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Special feature

Why illustrious racing dads aren't always an advantage for F1 hopefuls

They’ve been there, done it and worn the T-shirt in F1. But for ex-GP racers, helping their offspring up the single-seater ladder is no easy pursuit. While a famous name helps to open doors, the rest is decided on the track

Sebastian Montoya

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

You don’t have to look far to find the inspiration for the helmet design used by newly crowned Formula Regional Oceania (nee Toyota Racing Series) champion Charlie Wurz. The 17-year-old is the second son of three-time Formula 1 podium finisher and two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Alex Wurz, who famously painted his own zig-zag helmet designs that were instantly identifiable wherever he went.

Of course, a distinctive helmet livery isn’t the only benefit Wurz Jr and his younger brother – kart racer Oscar – can derive from their father. The Austrian’s years of extensive racing and testing experience mean he has unparalleled knowledge of tyre behaviour and vehicle dynamics, while his time leading the FIA’s Young Driver Excellence Academy and running his own Test & Training driver school makes him uniquely positioned as an asset to call upon.

What Wurz Sr doesn’t know about driver improvement isn’t worth knowing. But how best to use that knowledge is something he admits is a constant learning curve as his “very analytical” approach, he discovered, was “perhaps overwhelming for the teams and engineers as well as Charlie”.

“There are a lot of things I have experienced, but this is still in the pinnacle of motorsport that’s not always applying to a single brand car,” Wurz Sr admits. “If I’m looking for issues which might be applicable in top cars because they’re individual parts – well, if Tatuus [Formula Regional constructor] makes 10,000 or 1000 roll bars then the fact that maybe one or the other is different, it’s very small. My input has to be adjusted to not be invasive, to be productive.

“What I’m learning myself is to let them come. If they are opening up and say, ‘What do you think about tyre temperatures or set-up direction, should I confront my engineer or should I not?’, then it’s easier to give a direction.”

In a similar position is Rubens Barrichello, who won 11 grands prix during a lengthy F1 career that has him third on the all-time starts list. For his sons Eduardo (21) and Fernando (17), he says: “I’m there when they ask. If I tell them all I think, they’re going to change the whole set-up! They have to grow by themselves, like we did ourselves.”

Barrichello says it's best to wait until he's asked for input from his sons before weighing in

Barrichello says it's best to wait until he's asked for input from his sons before weighing in

Photo by: Roberto/ActualFoto

As such, Barrichello Sr only ever attends debriefs when asked to do so, although he relishes poring over data with his offspring afterwards: “It’s very important that whatever is happening to the car, it’s equal to what they feel about it.”

Therein lies the paradox. But it’s a very different approach to the sometimes “harsh” and ultra-hands-on approach adopted by Jos Verstappen that helped shape son Max’s prodigious talent. His record as the youngest F1 winner ever is unlikely ever to be surpassed, and you wouldn’t bet against him adding to his two world titles. 

Having years of finely tuned insight is all well and good, but how advantageous actually is it for the prospects of their aspiring young F1 racers when – such is the nature of youth – the last person they often want to listen to is their parents?

"We tell Sebastian, 'This is your career, if you want to be better than somebody else, you need to do more than the rest'" Juan Pablo Montoya

History shows that just two sons of previous champions have emulated their fathers by winning the F1 World Championship, Damon Hill’s and Nico Rosberg’s achievements coming 20 years apart. That Verstappen Jr and Kevin Magnussen are the only drivers on the current grid whose fathers also competed in F1 underlines the scale of the challenge facing the many ex-F1 aces – including 2004 Monaco Grand Prix winner Jarno Trulli and long-time Ferrari tester Luca Badoer with their sons Enzo (17) and Brando (16) – trying to help their children follow in their footsteps.

Even if you do prise open the door and your name happens to be Schumacher, there may be a Nico Hulkenberg waiting to take your seat…

“For sure the name opens doors,” says Barrichello. “But to keep it open, it depends on them.”

That’s not going to put off Juan Pablo Montoya, whose 17-year-old son Sebastian is now a Red Bull Junior and has stepped up full-time to Formula 3 with Hitech after racing against Eduardo Barrichello in the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine last season. It brings the Colombian seven-time grand prix winner’s life full circle – he raced for Helmut Marko’s RSM team in the 1997 Formula 3000 championship.

Montoya watches on as his son Sebastian climbs aboard for a round of the Formula Regional Middle East championship - important preparation for his maiden F3 campaign

Montoya watches on as his son Sebastian climbs aboard for a round of the Formula Regional Middle East championship - important preparation for his maiden F3 campaign

Photo by: Diederik van der Laan / Dutch Photo Agency

“The thing that has changed for Helmut now is he’s got so many more drivers that I think he cannot push the drivers day in, day out and it becomes more of a driver responsibility to do his bit,” the former Williams and McLaren driver points out. “We tell Sebastian, ‘This is your career, if you want to be better than somebody else, you need to do more than the rest.’

“Sometimes we can’t afford to do as much testing as somebody else, but we compensate. We have our own simulator, we do a lot of training, we’re going to start doing a bunch of shifter karts, we’re going to do everything in our power to maximise his performance.”

Montoya Sr says that he’s now reached a point in his own career where the “number one [focus] is him for sure”. He found that Sebastian “really could have used my help” on his first visit to Monaco last year, the same weekend Montoya Sr was racing at the Indianapolis 500 with Arrow McLaren. But he too recognises that being too hands-on can be detrimental.

“He needs to figure out a lot of these things himself,” Montoya states. “He needs to lead his own career – I try not to get too involved. I intervene more when things are not going well and they need guidance. But at the end of the day, he’s the one that has the relationship with the engineers and with the team, not me.”

This is a point that teams recognise too. Some take proactive steps to ward off interference, even the well-meaning sort.

“I did learn quite quickly, I just sit in the motorhome and enjoy the coffee,” smiles Wurz. “The teams want to make sure, ‘please don’t engage with us with your experience because we have to build it up together ourselves’, and you have to respect that.”

It’s a situation familiar for Barrichello too: “There are teams that hate if I have a radio, even if I don’t talk,” he concedes.

Wurz Sr says he infrequently attends races with his son, Formula Regional Oceania champion Charlie

Wurz Sr says he infrequently attends races with his son, Formula Regional Oceania champion Charlie

Photo by: Bruce Jenkins

Wurz reckons that letting the youngsters make their own mistakes, “for Charlie in terms of set-up or direction or the way he handles a situation”, can be helpful in the long run “because it’s from the mistakes you learn”. Micromanaging, he says, is “definitely not happening in our family” – not least because his work commitments as an ambassador for Toyota, chairman of F1’s Grand Prix Drivers’ Association and his track design business meant he could attend “one third of the races last year [when Wurz Jr raced in F4] maximum if not less”.

“Sometimes it’s not good to hold them on the hand at every step,” Wurz says. “You have to see the bigger picture, don’t see every day as a real deciding moment, it’s rarely like that. Therefore it’s sometimes good that mistakes happen or people are stubborn, want to go their own way. Those are usually the people who learn the most.”

For all of these dads, who are so accustomed to being paid to race, the experience of going back to chasing sponsors has been an eye-opener. “It’s not easy,” admits Montoya.

"Sometimes because there have been racing drivers with their kids, some of them didn’t do a good job with the team so everyone says, 'Someone like Alex will come in and dictate everything'" Alex Wurz

For Wurz, who secured a spot for Charlie with ART in the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine, his surname makes no difference when it comes to negotiating with teams given the high demand for seats, but reckons it has its advantages when it comes to sponsorship. On the subject of special events such as private driving days, Wurz “can also offer myself as part of the value”.

“You have to think of how to return favours like organise incentive programmes, company visits,” he explains. “With Charlie we went for example to Remus [an Austrian exhaust manufacturer], we organised a pizza truck and made pizzas for 500 of the employees. We know that a few months later, internally they still talk about it.”

Barrichello has raced for Toyota in his domestic Stock Car series since 2020, and Toyota Gazoo Racing Latin America was a prominent backer of Eduardo’s racing through to last season’s FRECA campaign. But while Fernando has a seat locked in with Spanish Formula 4 squad Monlau Motorsport, nothing has yet been signed for Eduardo, with Barrichello Sr admitting “it’s been hard to find a budget”. A future in touring cars or GT machinery in Brazil appears to be his most likely career option.

Sebastian Montoya (left) and Eduardo Barrichello raced against each other in FRECA last season

Sebastian Montoya (left) and Eduardo Barrichello raced against each other in FRECA last season

Photo by: Diederik van der Laan / Dutch Photo Agency

A successful racing parent is therefore no guarantee of a smooth path right to the top and, as Wurz points out, “it gives disadvantages too”. He takes a balanced view of the pros and cons.

“Of course, you have advantages and it would be wrong not to use them because it’s a competitive game,” he says. “Knowing a circuit is an advantage, being able to call up people because I have built up my network, it’s an advantage. We have to make use of this.

“Equally there are disadvantages. When expectations are too high, perhaps some sponsors might think, ‘They seem to be well off, why do I need to help them?’ And sometimes because there have been racing drivers with their kids, some of them didn’t do a good job with the team so everyone says, ‘Someone like Alex will come in and dictate everything.’”

It’s hard enough to make the journey to the top once. But to do it a second time, supporting the ambitions of your offspring – well, that’s a whole different story.

Wurz scored F1 podiums for Benetton, McLaren and Williams but knows reaching the pinnacle of motorsport twice over will be a challenge

Wurz scored F1 podiums for Benetton, McLaren and Williams but knows reaching the pinnacle of motorsport twice over will be a challenge

Photo by: Sutton Images

Extracurricular activities

When Alex Wurz’s youngest son Oscar steps up from karting this year, he will be immersed in “doing all sorts of different things” including Formula 4 and touring car tests, plus rallycross. This sensory assault previously experienced by elder brother Charlie, his father explains, is intended to “give him experience in different scenarios, different weather conditions, different cars, front-wheel, rear-wheel drive, just so you learn about vehicle dynamics, tyres and also learn how to quickly adjust to new cars and circuit conditions”.

As the son of European Rallycross champion Franz, it’s no surprise to hear Wurz extol the discipline’s virtues, and he reckons it will have benefits for “anyone who pursues a single-seater career or any professional career”.

“In split seconds you have to take decisions because you can’t wait for another lap,” he points out. “So they’re training for the mind to make fast decisions and live with the consequence. And you learn equally if you don’t take the decision, the guy behind you takes it for you because he dives into half a hole.

Sharing an LMP2 car with his father, Montoya Jr had to adapt to racing faster DPi prototypes and slower LMP3 and GT machinery, which meant he was overtaking and being overtaken several times per lap

“It’s very explosive, you also go sometimes to the most deciding heat race, early Sunday morning, there is no warm-up and you go from zero to one hundred adrenalin and you have to make this work. That’s really valuable lessons, beside the fact it’s really fun.”

Juan Pablo Montoya has also seen to it that his son Sebastian builds experience outside single-seaters – they shared a DragonSpeed LMP2 ORECA-Gibson 07 in three IMSA SportsCar Championship outings last year. Montoya Jr had to adapt to racing faster DPi prototypes and slower LMP3 and GT machinery, which meant he was overtaking and being overtaken several times per lap, all the while being encouraged to broaden his understanding of car set-up.

“Being on the same car has been very useful,” says Montoya Sr, who will again race alongside his son in this year's European Le Mans Series. “It’s been a bit of an eye-opener to [realise], ‘OK, the car is bad, they can actually change the car and make it drive better’, because a lot of the junior formula teams taught the drivers that ‘this is the car and you’ve just got to drive it’.”

Montoya Sr has enjoyed racing with his son in LMP2, which has broadened Sebastian's understanding of car set-up and given him experience in multi-class racing

Montoya Sr has enjoyed racing with his son in LMP2, which has broadened Sebastian's understanding of car set-up and given him experience in multi-class racing

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

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