Karl Wendlinger was destined for great things. Hand-picked into Mercedes’ crack sports car line-up in the early 1990s, he was pitted – along with Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen – as part of the next generation of superstars in motorsport.
After impressing for the Sauber-run ‘Silver Arrows’, Wendlinger was drafted into Formula 1 and impressed with some great drives with the desperately cash-strapped March team in 1992. Reunited with team boss Peter Sauber as his eponymous team stepped up to F1, his stock grew with some solid performances in 1993.
More promise beckoned in 1994, but it all came to a crashing halt two weeks after the fateful San Marino Grand Prix where his compatriot Roland Ratzenberger and the legendary Ayrton Senna were killed. He slammed at high speed into the barriers at the harbourfront chicane and was in a coma for weeks. He returned to the grid after a lengthy recuperation, but the old spark was missing.
Unable to cope with the speed of teammate Frentzen, he was ‘rested’ by Sauber during the mid-season before another return again failed to deliver. He had another huge accident in practice for the season-ending Australian Grand Prix, and – suffering its effects – withdrew from the event. His F1 career was over.
While his time in F1 remains a classic example of ‘what might have been’, Wendlinger later went on to forge a very successful career back in his old stomping ground: endurance and GT racing.
|Karl Wendlinger||Austrian||20 December 1968, Kufstein (AUT)|
|First Grand Prix||Last Grand Prix|
|1991 Japanese Grand Prix||1995 Japanese Grand Prix|
|1988||Austrian Formula 3 Cup, Krafft Walzen Team, 1st overall|
|1989||German Formula 3, RSM Marko Ralt RT33, 1st overall|
|1990||FIA WSC, Sauber Mercedes C9 / C11, 1 win, 3 podiums, 5th overall|
|1991||FIA WSC, Sauber Mercedes C11 / C291, 1 win, 2 podiums, 9th overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Sauber Mercedes C11, 5th overall with M. Schumacher & F. Kreutzpointner|
|International F3000, RSM Marko, 1 podium, 11th overall|
|Formula 1, Leyton House Racing Ilmor CG911, 2 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1992||Formula 1, March F1 Ilmor CG911, 14 races, 4 points, 12th overall|
|1993||Formula 1, Sauber Ilmor C12, 16 races, 7 points, 12th overall|
|1994||Formula 1, Sauber Mercedes C13, 3 races, 4 points, 19th overall|
|1995||Formula 1, Sauber Ford C14, 5 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1996||24 Hours of Le Mans, Porsche AG 911 GT1, 3rd overall with Y. Dalmas & S. Goodyear|
|1999||FIA GT Championship, Chrysler Viper GTS-R, 6 wins, 9 podiums, 1st overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Oreca Chrysler Viper GTS-R, 1st in GTS Class with O. Beretta & D. Dupuy|
|2000||24 Hours of Daytona, Oreca Dodge Viper GTS-R, 1st overall with O. Beretta & D. Dupuy|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Oreca Chrysler Viper GTS-R, 1st in GTS Class with O. Beretta & D. Dupuy|
|2001||24 Hours of Le Mans, Team Playstation Chrysler LMP, 3rd in LMP900 Class with O. Beretta & P. Lamy|
|2002||DTM, Abt Sportsline Audi TT-R, 14th overall|
|2003||DTM, Abt Sportsline Audi TT-R, 16th overall|
|2004||FIA GT Championship, JMB Racing Ferrari 575-GTC, 1 win|
|2005||FIA GT Championship, JMB Racing Maserati MC12 GT1, 1 win|
|2006||FIA GT Championship, Race Alliance Aston Martin DBR9, 1 win, 14th overall|
|2007||FIA GT Championship, Jetalliance Racing Aston Martin DBR9, 3 wins, 2nd overall|
|2008||FIA GT Championship, Jetalliance Racing Aston Martin DBR9, 3 wins, 9th overall|
|2009||FIA GT Championship, K+K Motorsport Saleen S7R, 1 win, 18th overall|
We spoke to Wendlinger shortly after he reunited with his compatriot F1 racing drivers to mark Formula 1’s return to Austria for the first time since 2003. He was meant to take part in a demonstration run in his old Sauber F1 car, but unfortunately it had a technical failure that confined him to the sidelines.
Despite this, Wendlinger was full of praise for the event, which took place at the Red Bull-owned Red Bull Ring circuit.
“For the Austrian motorsport scene, it [the return of Formula 1] is very important and very good advertising for the country. Thanks to Red Bull!” he beamed.
Austria’s F1 history has seen the country produce two iconic World Champions in Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda, and another multiple race-winner in Gerhard Berger. Berger – along with the likes of Helmut Marko and Alexander Wurz – all hold high profiles in their post-racing careers.
It’s a tightly-knit community, and Wendlinger’s early years spent racing certainly benefited from the support of both Berger – who was by then embarking on the early stages of his own Formula 1 career – and Marko, whose Red Bull connections helped support his passage through the junior formulae.
“Gerhard’s help was very important in the beginning of my career. With Gerhard it was always good , even when we raced together in F1,” Wendlinger recalls.
“He introduced me to Helmut Marko [and] with Helmut I had a long-term relationship driving in his team and then he was managing me.”
“I liked to watch F1 races when I was a child. And as an Austrian, we all cheered for Niki Lauda. But I did not have really an idol, I just wanted to become a racing driver.”
Racing was in Karl’s blood. Both his father and grandfather had competed in racing, so it was natural for the young boy born in Kufstein to follow in their footsteps.
“I was growing up in a car dealership family and my father was racing too; from there my interest in racing started. As a kid, it was great for me to go with him to the races.
“My father’s help and advice was very important; when I started karting I was 14 years old. It is important to have somebody helping you.”
Success came quickly after he moved into open-wheel racing. After a year spent in Formula Ford, Karl graduated to Austria’s Formula 3 Cup (which he won) and then went into Germany’s national F3 championship, a series previously won by the likes of Bernd Schneider and Joachim Winkelhock.
Racing for Marko’s RSM team, Wendlinger put in some outstanding drives and just edged out two young drivers called Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen for the title.
“To win the German F3 Title in 1989 was very important – it was a big boost in my career. It brought me together with Michael and Heinz in the Sauber Mercedes Junior Team,” he said.
The young trio was headhunted by Mercedes-Benz to be groomed for the Silver Arrows’ Group C programme in the World Sportscar Championship, and as potential pilots in the carmaker’s planned Formula 1 return.
Wendlinger was paired with former Grand Prix winner and sports car ace Jochen Mass – perhaps the best possible tutor – the youngster settled in to the task and helped the team claim the Teams’ Championship title. The duo won at Spa-Francorchamps and claimed two further podiums at Monza and Suzuka.
“At the beginning it was not so easy for me!” Wendlinger admitted. “There was a big difference in horsepower and speed, compared to Formula 3. But Mercedes gave us all the time we needed. The Sauber C11 was the best car in the field – the best car I ever drove in my racing career – and very important for my further career.”
The following year, Mercedes paired its two star pupils together. Wendlinger and Schumacher performed outstandingly, although were somewhat hamstrung given the cars didn’t enjoy the same performance advantage over their competition.
“We had a very good relationship and we won the last race of the season at Autopolis.
In 1991 I also did five F3000 races,” he added. The speed was quite good and the first talks with F1 teams started.”
Schumacher had by now made his Grand Prix debut with Jordan, before switching to the Benetton team after just one race. Mercedes-Benz wanted to put its other young charge on the grid ahead of its planned return for 1993, and with the Leyton House Racing team in need of a cash injection to see out the season, a baby-faced Wendlinger was drafted in as a replacement for Ivan Capelli.
“At the start of the first session, I was sitting in the car in the pits. Seeing people like Senna and Berger leaving the pits was quite emotional,” he recalled.
His Grand Prix debut at Suzuka didn’t go well. After qualifying 22nd-fastest, Wendlinger was out on the second lap of the race in a multi-car pile-up involving three other cars. Next time out in Australia, he saw the chequered flag in a rain-shortened race.
Karl was kept on in 1992 in the now-renamed March team (the Leyton House management had been arrested on fraud charges), and he immediately turned heads by qualifying the one-year-old car seventh-fastest at the season-opener in Kyalami. He managed two more top-ten qualifying results over the following three races, marking himself as a man to watch.
A brilliant fourth-placed finish was the highlight and it kept the team afloat for the rest of the season, but there were plenty of other decent results that went begging with the poor reliability of the Ilmor V10 engine.
“The results helped to make me a bit of a name for myself in F1. It was already decided that I was going to be one of the drivers when Sauber joined F1 in 1993, but it was always important to show performance…”
The move to Sauber meant he would reunite with his old team boss and many of the team members he was familiar with from his Group C sports car days. The Mercedes-powered cars scored points on debut and made steady – but not spectacular – progress through the season. Wendlinger finished in the points four times.
“From the ground up, the team comprised the same people I knew from Group C; of course there was support from some new team members with previous F1 experience.
Wendlinger qualified a sensational fifth-fastest at the famous European Grand Prix at Donington; he was up to third off the line, but was out before the end of the first lap after being taken out by Ayrton Senna’s teammate Michael Andretti…
“That was a shame because I was fast in the rain in the warm-up on Sunday morning. I was fifth on the grid. Anyway….” he shrugged.
The 1994 season saw Wendlinger joined by ex-Mercedes teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, making his F1 debut after an exile racing in Japan. Just like their F3 days, Wendlinger found Frentzen to be a tough competitor.
Things started well with a sixth place in Brazil and a fourth – despite a broken exhaust – at the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix, although he was in no mood to celebrate equalling his career-best finish given his compatriot Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna had each been killed in one of the blackest days in the sport’s history.
“Their deaths of the both shocked me, like everybody else in the paddock,” he recalled. “After Imola I thought all was OK for me and I could handle it.”
Incredibly, fate would have other ideas. Two weeks later and the circus regrouped at Monaco, still reeling from the tragedies at Imola while its senior figures looked to implement swift changes to make the sport safer.
“It’s difficult to know what to say about my accident. Was it bad luck or destiny? It ended my F1 career.”
In the opening practice session, Karl braked 30 metres later at the Harbourfront Chicane and failed to make the turn, which led to a low-speed side-on impact with the barriers. The angle of the impact resulted in serious head injuries: suffering a brain contusion and swelling, he was placed in an artificial coma for three weeks.
The sport held its collective breath as it faced the greatest crisis in its history. Thankfully, Karl regained consciousness and was back in the paddock before the end of the season, talking up his chances being back behind the wheel before the end of the season – his racing return wouldn’t come until 1995, as he wasn’t yet well enough to come back sooner.
“I remember watching television the evening before my accident, but I have no recollection of anything on the day,” he said today.
“It’s difficult to know what to say about my accident when I look back at it. Was it bad luck or destiny?
“After my accident, I thought back to the days after Imola. I recognized that my brain was confused a little bit and I did not find calmness.
“The recuperation went very well and faster the expected. I was lucky, in the Hospital I felt better every day. I was very happy to get a chance for a comeback.”
Karl was back for the start of the 1995 season, but somehow the old spark was missing.
“My comeback failed; the Monaco accident ended my F1 career. The Sauber team gave me the chance to come back, but it was apparent in quite a short time that I was still suffering. It was not possible for me to be fast enough.”
Frentzen was simply too quick for Karl, and he was quietly dropped after four races in place of Jean-Christophe Boullion, the Williams test driver loaned out to the team. To be fare, Boullion didn’t fare any better, and Sauber gave Wendlinger one final hit-out for the final two Grands Prix of the season in the hope that the rest had given him more time to recuperate.
After finishing tenth at Suzuka, Wendlinger had another accident in qualifying at the season finale in Adelaide. When he withdrew from the event, suffering the effects of his crash, any slim hopes he held of remaining in F1 were killed.
Rather than dwell on an unfulfilled Grand Prix career, Wendlinger set about building a new one and returned to Europe. After many years with Mercedes-Benz, he jumped ship to Audi in the German and Italian Super Touring series’ before switching to GT racing.
In 1998, he returned to the winner’s circle – for the first time since his Group C race win in 1991 – fittingly on home soil, which proved to be the launchpad for a full-scale assault on the FIA GT Championship with the Chrysler Viper team. Sharing the cockpit with Olivier Beretta, the pair romped to the title with six wins in the nine-race schedule.
Among his other career highlights were two class wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – both with Chrysler Viper – as well as an outright victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2000.
“To come back to success from 1998 on was very nice,” Wendlinger smiled. “I had some good years in GT Racing. The the overall win in the 24 Hours of Daytona was a special one.”
Wendlinger continues to race in sports cars today, ranking Spa-Francorchamps and Silverstone as his two favourite circuits that he’s ever raced on.
While it’s been almost twenty years since he last raced a Formula 1 car in anger, he’s still very much a fan of Formula 1 in 2014.
“I think it is good like it is. We have seen some very interesting races already this year.
“Above all, after the accidents in 1994, the FIA did great work to make racing and F1 safer.”
Images via Car & Driver, Deviant Art, Formel1.de, Formula Total, LAT, Mercedes-Benz, Motorsport.com, Sutton Images