“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.”
Routine stop for the winning Wendlinger/Schumacher Merc C291 at Autopolis, 1991
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.”
Sharing FIA GT Aston with Ryan Sharp in 2007
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.’
Works Porsche drive netted third at Le Mans in 1998
“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.’
Goodwood demo Mercedes W25 in 2012
“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.’
Monaco 1994: Wendlinger’s Sauber C13, shortly before his life-threatening accident
“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.