Alex Wurz has quite a CV – he is a two time Le Mans winner, former F1 driver, current chairman of the GPDA, and son of a Rallycross champion (Franz Wurz, in 1974, 1976 and 1982). In another piece from the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Sarah Merritt managed to catch up with Alex to have a chat, whilst stood alongside his Dad’s Lancia Stratos, in which he won the 1976 FIA European Rallycross championship.
Sarah Merritt: It’s great to have the opportunity to talk to you, Alex. Firstly I have to ask, what is it about endurance racing that you love so much?
Alex Wurz: As a kid I went to a motor show, and I saw a Group C car, a Porsche, and they let me sit in the car. The moment they closed the door and I was in this little capsule, I thought, “Wow, that’s it.”. From that moment on I loved sports cars. At the same time a friend of the family was a stuntman for the Steve McQueen film Le Mans, so he was telling us endless stories around the dinner table when he came around for a glass of wine, so that’s how my love for sports cars came to be.
SM: And yet, you ended up in Formula 1?
Yes, because you go into karting…that was a time when Group C was quite strong, and I said “You know, F1 is the pinnacle, but I love sports cars and I wouldn’t mind ending up there.”. By the time I moved to F3, sportscars had died, and F1 was the only real top professional series.
I was fortunate enough to come into F1 but I didn’t achieve what I wanted, but I’m not bitter about it because that’s how life is. I learnt a lot of things and had a great time, but equally I loved to come back to sportscar racing and win Le Mans for the second time.
SM: So talking about why you are here at Goodwood; you are driving your father’s, Franz’s, car alongside him, and that was his world championship winner in 1976. I understand that whilst in Rallycross, your Dad used to race against Jenson’s dad?
AW: Yes, that true. Jenson’s Dad, John, raced in England, and my Dad sometimes came to England to race at Lydden Hill or Brands Hatch, and other famous rallycross tracks, so they raced against each other. Jenson and I talk a lot about these days – we look at pictures and talk about Rallycross, because it’s what our Dad’s did!
SM: Touching on McLaren at the moment, the team are having a challenging time this season and last after the switch to Honda as an engine partner, and I know that you were with them during the time when they were testing the somewhat radical MP4-18. Can you share with us what it is like being with the team when they are under pressure and pushing development so hard?
AW: When I was there it was still during the glory days of McLaren and there was a lot of budget, and amazing amount of people, but it was in the period after Adrian Newey departed. That was a key moment for the future of the car. Whilst we think now of the engine, they did drop a little behind with the Mercedes engine two or three years ago. So then, with the restructuring of the company after Adrian, everyone involved at the time did a brilliant job, yet it wasn’t the McLaren of the Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost times.
Whilst we are speaking critically about it, they set the levels so high. The expectation of McLaren is just rocket sky high, and that’s what they have to cope with, because they are still one of the best teams out there.
It’s a really cool organisation and I had a very good time there. Before I joined, I thought they were just grey people that I knew nothing about, but when I joined the team, it was really a warm atmosphere, and everyone was happy and looking out for each other. For racing, I hope they will soon come back and gain some traction and be fighting for victories.
SM: I also read about your time with the team at the end of 2001 when Martin Whitmarsh had given you hope of getting the drive, which then you didn’t get.
You seemed to dealt with that in a very mature way, and you say you were not bitter about it?
AW: Well of course I was very emotional and did some swearing privately, but at the end of the day, it’s like a poker game – stakes are high in F1, and I was very close. Better to have been very close, and to have been with the teams I had, than not even making it to F1.
SM: And this kind of experience surely allows you to give good advice to some of the younger drivers that you work with?
AW: Yes, but it was not an easy time, definitely, because it was agreed, and then it changed; as the French say, c’est la vie, that’s life, and giving up was not an option for me.
SM: Touching on what might be your favourite car, I read that you described the MP4-17D as “like putting on your most comfortable pair of jeans”?
AW: Exactly, yes. It was a really cool car, and we developed it with a small group of people. I was right in the centre of it. But I would also say the Peugeot 908 that I won Le Mans with was equally as cool. It was just an extension of myself, and every time I was in it I felt totally comfortable.
SM: Lastly, touching on your role with the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association), last year you did a comprehensive survey that was well received by fans, but we can’t really see what happened with the findings or the data that you have gathered from it.
AW: You know in F1, sometimes when the pressure comes via the media, the opposite of being productive happens.
It did help in some ways, with some decision making, but not with everything – still I find the Strategy Group decisions to sometimes be awkward, and less optimum than what the end consumer wants. I can see now that we can’t change it fundamentally, but step by step, we can, and the survey was a great help for that.
We are still in some discussions and I think the survey shows them what the majority of people want, and we cannot expect business people at that level to just say “Ah yes, you guys know better, let’s change it.”.
But it’s a long term process and we are in a good place. Sometimes we speak out – for example, the letter, and also the survey – which to a certain extent, was quite provocative.
SM: But good for the fans to feel that you are interested and listening…
AW: …yes, and we are fully listening, but the way to go about changing it, we cannot change things by just being brutal and outspoken. 90% of the time we are doing things behind the scenes and playing the long game, otherwise it will only go the other way as media pressure can cause more friction than help.
It was great to see Alex and his Dad, Franz, taking it in turns to drive the 1976 championship winning Lancia Stratos up the hill at Goodwood, and I enjoyed meeting Franz, who was so enthusiastic about driving his car again.
Many thanks to Alex for taking time out of his busy Goodwood Festival of Speed schedule to talk to us.