NEWS FEATURE

The Impressive Mr Wendlinger

Before the South African Grand Prix Karl Wendlinger's racing mileage in F1 amounted to less than 16 laps. Over the winter he did 10 more. And yet at Kyalami he was seventh on the grid in his March-Ilmor. F1 was impressed.

Karl made a good start in the South African Grand Prix, but as the field bunched up for the hairpin on the second lap, Martin Brundle tried to pass the Austrian and the two cars touched. Wendlinger went sideways onto the grass and his tyres got dirty and so he lost a few places. After that he was stuck behind slower cars. Gradually he watched his temperature gauge rising and saw smoke in his mirrors.

"I had no choice but to retire," he said. "Nothing special."

Karl shrugged off his disappointment, but up and down the pitlane people were talking about what he had achieved in qualifying. Last year his two brief appearances in the Leyton House team had been inconclusive.

"The biggest problem year was that I couldn't change the gears. I was too big for the cockpit. Every lap I missed gears at least twice and that lost me at least one second. And if you don't feel comfortable in a car after five laps you are very tired and cannot concentrate very much. That was a big disadvantage."

Over the winter there was very serious doubt that Wendlinger would have a drive for this season because of the financial problems at Leyton House/March.

"We agreed that we wanted to work together," he explained,"but there were big financial problems. I had to find some money and that was not very easy. We waited until the very last day before the driver nominations closed because no-one knew what was going to happen. It was a bit worrying. I wanted to do F1 and at some stages it didn't look as though I could. I was not really motivated and it was looking as if I would have to go back to German saloon cars which was not what I wanted, but in the end it came good."

His only winter test was 10 laps at Silverstone shortly before the cars were packed up and sent off to South Africa. It was not a lot.

"The car was virtually the same as last year. The engine was the same although Mario Illien did make some small improvements. There was not really a big step. The one difference was that the back of my seat was moved further back and the gear lever was moved forward a little. I gained 4cm but it was enough to be able to change gear properly. I can sit in the car very well now and I felt confident around the circuit. We also had a very good set-up."

The result of these changes saw Karl startle many during the Thursday acclimatization laps at Kyalami. In one session he was ninth fastest, in the other 13th. It might have a publicity stunt for the struggling team but on Friday morning he was ninth again. When the official session began he went out early, had a clear lap and wound up eighth. This was no flash in the pan. That evening Karl confided that he wasn't sure if he could hold on to his eighth grid slot, but added that he would be trying his best.

"On Saturday I improved my driving a little. I was a bit more aggressive. We worked in the right direction. There were not big steps forward, but we found tenths here and there."

When the dust settled at the end of final qualifying Wendlinger was seventh. He had not gone backwards as he feared, he had actually improved!

"Being in the top 10 in F1 is good for one's confidence," he smiled, "but, you know, I was never a guy who had a lot of confidence. I was always a little careful at the beginning. Confidence comes but gradually. It helped a lot that I have no problems fitting in the car and changing gears. I thought I'd be getting tired because I didn't test much in the winter, but I had no problems at all."

Lining up one place ahead of him on the grid was his friend, rival and former Mercedes sportscar team mate Michael Schumacher in his Benetton. Last year Michael stole the thunder in F1, leaving Karl to be overlooked a little when he arrived in F1.

"Yes, I suppose I am a little bit in his shadow," he smiled. "That was normal. No-one paid much attention to us in Group C and when he moved to F1 and was really successful from the beginning I was still in F3000 and Group C. He got all the publicity because he was the first quick German driver for years. I was not really disappointed. That was the way it was."

Group C insiders reckon that Schumacher and Wendlinger were pretty evenly matched in the silver Mercedes sportcars but, because of lack of sponsorship, Karl's career in single-seaters was not that spectacular.

"The major problem was that we couldn't find the money for a proper season," he explains. "So when there was an offer to do Group C with Mercedes, I decided to compromise. I didn't give up single seaters but a good season was not possible.

"It was not really the way I would like to have gone. I wanted to move to F1 as the European F3000 champion."

As it turned out, the link with Mercedes was to prove important. When the Leyton House drive came up at the end of last season the German manufacturer agreed to guarantee the money for Wendlinger to take the drive.

"They said OK we will guarantee the money and see if we can get it back from sponsors and, in the end, they did get most of the money. They helped me just as they had helped Michael."

Over the winter, however, Mercedes decided not to enter F1 with their own team. The plan to employ Karl and Michael in the future was axed. There is, however, still a connection, even if it is no longer a formal arrangement.

"It is nothing official," explains Karl, "but Norbert Haug of the motorsports department has helped with some connections to sponsors. He knows a lot of people. I also get a road car from them but otherwise there is no contract and no money being paid."

Despite this Karl's future looks quite secure. A few weeks ago Peter Sauber, who plans to enter his own team in F1 in 1993, announced that Wendlinger was part of the team.

"I have an agreement with Sauber," says Wendlinger. "They have an option with me but I don't have a contract for next year. It depends a bit on what I do this year. I hope I will get a contract, but it isn't fixed yet."

The events at Kyalami, however, were an encouraging start to the year. But will the rest of the year see such good showings. The March team is still struggling for money.

"Well," says Karl. "It won't get any easier! There are a lot of new cars here which need time to be developed and get faster. That is one of our advantages at the moment. We have a car which is ready and reliable. We know what we have to do with set-up but from Imola onwards it will be different I am sure."

Different or not, at Kyalami Wendlinger made his mark.

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