A warm welcome back to former Benetton star Alexander Wurz 22 Apr 2005
He has not started a Grand Prix since Malaysia in 2000, but this Sunday Alexander Wurz should be lining up on the grid to begin his first race in over four years as McLaren's substitute for the still-injured Juan Pablo Montoya. The 31-year old Austrian is taking over stand-in duties from fellow McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa, who did the honours in Bahrain. It's another milestone in the eventful career of a driver who was once regarded as a major future star.
Wurz knew success from an early age. He was BMX world champion at the age of 12 - this is where his famous habit of wearing different coloured race boots, one red and one blue, came from. Shortly afterwards he switched to karting and his natural talent behind the wheel was immediately apparent, progressing through Formula Ford to Formula Three and - in 1996 - becoming the youngest ever Le Mans winner, claiming victory in a Joest Porsche.
In 1997 he was called up by Benetton as a test driver, while still contesting the FIA international GT championship. Towards the end of the Formula One season, regular Benetton driver Gerhard Berger fell ill and Wurz was promoted into his race seat. His pace was impressive and he out-qualified experienced team mate Jean Alesi two out of three times. He even found himself on the podium, taking third place to Alesi's second at the British Grand Prix. It was a fairytale start to his Formula One career and fans and critics alike were quickly predicting great things for him.
In 1998 Wurz found himself promoted to a full race drive for Benetton, alongside another rising star, Giancarlo Fisichella. It was a fascinating season, and although Fisichella enjoyed slightly more success (out-qualifying his team-mate 10:6 and scoring two second-placed finishes), Wurz's more consistent form, including five fourth-place finishes and a fifth, saw him beating the Italians points tally at the end of the season to take eighth in the drivers' championship with 17 points against 16.
Yet, with hindsight, 1998 proved to be the highlight of Wurz's race career to date. The following season his form slipped dramatically and he ended up finishing the championship in 13th place with just 3 points, compared to Fisichella's 13 points and ninth-place finish. In 2000 the Austrian's fortunes waned still further, when compared to those of his team mate, inconsistent form and a lack of pace saw Wurz score just two world championship points all year, compared to Fisichellas 18. He was dropped at the end of the season.
With no race seat forthcoming for 2001, Wurz took up the option of a testing role at McLaren - and since then he has become a vital component in the technical development of their new cars. In terms of laps driven he's actually got more experience than most of his rivals on the grid, having put in more than 70,000 kilometres (40,000 miles) of development work in the last four years. Only on Sunday will we discover whether his considerably rustier race skills are still up to the challenge of going wheel-to-wheel with Formula One racings best drivers.