Alexander Wurz has had a troubled season in 2007 but he still has a few unique motorsport records to his name.
For example, Wurz holds the record for the longest gap between Grand Prix podiums. His first and second appearances on the rostrum came eight years apart which is longer than any other driver has gone between top three placings.
Another interesting record is that in 1996 Wurz became the youngest ever driver (at the time) to win the Le Mans 24 Hour race. He took victory with Davy Jones and Manuel Reuter in a TWR Porsche at the tender age of 22.
Alex Wurz also happens to be the only current Formula One driver who has not won a motor race of any kind in a decade. September 14th will mark the tenth anniversary of Wurz’s last motorsport victory, which came at the Donington round of the 1997 FIA GT Championship. Every other current Grand Prix driver has won in some type of car since Alex triumphed with the Mercedes junior team all those years ago.
Amongst these trivial records Wurz also has the unusual distinction of being able to pinpoint the exact moment when his career peaked. The highlight of his time in Formula One came on lap 38 of the 1998 Monaco Grand Prix, and his career has never been the same since.
Wurz had made a spectacular debut only a year before that eventful Monaco weekend when substituted for the ill Gerhard Berger at Benetton. Alex was lucky enough to compete in three races and snagged himself a podium at the British Grand Prix. He had made a very good impression and landed a full-time drive with Benetton the following year.
1998 started well for Alex. He narrowly missed out on podium finishes at the Brazilian and Argentinean Grands Prix and was proving a match for his highly rated team-mate, Giancarlo Fisichella. Things were looking very good for Wurz.
Then came Monaco.
On lap 38 Alex was racing in the points just ahead of Michael Schumacher. As he rounded the Mirabeau corner he was baulked by Pedro Diniz, allowing Schumacher to squeeze alongside into the hairpin.
Although Michael edged just in front, Wurz held his nerve on the outside of the corner and forced his way back past the German at the next right hander. It was brilliant racing and both drivers banged wheels all the way down the hill. Michael eventually pushed his way past the Benetton but Wurz had made his point. He was not about to be intimidated or phased by the Ferrari superstar and was someone that could race at the very highest level.
That brief battle with Michael is still what Alex is best remembered for and it was his best showing in a Formula One car.
However, within only four laps Wurz’s career started going downhill.
On lap 42 Alex’s suspension failed on the fastest part of the circuit in the Monaco tunnel. His car pinballed down the hill with no wheels attached and eventually came to rest at the chicane. He was winded and shaken but otherwise unharmed. Whilst Alex sat on the sideline his team-mate scored a brilliant second.
Two weeks later Wurz had another huge accident at Canada. At the first corner he misjudged his braking and ploughed into the side of Jean Alesi’s Sauber. The impact flipped Alex’s car onto its side and he barrel rolled through the gravel trap taking three other drivers with him.
The race had to be restarted and Wurz finished in the points, but Fisichella went on score another brilliant second after fighting for the victory with Schumacher.
When Alex raced wheel to wheel with Michael at Monaco he was eleven points ahead of Fisichella in the championship and arguably the quicker of the two. After both of his big accidents he was a point behind Giancarlo and struggled get got close to the Italian’s pace again.
It became clear during the 2000 season that Benetton was no longer interested in his services and not surprisingly Alex was dropped from the team. It is believed Wurz only lasted at Benetton as long as he did because the team wanted the four million dollars of D2 sponsorship he brought with him. Alex only scored two points in his final season whilst Fisichella managed to bag eighteen.
Wurz had a chance to race for Sauber in 2001 but turned it down on favour of a testing role at McLaren. He figured testing for a top team would give him more opportunity to prove his worth than racing at the back of the grid, but it was a huge mistake. Sauber had a very quick car in 2001 and finished fourth in the championship. Not only that but it would be six years before Wurz got another chance to race full time again in Formula One.
Olivier Panis spent the 2000 season as test driver for McLaren and was able to use that to springboard back into racing with BAR within twelve months. Wurz had been hoping to follow in Olivier’s footsteps but it wasn’t to be, and he remained a test driver up until this year. In that time he only got to compete in one Grand Prix when he filled in for Montoya at Imola in 2005.
However, Alex was impressive in that race at Imola and it surely helped him get the seat at Williams. Wurz didn’t fit into the 2005 McLaren because the team had not accounted for his lanky frame. They thought Wurz was going to drive for Red Bull that year and consequently made the car too small for him. As a result Alex was forced to race at Imola with sometimes only one hand on the wheel, but he still managed to finish the race fourth. This became third once Button was disqualified.
Alex Wurz returned to racing this year keen to rebuild his career and his image. He needed to have a strong season to prove his value as a Formula One driver. Alex believes his poor results at Benetton were the result of preferential treatment towards Fisichella. Although this is highly likely, a good season in 2007 for Wurz would have made his argument stronger.
Unfortunately it has not worked out that way and Alex is struggling once again to hold onto his place in the team. Wurz took fortunate points at Canada and Europe but has been otherwise outclassed by Nico Rosberg.
Nico is coming alive in 2007 after a learning year next to Webber, and sadly Alex can’t keep up.
Wurz has decent race pace but his poor qualifying performances are hurting him badly. Rosberg has made the top ten shootout on seven occasions this year whilst Wurz has not made it once. Not only that but Alex has failed to advance out of Q1 five times already in 2007 whereas Rosberg has only missed the first cut once, at Britain, with engine troubles.
During the last Grand Prix at Istanbul for example, Wurz was six tenths slower than Nico Rosberg in qualifying but only two tenths slower in the race. His poor one-lap speed is the reason that he has struggled this year and with such enormous depth of talent in F1 at the moment Williams will likely look elsewhere for 2008.
If, as expected, Wurz does get the flick there seems to be little chance of him staying in Formula One. One of his few opportunities is at Prodrive but that is unlikely because the new team will probably take De La Rosa and Paffet as part of a McLaren deal.
His strength lies in testing and just about any team would love to have him as their third driver. Alex his highly intelligent and has plenty of technical nous. Williams have credited much of their improved performance over the past eighteen months to Wurz’s development work.
It may be that Alex leaves motorsport behind him altogether next year and returns to Mountain Biking. He won the 1986 BMX World Championship and used to run his own successful Mountain Biking team that recently won the World Cup twice in a row.
He is also a keen Graphic Artist so maybe that will be his focus in the years ahead. Unlike some drivers whose lives are nothing but ‘Formula One’, Wurz has healthy interests outside of the sport and one of these may provide him with his next challenge.
Alternatively, if Alex wants to claim his first race win in ten years he could return to Sportscars and have another shot at Le Mans. He could also find himself in the DTM or Speedcar Championships alongside a large number of other former Grand Prix drivers.
Whilst there are many things Wurz could end up doing next year it is unlikely that one of those things will be racing in Formula One. Although he is intelligent and insightful, Wurz has simply not been quick enough to make the grade.
At least he has a few unusual records to his name.