Motor racing: Possible successor to Rindt and Lauda looks ready to carry hopes of a nation

New faces for '98: ALEXANDER WURZ

A young Austrian has a hard act to follow in taking over the Formula One mantle of Gerhard Berger both at the wheel of a competitive car and as a focus of national interest.

In the first of a series on newcomers to top flight sport, Derick Allsop considers the task that faces Alexander Wurz.

Embarking on a first full season in Formula One is a prospect daunting enough for any driver, but when the job carries the added responsibility of upholding a nation's distinguished tradition, it might be considered too onerous even to contemplate.

Austria's Alexander Wurz finds himself in precisely that situation as he begins a regular drive with Benetton, taking over the wheel for team and country from Gerhard Berger.

For more than 30 years, an Austrian driver has been at the forefront of grand prix racing. Up to 1970, it was the highly gifted Jochen Rindt, the first posthumous world champion. Then came Niki Lauda, champion in 1975, '77 and '84. Berger accepted the baton and although he never won the title he had 10 grand prix victories and enormous affection to ease the parting at the end of last season.

The indications are that 23-year-old Wurz has the talent and temperament to be a worthy successor. He acquitted himself admirably in three races as Berger's understudy last summer, concluding his stint with third place in the British Grand Prix.

But how about the little matter of representing Austria after Rindt, Lauda and Berger?

"I don't feel any pressure from the Austrian journalists or anything like that," he said. "Of course I am a patriot and proud to be the Austrian driver in Formula One now, but I drive for my own satisfaction, not to be Austria's next star.

"Since Rindt, we have always had an Austrian driver among the best. Why that is I do not know. We are only a small country. But even if we knew the secret we would not tell!"

For Wurz, the inspiration was not so much the achievements of his celebrated countrymen as a more modest influence closer to hand. His father, Franz, raced and although he did not become one of the luminaries, a natural path was paved for young Alexander.

"My father was a driver so I grew up on the circuits," he said. "It was a way of life for me from a very early age. At school I never wanted to be a pilot or a doctor or a lawyer like the other boys. I wanted only to be a racing driver."

As an Austrian schoolboy he inevitably found recreations on skis but always he turned to wheels for his competitive fulfilment. At the age of 12, he was a world champion on BMX bikes.

Three years later, he switched to karts, fertile ground for would-be car racers, and he duly graduated to Formula Four a further two years down the road. His championship successes at home and abroad propelled him on to Formula Three and another domestic title triumph.

In 1996, he was Rookie of the Year in the International Touring Car Championship and, as a member of the Joest Porsche team, became the youngest winner of the Le Mans 24-hour sportscar classic. He underlined his versatility with consistently competitive drives in GT races last year.

Formula One, however, was his objective and Benetton-Renault summoned him on board as test and reserve driver. When illness struck down Berger mid-season, Wurz was promoted.

His impact was instant. He demonstrated not only exceptional pace but a technical appreciation many more senior drivers did not command. That podium finish at Silverstone confirmed the team's confidence and he was assigned a 1998 seat.

Wurz, who has already joined the Formula One commune in Monaco, said: "I would have chosen Benetton because it is where I have done a lot of work and testing. I had made my position in the team and did not want to give that away. There is a great atmosphere here.

"I always worked at the technical side as well as the racing. My technical interest goes back to my studies. I did an engineering and technical course although I stopped after four of the five years because the racing was becoming too big for me to continue."

Many predict it will become bigger still for Wurz. First of all, however, he must contend with fierce internal competition from another of the sport's tiros, the Italian Giancarlo Fisichella.

Wurz said: "He had the experience of racing with Jordan last year and they were quite strong, but it is important we don't fight together. The team needs us to pull in the same direction. We are getting closer and working together, and I think it will be closer on the circuit."

Within the team, there is optimism one or both of their fledgling drivers will regenerate some of the exciting momentum Michael Schumacher brought them in the early and mid-90s. Wurz, prudently, plays down his prospects of emulating the great German.

He said: "I don't want to be compared with Schumacher because that is dangerous and not easy for any driver. I will always give 100 per cent, that is all I can guarantee. I appreciate I am one of a few drivers in the world racing in Formula One, and it is hard to describe how special that feels.

"I don't know if this is the start of a new era for Benetton. They were third in the constructors' championship last year and if we could be third again this year that would be great. It will be very difficult for us to be first or second.

"I would like to finish consistently in the points and if I could get one or two podium places that would be good. It's my first year and I need to learn a lot before I talk about winning races."

This polite, lean young man has patently learned already the art of politically correct understatement but Fisichella, for one, will not be fooled he is a soft touch.

Significantly, Wurz added: "With the new car regulations this year it means everyone starts from zero. That could be an advantage for the younger drivers and I want to bring out my best. I am not here for a Sunday holiday drive."

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