I no longer had the ability to get into the cockpit and focus 100 per cent on what I was about to do. Imola was the worst: as I passed the pits I was thinking about my flat in Monaco, I was thinking about the dog I had when I was a child, I was thinking about everything except motor racing.

“After the fourth race, Spain, Peter Sauber called me into the motorhome and said: ‘I gave you a chance, but the results are not good. We are going to replace you [with Jean-Christophe Boullion] so you can continue your recovery, and we will see what we should do later on.’
In early October I did a test at Mugello, and I was 0.25sec slower than Heinz-Harald had been. So Sauber told me, ‘You can do the last two races, in Japan and Australia.’ 

“In Suzuka I finished 10th, Heinz-Harald was eighth. But in Adelaide, in the first practice, I crashed. I hit the wall. It was a heavy impact, and I had to take the spare for qualifying. I qualified OK, but the neck and head pain had come back, and that night I couldn’t sleep because of it. Sauber said I had to take the start, because otherwise they would have trouble from Bernie [Ecclestone], and if I wanted to stop after a few laps I must not come into the pits, because that would look too obvious. I must stop out on the circuit. So after six laps I pulled off and parked. I knew that was the end of Formula 1 for me. 

“In fact 25 minutes before the race, as I was getting ready to get in the car, Peter Sauber had chosen that moment to come and tell me my contract would not be renewed for 1996. He was right, of course: just maybe his timing was not perfect. But we still have a good friendship. He was very good to me, he gave me a lot of opportunity to come back. 

“I never thought I was finished with motor racing. Even before I left Australia I called Marko and said, ‘What can we do now?’ And opportunities came up. In 1996 I was in a works Porsche at Le Mans. I didn’t think I was driving well enough yet, but I finished third with Yannick Dalmas and Scott Goodyear. And I did the German STW (supertourenwagen) series in a 2-litre Audi. After F1, with 750 horsepower and 500 kilos, I had 300 horsepower and 1000 kilos, and at first I did not find it easy to drive a slow car fast.”

In 1998, now feeling fully recovered, Karl joined the French ORECA team, which under Hugues de Chaunac ran the works Dodge Vipers in endurance racing. Now he had found a good place. He was with ORECA for three seasons, winning the FIA GT Championship with Olivier Beretta, winning his class at Le Mans, and in 2000 winning the Daytona 24 Hours outright after all the fast sports-racers hit trouble. “I ended up doing more than 12 hours of the race, because our third driver, Dominique Dupuy, wasn’t too experienced, and poor Olivier had caught chickenpox from his son. He could last one hour in the car, and then he was exhausted for three hours.

“The real trouble with the Viper was the incredible heat. The closed cockpit, that big V10 engine almost in there with you, the exhausts wrapped around you, the hot air pouring over your face and body was almost unendurable. You needed to be really fit to have the stamina to deal with that, otherwise the heat killed you. At Le Mans in 2000 the outside temperature was 35 degrees, and after two hours in the car I had lost so much water and weight I had terrible cramps, I could not get out of my overalls. We did a lot of ALMS rounds in America and they were usually three hours, so if you were the number one driver you did the start, had an hour’s rest, then did the last hour. At Sebring we wore cool suits. You have a pump and a box of ice and, as it melts, cold water is pumped through tubes running all over your body. 

“The Viper was big and powerful, not high-tech at all, but it handled well, and it had massive torque. At Le Mans you could save the gearbox by never using first or second: even on Mulsanne Corner you could chug around in third gear.”

In 2001 Chrysler ran a Dallara-built LMP1 car at Le Mans and Karl, with Beretta and Pedro Lamy, finished fourth. There was another spell in DTM with an Audi for the Abt team, and thereafter he concentrated on GTs. Over the following eight seasons he had a lot of success in an extraordinary variety of machines: Ferrari 550 Maranello, Maserati MC12, Aston Martin DBR9, Ford Saleen, Nissan GTR, Lamborghini. “In the Aston and the Saleen my co-driver was Ryan Sharp. He was good, consistent, didn’t make mistakes. We had some good wins together, including the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone two years running.” And in 2012 he started a new relationship with Mercedes-Benz.

“I have raced the gullwing AMG SLS, but now my main role is as an ambassador for the company. I do demonstrations, driver training, classic events like the Mille Miglia and Goodwood, where I demonstrated the W125 Grand Prix car. The power was unbelievable – 600bhp from a supercharged 5.6-litre straight-eight in 1937 – but with its skinny tyres the handling, grip, braking was like nothing. And the throttle pedal is in the middle, so you have to remember to press the correct pedal.
It was quite an experience.”

It has been 33 years since Karl started out with his second-hand kart, and 21 years since the accident at Monaco sent his life in a different direction. Does he feel disappointed by how his racing career turned out? “Not at all. Maybe I could have gone further in F1. But my life has happened as it happened, and I have no problem with this. I never look back, never regret anything. I have a full life, I am still busy. I am lucky.”

Lucky to have survived that awful accident. Lucky to have confounded doctors by coming back to live, not just a normal life, but the life of a professional racing driver. Lucky indeed.