McLaren & Me: Alex Wurz

Alexander Wurz

In the next installment of McLaren & Me, we catch up with former McLaren driver, Alex Wurz, for an exclusive insight into his time at McLaren. Here's what he had to say...

When I left Benetton at the end of 2000, after three seasons spent racing for them, I had several offers from quite a few teams, but all of them were related to Flavio Briatore. And at that point I wanted to find a team over which Flavio had no influence, and McLaren fitted the bill. When they saw I had not signed anywhere, they called me, around November time, and they offered me the test driver role, replacing Olivier Panis, who was going to race for BAR, so we agreed on a deal.

At that time the mentality was to move the development away from the race drivers, and to use the test driver more. Do not forget that back then the teams were always testing, and as a race driver you were dreadfully frustrated that you had to do so much testing and therefore could not be at home to recover and train. Instead, you had to be once again piling on the laps at Barcelona or Jerez or Valencia etc. But, with Olivier, McLaren pioneered the use of top-class test drivers with plenty of F1 racing experience, and a point to prove, and I was in that mould too. It was quite a clever idea. 

Even so, my first year at McLaren was a bit awkward, simply because I was not racing and obviously racing was what I wanted to do. However, with every test it became better. Soon, in fact, McLaren became my home, and the engineers realised they could trust my feedback. So I was more and more included in the whole development process, which was very rewarding.

Towards the end of the 2001 season it became clear that Mika Hakkinen would retire, and I was quite hopeful at the time that I would replace him. In fact at the Monza test I had to get out of the car. I was on a long run, and they stopped it for me to receive a phone call from Martin Whitmarsh. He said, “Congratulations, I thought I’d interrupt the test, because you’ll race for us next year.” He was so excited to tell me, because it was just after the meeting where they had decided it.

We did not know at the time that Ron was also negotiating with Sauber to get Kimi out. If Sauber had said “No”, and if Ron had not thought that Kimi was a better option than me – which he probably was to be fair – then I would have raced for McLaren in 2002.

Anyway, I did not get a follow-up call after Monza, which is when I realised there was something brewing. So I got on a plane and went to see Ron, and he said “Actually, we are taking Kimi.”

It was too late and too difficult at the time to get another contract. I was grown-up enough even back then to realise that they did not do it to hurt me, they did it because they thought it was the better option for the team. The choices I had were to be like a spoiled kid and walk away, or to be a man and just continue to try to convince them by doing a good job for them.

So I remained with McLaren, and I was still very focused. We had something like 23 lap records in testing, because we were going faster and faster all the time. Every time we went to Barcelona we went another two, three or four tenths faster, because of the tyres and the car. It was an extraordinary time in terms of development.

Then for 2003 I had the chance to race for Jaguar’s F1 team. It was a three-year contract, guaranteed by Detroit, and I would have done it. The Jaguar execs went a long way to try to get me out of my McLaren contract, but in the end McLaren decided not to let me go. That was pretty tough, especially after what happened to me with Kimi.

That season, 2003, we had the McLaren MP4-17D. I am a technical person and I like to try to improve things. We developed that car very well, and in the end it became a really good race car. Unfortunately we had some engine reliability problems with it, but in the second half of season Kimi scored the most points, when the engine was not blowing up any more. He was in contention for the world championship right down to the final race. It was a really cool race car. Feel-wise, it was an extension of me, actually. You sat in it and it felt like your most comfortable pair of jeans or running shoes. It did what you wanted it to do.

That was also the year of the MP4-18. It was a very interesting year because the 18 was way ahead of its time, but it never ran reliably.

For the MP4-18 the designers stipulated that the engine had to be very low, for aerodynamic reasons. But that engine kept blowing up. I drove it the first day at Paul Ricard, and I was fast. Later it turned out – I know from my sports car days – that I am a little bit of a specialist on that track though. Anyway, it was a good start, but it was the only time that the 18 was faster than the 17D.

We went to Jerez with the 18 and at Turn 4 the floor collapsed, and I had a massive impact, with the engine ending up by the side of me. No-one was really sure what had happened, but you could see on the asphalt there were marks from the floor, and then you had me spinning.

So we continued. I had three brake failures on the car, but luckily I did not hit anything, because they happened at Turn One at Paul Ricard. When the engine blew up it cut through the brake lines, so the pedal went to the floor.

Then I had a day at Silverstone. Three times I lost the left front wheel in Becketts/Maggotts, because the loads were so high that it opened the wheel in the first left-hander, and in the second left-hander the wheel fell off. Then I had a brake failure at a slow corner, which was good because I hopped across the gravel bed and grass to make it back.

They repaired the car, said we had to do one more run, and sent me out. And at Bridge corner the rear suspension collapsed. I had a big impact and the car was in two pieces again. I walked back to the garage, took my mobile phone, called the team boss and said, “I’m sorry I don’t want to drive this car any more.” By that time no race driver wanted to drive the car. And that was the last metre the 18 ever drove.

Meanwhile everyone thought that from half-way through the season the 18 would be the race car, so they stopped making parts for the 17D’s engine. The 18 was overdue by nine or 10 races, and you cannot blame Mercedes if Adrian Newey is saying the car will be ready, and will be running, and will be racing. It was just a miscommunication.

When it came to the race that could have won Kimi the championship, the Nurburgring, he was ahead and he had the engine blow up. What happened was they ran out of parts – they only had nine pistons, and the 10th they knew was not of the best spec. So Kimi blew that one piston up when he was leading the race – how tragic was that?

That was also the year that Pedro de la Rosa joined the team, as an extra test driver. When he arrived I had just done five weeks non-stop of testing, race attendance, marketing, promotions, going to the Himalayas filming for a sponsor, and I got a fever. There was a test where two cars were prepared for me, the boys were all waiting, and I said I could not come.

They realised that our whole machine needed another test driver, so they called Pedro up, because he was the best available. At that point I was really relieved to get a little bit of my life back, because I had been working non-stop. That year on average I boarded an aircraft every 32 hours, I remember the stats!

Pedro and I quite quickly became friends, but, even so, we were also competitors. In the end it became quite delicate in 2005. I had had a second offer from Jaguar, and the team thought I was going this time, so they designed the MP4-20 not to suit this tall, lanky Austrian! Then I was not released yet again, and I stayed with McLaren once more.

They had put all this fire extinguisher stuff where my elbows needed to be, and I had no way legally to sit in the car. So when Juan Pablo was injured, Pedro took the first race in Bahrain. They made an enormous effort and put a lot of costs into changing the car, so I had it at Imola.

I knew the car and the team really well. I went to the race, and we had single-car qualifying in those days, and, being new, I had to go out first, which was a significant disadvantage. I did okay and ended up seventh on the grid with what was actually quite a good qualifying performance. 

One funny story about that weekend was, me being a little bit of a rebel, after having not been released to Jaguar again and after having being kind of designed out of the car, I had decided to grow my hair long. So I had this awful-looking long hair, and Ron did not like it.

On the Wednesday before Imola he said, “If I were you I’d prepare everything perfectly, my ear plugs, my helmet, shave, haircut trimmed to perfection.” He worked up to it. The next day he said, “Hey Alex, I spoke to Lisa [his then wife], and she says you look way better with short hair. I can get a hairdresser here no problem.”

Every day he took one step more to be direct. On Friday he said, “Alex, you have to cut your hair.” I said, “No, Ron, I like my hair, it's me.” He got a bit angry, and on Saturday he said, “Your hair has to go, it bothers me!” By then the rebel in me was saying I am definitely not cutting my hair, I will put even more gel in it and make it more spiky.

On Sunday on the grid he came to me and said, “Leave your helmet on, I don’t want to see your hair!” I was laughing my pants off, but, now, looking back, I should have cut my hair and made him happy.

It was one of those races where we decided to go for a conservative one-stop strategy. I finished fourth, which became third when Jenson Button’s Honda was excluded. It was an okay race, and I was quite happy. It took McLaren a long time to get the trophy from Honda and Jenson, and it took me three years to get a replica trophy. It was a silver cup, very delicately made, and the person who made the replica took for ever. But in the end I got it.

At that time I had an offer from Newman-Haas to go racing in the States. However, I was thinking that I would also race at Barcelona and Monaco, for McLaren, in place of Montoya. I had to do a promotional trip to Moscow with Juan Pablo, and he when was at dinner I noticed he had to kind of throw his hand onto the table to eat. He could not lift his hand properly, that was how bad his shoulder was. 

But he had to prove that his tennis accident on the motocross track was not so severe. So, at that time I thought, “Okay, I'll be back in the car next race,” so I said “No” to Newman-Haas. But then Juan Pablo came back after all, and his shoulder was fine, and in the end I only ever did that one race for McLaren.

At the end of 2005 my McLaren contract was coming to an end, there were no more options or anything, and I decided that I needed a change. I looked originally at DTM and a few other things, and then Williams called up. Patrick Head said we want someone who knows exactly what he is doing with car development, so please come and see us.

So I went to see them. They made me an offer which was okay, but I said, “I can't accept that.” They said, “Okay, you’ll have to give us one hour.” So I went to buy parsnips in the supermarket to bring back to Monaco. My wife Julia, being English, said we have to have parsnips for Christmas.

So I was in the supermarket when Frank called me and said, “Can you come back?” I said, “No, I need half an hour, I’m in the supermarket buying parsnips.” And he could not stop laughing for five minutes. I went back, we agreed on the terms, and that was the start of my time with Williams.

I look back at McLaren and I still call it an amazing five years. With the work I put in, the team totally accepted me giving directions, bringing in ideas and technical innovations. There are a few things I somehow came up with, about what we should do, and we did them. It was very rewarding for a still-young man to have such an influence on such a big team. 

From the outside I had previously looked on McLaren as grey, cold and not very human. Then I went there and it was the opposite. It was a very cool and fun environment, but very professional. You could joke, but you could make a difference.

I had an amazing time, and I learned so much that for the rest of my life my McLaren experience has been the basis of making my living. I was proud to be with them, proud to have been able to have an influence on the car, especially chassis development. It was a really good team, the way the team was structured, the organisation, the capturing of knowledge; it was a really amazing lesson for life.

I am not frustrated with my McLaren career, even though I guess things could have worked out even better. Of course I wanted to win the world championship, and I thought I could and should do it with the McLaren team, but it did not happen. I am not bitter though; I am just very grateful that I had that time with McLaren.