As a shocked Formula One circus left Monaco last year, Karl Wendlinger was fighting for his life. Twelve months on, he is fighting to keep his racing career alive.
It was an ironic, rather than deliberate, twist of fate that the Austrian should be dropped by Sauber for the race which many would have regarded as the acid test of his recovery. There would, he claims, have been no demons for him to confront, for he has no memory of the day his crash left him in a coma.
Unfortunately, it never seems to have been far from anybody else’s mind.
Having been dropped by Mercedes at the end of last season, Sauber is under pressure to prove that it has the capacity to be more than just a midfield runner. Its new partner, Ford, had just won the World Championship with Benetton. Its idea of progress, as Peter Sauber was well-aware, was unlikely to entail Wendlinger qualifying 19th, 21st, 21st and 20th.
“Emotion,” says Ron Dennis, to whom Mercedes defected, “is a luxury you can’t afford in Formula One.” Some will say that, merely by keeping a berth open for Wendlinger during his recovery, the Swiss team more than fulfilled any moral obligations. It would be all the easier to dismiss Wendlinger if he came up with 132 reasons why the car, the engine, the team, anything and everything, was rubbish. But instead he is disarmingly honest.
“Of course, results-wise it was not good,” he admits. “The season started not so bad because in Brazil on the Friday afternoon I was six-tenths slower than Frentzen. He’s a quick guy and that was a good distance to start from. But from that day on, instead of becoming less, the difference got bigger and bigger.”
Clearly there is a problem, but what is it?
Jochen Mass, Wendlinger’s tutor in the Mercedes-Benz sportscar Junior Team, has his own ideas:
“It’s a combination of two things: I think it’s a medical condition still; it might just take a few more months, perhaps, to get his natural instinctive reflexes back. He is lacking them at the moment, and feels he is not quite sharp enough.
“The second thing is that he is not relaxed and, therefore, you automatically make more mistakes and drive slower than you should.
“In a race, while everything is happening around him, he ups it and goes quicker and quicker. If you look at the timesheets from Barcelona, and compare his times with Frentzen, it doesn’t look so bad.
“Outside of the race situation, his driving is too forced. He tries to consciously outdrive, but nature doesn’t allow that. We talk about hundredths in every corner, but they are little nothings which add up. If you are not driving in intuitive fashion, it just doesn’t work.”
“I was not relaxed enough just to go out and drive,” concedes his former pupil. “I was thinking a lot about everything. We talk of being relaxed, a good example of that was in 1992 when I was at March. There was no testing all year round. I had to drive at circuits I didn’t know, like Kyalami and Brazil, but I was ninth and seventh on the grid. A lot of that was because I was relaxed.
“I couldn’t be that this year because the distance to Frentzen was too much, and I was driving for Sauber and Ford. There is a lot of expectation. Outside of racing I’m 100 per cent. The results I have are not 100 per cent. I think confidence is always a little problem. For any sportsman that is the same.”
Wendlinger would not be the first to suffer distress at climbing back into a car after a major accident, but he insists that he has encountered no problems bar regaining his rhythm: “To get back in a car was not difficult. With Lauda, and also Berger, they had good memories of the accident. I don’t remember a thing, nothing of the race, nothing of racing cars the day before. I was never afraid to go in the car again. The first test in Barcelona was hardest, but I proved to myself then that I can still do it.”
Whether he can prove it to anyone else looks in doubt, for Sauber has signed Williams test hotshoe Jean-Christophe Boullion for the remainder of the season. The team has assured Karl that he will be given further tests, but by then the pressure upon him to perform will be intense. Is there any way back into the fold?
“It depends on him, really,” reasons Mass. “He has to work on it in a positive way. His attitude has to remain good. If he loses his confidence altogether, goes into despair and thinks his career is up, that’s no good. If he is positive about his abilities, I think he will come back. If he gave up now, he would be making a mistake…”