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Podcast: Catching up with FRegional Oceania champion Charlie Wurz

by Ida Wood

Photo: TGR NZ

Once he made a safe return to Europe, after extreme weather hit New Zealand as he went to leave the country, Charlie Wurz joined the Formula Scout Podcast to discuss his title-winning campaign down under

This year the Toyota Racing Series returned with a new name, a field of international talents and brilliant racing. The COVID-19 pandemic led to the 2022 season being cancelled, and the series’ comeback as Formula Regional Oceania last month was full of close battles and dramatic moments.

The New Zealand Grand Prix also made a return, attracting some familiar faces from the race’s past, and the points lead changed hands twice during the final round of the season.

M2 Competition’s Charlie Wurz emerged as champion, and joined this week’s Formula Scout Podcast – but only after he had got back to Europe safely as a cyclone struck down under just as he was planning to fly home!

You can listen to the episode on Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and below, and can read the interview too.

What attracted you to do Formula Regional Oceania this winter rather than follow up last year’s Formula 4 UAE title by stepping up to FRegional Middle East?

Basically my dad raced in NZ 30 years ago in Formula Ford, and he absolutely loved it. So basically every dinner he’s telling us stories about his experiences in NZ, both on-track and off. He just enjoyed the whole thing and loved it. He was there with his family, with his older brother, the whole thing was just such a good experience that he really want me to go as well to experience the same thing. He was also 17 when he went, and in the end he was right because I loved it.

The country is really good, the racing is also really good and we got a good result. And also ART Grand Prix, my team for this year [in FRegional Europe], they were quite big gans of going to NZ instead of doing the FRME championship. Also they have good connections with the M2 Competition team which I raced with in FRegional Oceania. So everything sort of worked as planned, and everything went smoothly and worked well together. So that’s basically the reason we went over to NZ.

The NZ tracks are nothing like the European tracks. Narrow, tight, twisty, some undulation. How did you find them, particularly in a larger FRegional car?
Yeah, it’s definitely quite different to Europe. Which is also a good thing, just to learn different skills. It’s definitely much tighter, and sometimes more difficult to overtake, but also you have no room for mistakes. So if you make a mistake, you’re soon in the grass and you’re soon in the wall. And the walls aren’t soft Tecro barriers like in Europe. At Teretonga in the second round, it was tyre barriers filled with concrete, so you didn’t want to go anywhere near that.

So it was definitely like, you have to on the last quali lap push a bit more over the limit, hope for the best, hope you make it through the corner, and that made it a lot more exciting. That was a risk element you don’t really get anymore I think in European tracks with all the run-off. It was sort of like you have to risk it on the last lap, hope for the best, and sometimes it paid off, and sometimes for a few drivers you would end up in the wall. That was a cool part of the experience.

A few club racing circuits like that are in Europe, but international series don’t get to experience them.

Lots of engineers and mechanics come from Europe to do FRegional Oceania too. Who was engineering your car?

I had a great engineer, and we had a really good time in the end. It was Carles Martinez, he worked previously in F1 with Manor [as Pascal Wehrlein’s performance engineer at Sauber] and he also worked in Formula E [as performance engineer at Mahindra and Andretti for several drivers], basically everywhere in motorsport! He was really good, understood everything and made my life so much easier because he understood everything that was happening with the car and he could explain it to me more clearly. He was always very calm, and always gave me motivation. Always boosted my confidence. It was just a really good relationship, and on the days off we would go hiking together all the time or have dinner. So it was a really good relationship, and I think that definitely helped; just have confidence in each other.

The M2 crew as well was a really great team. So overall just the atmosphere in the team was really positive, and I think that definitely helped. Epecially the M2 team had really good results, just because everyone trusted each other, even between team-mates it was a good bond. So all of that together definitely helped us achieve a good result in the end.

How did you find the pressure of the title battle, on and off-track?
It was definitely quite a tight title battle in the end. Especially going into Taupo, losing the lead of the championship going into the last day, but knowing I was starting P4 for the reversed-grid [race]. I knew it was all down to qualifying, basically. I had to get a good quali, so overnight we changed the whole car, turned it upside down, so everything was new going into quali. We reset everything, and everything in our minds, and we went into quali and we got pole position. It was a really good quali, really good lap, and the car was just perfect. We put it all together, we put it all on the line, but it really worked out.

In the race, it started to rain mid-race with slicks on, and it started to get quite slippery, especially on the paint. So it was definitely they made it difficult for me to win the race and the championship, because every lap I was afraid, or I had the possibility of going off because it was so slippery. I think it was about six seconds slower, the track. There was a safety car later in the race, the tyres cooled down and the first lap after safety car it was pure chaos. So everything really increased the pressure, but it made it really cool in the end.

And to win the title like that, when I crossed the line I was so happy. Happy for the team, for everyone, because what a way to win it after having a difficult Saturday. To turn it all upside down. I think Sunday was the best day we had in the championship, with a pole, a podium in the reversed-grid and also winning the last feature race. When all the pressure was on, we delivered, and delivered the best we had all season. So it was really a great way to end it.

The last race also delivered the New Zealand Motor Cup. Given the Toyota-spec FRegional car is slightly different to the FREC-spec one, would you say 99% of what you have learned in NZ is applicable to what you’re doing next?
I think it will definitely help. The car, it’s the same chassis, but the tyres are different and also the rideheight. The first session I did at Highlands Motorsport Park, it was the same, the same car, but everything felt slightly different. So I think it will take a few sessions to, a few laps, to adapt to it back in Europe.

But I’m sure all this experience of five weeks in a row driving four days a week, that definitely helps, just to get my head around the car, a bigger car with more downforce, more horsepower. It will just take a few laps to adapt a bit more. Especially the Pirelli tyres seem to be quite difficult to understand, and it’s what most rookies struggle with in their first year of FREC. Compared to the Hankooks which are a lot harder, so you can just keep pushing and the more laps you do the faster you get. So with the Pirellis it’s a bit more peak. You have to really put the lap together. So it will make it a bit more difficult, but I think that just takes a bit more learning.

The probably 1000 laps, or at least 1000 kilometres, we’ve done in NZ definitely will help me get a head start compared to the others.

Looking at the winter series, you guys seemed to get more actual racing compared to FRME where they had so many safety cars and red flags. During the NZ GP weekend you had star drivers like Chris van der Drift turn up too. Did you get to speak to them?
Not too much. I spoke to a few of them. It was good to know from their experience, they’re used to driving different cars. They’ve driven the grand prix probably quite a few times. It was just good to know what they feel, and what they feel the car is like. Just to understand from a driver with more experience, their feelings and stuff, just to learn more in the end. It was cool to race guys like them, also to see how they race. And it was definitely good to have more drivers in the grand prix, a full grid was definitely cool.

Because you’ve started this year with some big wins and a title, do you now feel there’s more pressure now to to be successful in FREC?
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s given me a bit more confidence, just reassuring us going into the season that if we put it all together we can fight at the front. And I’m hoping FREC is a very, very high level championship with many good drivers. I’m still in my first year of FRegional, so it will be important just to learn as much as possible at the beginning of the season so I can make a mark more later on in the season. That’s more how it goes with drivers in their first year of FREC.

My goal is to just, especially in the three winter tests we have before the seaon, work hard with the ART GP team, build a good relationship, have confidence in each other so the team can start the year on a high level, and see how it goes from there.

You’ve done extra-curricular motorsport alongside single-seaters. Will you continue to do GT racing and rallycross, or fully focused on the FRegional campaign for rest of this year?
The main thing is to focus on FREC, and it’s always good to get different experiences. Just to open up your understanding of cars, try different things. Before I tried GT4 and rallycross, and I think it’s just good to get different understandings on how to drive different cars, and maybe you can apply some of those tricks or things you learned in the single-seater or maybe in your future when you drive a heavier car or maybe some other type of car. We could possibly be doing that. I have no plans at the moment, but I’m sure that could be an option to do this season just to get more experience, and I think it would be also fun to learn something new.

Which FREC event are you looking forward to the most?
That’s a good question. I wish we had Monaco, because it would have been such a cool race. Unfortunately we don’t this year.

I think Zandvoort will be very cool. I raced there last year in F4, and it was definitely a really cool race. The track is quite old-school as well, a bit like NZ to be honest with the overtaking a bit difficult. An old-school track where you can’t really make mistakes. It might be quite similar to NZ, so it might be quite cool to race there. In F4 it was really fun, and when you had to go for a move you really had to send it and hope for the best and hope you don’t crash out. So there was definitely that risk element to it and it made it really fun, the race.