Two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner and former Grand Prix racer Alexander Wurz has announced that he will retire from competitive racing at the end of the year.
The 41-year-old Austrian, who currently races with Toyota’s LMP1 team in the FIA World Endurance Championship, will hang up his helmet and his odd-coloured racing boots after the season-ending round in Bahrain later this month.
“I’m 41 and I’ve been racing as a pro since 1996 – so half my life and another quarter getting there,” he said, announcing his retirement.
“There are still many races to be run but off the track now rather than on it … I still enjoy doing that but I want to divert my energies elsewhere now.”
A former BMX champion, Wurz’s interest in motorsport was sparked by his father, Franz – a former rallycross driver – and by 1994 Wurz had finished runner-up in the German F3 series, beating the likes of Ralf Schumacher and Norberto Fontana.
His international breakthrough came with a surprise call-up to race Joest’s Porsche at the 1996 Le Mans 24 Hours, and he stunned the establishment by becoming the race’s youngest ever winner at the age of 22.
With support from Austria’s telco giant, A1, Wurz graduated to Formula 1 mid-season in 1997 as a substitute for the unwell Gerhard Berger.
He peaked with a podium finish in his third and final outing at Silverstone before his compatriot returned to his seat.
When Berger announced his retirement from racing, a full-time contract came Wurz’s way for 1998, and he impressed with five fourth-placed finishes, and earned huge praise for some stalwart defence against Michael Schumacher at the Monaco race.
Contact between the two would lead to a high-speed accident at the Harbourfront Chicane for Wurz, and many have argued that his form never hit the same heights thereafter.
The 1999 season rewarded him with two points’ finishes in a heavy and underpowered car, and it was clear that he would be out on his ear at the end of the 2000 season when he showed little improvement compared to teammate Giancarlo Fisichella.
McLaren, however, came knocking with a test driver contract and there Alex stayed until 2005, playing a critical role in the team’s – ultimately unsuccessful – quest to stop Ferrari’s and Michael Schumacher’s dominance of the sport.
He made a one-off outing at the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix in place of the injured Juan Pablo Montoya, earning a third-placed finish following the disqualification of Jenson Button’s BAR Honda.
His experience with McLaren proved tempting for Williams – itself looking to rebuild following the loss of its works BMW engine programme – and he switched to their test team for 2006.
Rewarded with a swansong season in the race team in 2007, he often struggling in qualifying compared with teammate Nico Rosberg. Starting too far down the grid to compete for major results, he had to rely on luck and tactics to pick up points’ finishes, which he managed at Canada to earn his final podium result.
He joined the Honda team as its test driver for 2008 before leaving F1 to return to endurance racing. A second Le Mans win came in 2009 with Peugeot, partnering Marc Gené and David Brabham, before he moved on to spearhead Toyota’s return to LMP1 racing in 2012. He was denied a third Le Mans 24 Hours crown in 2014 when his car retired while leading the race.
Outside of the cockpit, Wurz has acted as a member of the FIA Stewards’ panel at a number of Grands Prix, in addition to moving into Formula 1 broadcasting for the Austrian ORF network. He also acts as a consultant for the Williams F1 team and serving as chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association – he will continue in all of those capacities.
Wurz confirmed that he will work work with his father to build their own circuit design company, TTI.
One interesting footnote in the announcement of his retirement was the news that he had been offered – and declined – the role of Team Principal with the Lotus F1 Team, the now-current guise of the Benetton team with whom he raced at the start of his Formula 1 career.
Image via The Cahier Archive and XPB Images