F1 » Alexander Wurz
Alex Wurz made an immediate impression on the F1 scene when he stood in for the ill Gerhard Berger at Benetton for three races in 1997. A protege of the Austrian star, the son of former European Rallycross champion Franz Wurz showed potential but, ultimately, never got the chance to realise it.
Not unlike Damon Hill, the young Wurz began his competitive career on two wheels rather than four. He relied on pedal-power rather than horse-power, though, en route taking the 1986 World BMX crown - at the tender age of 12!
He soon graduated to karts, however, and proved he had what it took by finishing second in the Austrian championship in 1989 and 1990. This led to a drive in Formula Ford for 1992, and Alex won the German, Austrian and International titles at his first attempt. An amazing tally of 22 race wins, 24 pole positions and three titles led to a seat in the German Formula Three series.
He remained in F3 for three seasons, winning the Austrian series as a sideline in his first year. Finishing second in Germany in 1994 could have led to greater things, but Alex found himself back in an F3 car for 1995. Unfortunately, the title remained out of reach, but his performances were enough to secure an Opel contract to contest the burgeoning DTM/International Touring Car Championship. Reliability was not a strong point, however, and Wurz wound up 16th overall.
The season was rescued by a fairy-tale debut at Le Mans. Paired with the veteran line-up of Manuel Reuter and Davy Jones, Wurz drove impressively to help seal a win for the Joest Porsche team.
Wurz moved in to the International GT series with Mercedes for 1997, and signed on as test driver for the Benetton F1 team. Many people thought that he was there purely for the sponsorship he could bring, but Wurz proved them wrong when he was called on to replace Berger for the Canadian, French and British grands prix.
Third place in only his third grand prix was a fine achievement for the Austrian and virtually cemented his place in the team following the departure of both regular drivers Berger and Jean Alesi at the end of the season.
Paired with fellow young gun Giancarlo Fisichella for 1998, Wurz formed one of the most exciting driver line-ups in F1. Both took turns at chasing the runaway McLarens, with Wurz having the temerity to battle wheel-to-wheel with Michael Schumacher in his Monaco pursuit. Several spectacular accidents - including a barrel-roll in Canada failed to dent the Austrian's nerve, but the fading reliability of the Benetton in the latter half of the season meant that wins were never a possibility.
Wurz stayed with Benetton for a second full season in 1999, again with Fisichella as team-mate. Both took turns to shine in pre-season testing, but were let down in races by the radical B199. Two points finishes gave the Austrian cause to look elsewhere over the winter, but he remained loyal to the team which gave him his F1 break, and hoped that the simpler B200 would return him to the top six on a regular basis.
It was not to be, however, and Wurz was forced to endure a trying season that yielded just one points scoring finish - fifth in Italy - before being ousted from Benetton in favour of the then latest rising star, Jenson Button.
Despite his race and qualifying performances, however, Wurz remained much in demand as a talented test driver, and slotted easily into the McLaren fold for 2001 - replacing Olivier Panis.
There he remained during 2002 and 2003, and 2004 saw him once again take on the role as 'third driver' at the Woking based concern, despite rumours at the end of November linking him to a drive at Jaguar - Alex eventually lost out in favour of Christian Klien.
2005 marked his fifth year at McLaren, again on the 'reserve' bench.
Following Juan Montoya's tennis injury, Pedro de la Rosa stood in for the Colombian in Bahrain before Wurz got the nod for the San Marino Grand Prix, where he finished fourth overall - later third after the two BAR's were excluded.
Following McLaren's decision to sign Gary Paffett at the end of 2005, Wurz looked to be on his way to the DTM, however a surprise move to Williams kept him in F1 in 2006, as the Grove based team's official third/reserve driver.
Back to competing each weekend in the Friday practice sessions, Wurz duly reminded everyone of his desire to perform when he regularly put the car top of the timesheets. It was a feat that was noted by the likes of Frank Williams and Sam Michael, who went on to surprise many by announcing, midway through the season, that he would indeed return to the grid in 2007, replacing the Red Bull-bound Mark Webber.
It remained to be seen whether Wurz, who had not raced full-time in F1 since he competed for Benetton in 2000, would be able to translate his speed in testing to race pace but, together with Nico Rosberg, his signing gave Williams depth in both youth and experience.
Sadly, a quick glance at the end-of-season stats showed that Wurz was out-scored by his team-mate and, generally, out-raced too, although greater scrutiny will highlight the team's only podium finish sitting with the Austrian. All too often, Wurz made life difficult for himself by missing the cut early in qualifying, but astute tactics and the nous developed over his years in the top flight did allow him to shine in both Canada, where he took third, and at the Nurburgring, where he survived another complicated race to take fourth. Rosberg only equalled the latter performance at the finale in Brazil.
Wurz, however, wasn't present at that race, having already announced his retirement from racing in F1 and allowing the team to blood eventual replacement Kazuki Nakajima at Interlagos.
He will now return to the 'test bench', having signed a deal with Honda, which will see him become the official test and reservce driver for the Brackley-based outfit in 2008.
He did make return to racing with the works Peugeot sportscar team as a third driver in both the Spa 1000km and the Le Mans 24 Hour race, where he finished fifth overall paired with Pedro Lamy and Stéphane Sarrazin.