Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Paris, Friday, July 24, 1998

Home Crowd Awaits A Rising Young Star

Wurz Feels Ready for Austrian Grand Prix

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Alexander Wurz has a red shoe on one foot and a blue shoe on the other. That means he is going racing.

Wurz, one of the best young drivers in Formula One, will be racing Sunday before his home crowd at the Austrian Grand Prix.

The tall, gangly Austrian is fifth in the drivers' championship with 17 points in his first full season. But he likes to remind people that he has already been world champion. That was at age 12 in 1986, when he won the BMX World Championship, the misnamed Bicycle Motocross, since there is no motor. But unlike Greg LeMond, the three-time winner of the Tour de France who recently turned to motor racing, Wurz said he always wanted to be a race car driver.

''BMX was just filling up time because I thought I could only go to four wheels when I was 18 years old and had a driver's license,'' he said. ''Then I saw a go-kart and I immediately changed to karts.''

While he finished second in the Austrian karting championship in 1989, it wasn't until he graduated to cars that he really adapted to four wheels. He won the German, Austrian and International Formula Ford titles in 1992, and the following year took the Austrian Formula Three title. In 1996, he became the youngest driver ever, at 22, to win the Le Mans 24-hour race.

Wurz, like Jacques Villeneuve, has performed better as he has climbed higher in the motor-racing ladder.

''Many drivers are extremely fast in Formula Three and other categories,'' he said, ''but they don't develop as the cars develop. From a Formula Three car to a Formula One car there's about 500 horsepower more, and it's much tougher, much faster. If you don't develop yourself, your intellect, your mind, your body, you can't cope with it.''

Last year, Benetton hired him as a test driver. He was called to replace Gerhard Berger at the Canadian Grand Prix when his countryman underwent sinus surgery. Wurz drove three excellent races, finishing third in the British Grand Prix. This year, he has won points in six of nine races, with five fourth places.

Professional bicycle racing taught him one important thing about car racing: ''It helped me understand immediately that if you're not giving the maximum, if you're not pushing all the time, you can't be on the top or win races. Presents don't come to you, you have to work for them.''

But if he has had better results, his accidents have also been more spectacular this season. After banging wheels with Michael Schumacher in Monaco in May, he damaged his suspension, which later caused him to lose control, ram into a wall and wreck the car. At the first corner of the Canadian Grand Prix in June, his Benetton cart-wheeled across the track and rolled over in the gravel trap, causing a pile-up. Both times he was uninjured.

David Richards, Benetton's team director, is not worried about the crashes.

''I've inherited a unique talent,'' said Richards, who joined the team last September, and promptly extended Wurz's contract by a year, until the end of next season. ''He needs to be able to push the limits without having to fear that if he has a few too many crashes he's going to be on the sidelines. And he's really developing exceptionally well.''

Wurz replaced Berger as the only Austrian driver in Formula One. His predecessors include Niki Lauda, the triple world champion, and Jochen Rindt, the only driver to win the title posthumously, after he was killed in an accident at Monza in 1970.

How is it that a relatively small country has produced so many great drivers?

''I know the reason,'' said Wurz. ''But I'm not telling you. Or all the others will know it as well.''

Maybe it's the shoes. That started in New Zealand in 1992 when he forgot his racing shoes, and only found a mismatched pair. ''I took the shoes and I won the race,'' he said. ''I decided to continue it because my team said I should. It's not superstition. It's just a bit of fun.''

He is going to have a bit of fun this weekend, too, and despite the extra pressure of racing at home, he said he is ''trying to think of it as a race like all the other races.''

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