Fifteen minutes of fame
Berta LR: Temporada Series, Buenos Aires – January 10-18,1970
A DFV-engined sportscar built in Argentina sounds fanciful, but Oreste Berta’s racer was good enough to give the Porsches and Alfas a fright. By Tony Watson
Three events, three retirements. Not the best credentials for any car, but during its short-lived international career, the Berta LR turned more than a few heads in the pitlane as it briefly humbled some of the world’s top factory sportscars.
The concept of building an all-Argentinian sportscar was sown in engineer Oreste Berta’s mind by none other than Juan Manuel Fangio. Berta had been tuning Renaults throughout the 1960s, and by ’69 he’d started constructing his own touring cars at his La Fortaleza (‘The Fortress’) workshop. It was from here that he and Fangio combined to mastermind the entry of three Renault Torinos in the Marathon de la Route at the Nürburgring, in which one of the cars came close to victory.
The LR project was born while Berta was with Fangio on another European trip, to Sweden for the opening of Mantorp Park. Also there was Patricio Peralta Ramos, whose family owned the La Razón national newspaper in Argentina (hence the car’s LR designation). He wanted to meet European team owners in order to rent a car for local drivers in the 1970 Buenos Aires 1000Km, but Fangio suggested to Ramos that he have a car built in Argentina.
“Ramos asked if we could create a Group 6 prototype. That’s how it began,” remembers Berta. “I remember flying home worrying how Ramos’ father would react – after all, a Cosworth DFV had already been ordered. Luckily, he thought it a good idea.”
The LR consisted of a tubular chassis with the Cosworth bolted in the back, and almost every thing was done in-house. Computer-aided design was used for the car’s suspension, and Berta even produced its own sleek, rounded bodywork on site.
Berta himself drove the car on its maiden run, at Alta Gracia at the end of ’69, and was lucky to walk away from a not insubstantial crash. “It went well, although it was a bit twitchy to begin with,” he says. “Then a suspension component broke, which led to my big accident.”
Undeterred, the team soon had the car ready for more testing at Buenos Aires, the venue for that year’s non-championship 1000Km. Misfortune struck again when Oscar Franco slid off in a sudden downpour and hit the barriers hard. He was out of racing for some time, so up-and-coming local driver Carlos Marincovich was brought in to join Rubén Luis Di Palma. The newcomer immediately liked the LR.
“I remember talking to Pedro Rodriguez about the car one day, and he was surprised it was using a Formula One engine,” recalls Marincovich. “He thought an engine with those characteristics was not ideal for a driver in a long-distance race. But it was magnificent to drive, very predictable.”
The Buenos Aires 1000Km would be the car’s debut race, the first of two sportscar events that would make up the revived Temporada series. The Berta faced factory Alfa Romeos and Matras, as well as decent privateer Porsches and Lola T70s. But Di Palma gave it his all and surprised locals and visitors alike by setting third-fastest time (of 26 cars) in qualifying. Only the Brian Redman/David Piper Porsche 917 and the Alfa Romeo T33/3 of Andrea de Adamich and Piers Courage were quicker.
Then, in the race, Di Palma showed this was no flash in the pan by hanging onto third until stopping at the pits when he felt there was something loose. He was sent back out, climbed to seventh, but stopped again for the same reason, this time for good. The V8 engine’s vibrations had caught the team out. “Apparently, it was the vibrations that had loosened the bolts in part of the rear suspension which was attached to the gearbox,” says Berta. “That was when we were introduced to Loctite, thanks to the Alfa Romeo mechanics we’d made friends with. With this product, we never had to worry about bolts working loose again.”
At the next weekend’s 200 Miles of Buenos Aires, the LR did even better. Di Palma lined up second, sharing the front row with Courage’s Alfa. At the start, however, Masten Gregory surged his Porsche 908/2 past Di Palma and into the lead. Courage went on to win the heat, followed by Gregory and Di Palma. But the Berta had beaten Nanni Galli’s Alfa and Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s Matra.
The glory was fleeting, however. Marincovich took over in heat two, but hopes of a good aggregate result came to an abrupt end on lap 11, when he crashed at the right-hander behind the pits.
Even so, the Berta had made a good impression on the Europeans. “Some time later we received an offer from the organisers of the Nürburgring 1000Km to race there at the end of May,” says Berta. “The start money being offered helped, but we were still very short of funds.”
A new, lighter chassis was built using thinner-walled tubes. Team, car and the same drivers duly arrived in Germany, but the Nürburgring offered a different challenge to the smooth Buenos Aires track. Di Palma and Marincovich found the car difficult to drive. The latter explains: “The car would dart around on the straights. Bilstein rapidly supplied us shock absorbers with about 20mm more travel.”
There were other late changes, too, according to Berta: “We phoned our people at home and got them to hurriedly work out new suspension geometry with the computer.”
With these mods, the car improved significantly and Di Palma put the car on row seven of the grid. In the race, the car’s new-found handling allowed him to improve on his qualifying times and clamber up to ninth, but oil circulation trouble meant they were out by lap five.
That was the car’s final outing, in Cosworth guise at least. The LR had proved quick, but the long-term backing for its development and a full international season was never found. It appeared over the next three years in an Argentinian sportscar series, powered by a local Tornado stock-block V8, but not in international races.
Oreste Berta has come a long way since those days. With 10 titles to its name, his team is now regarded as the best in Argentina’s ultra-competitive TC2000 touring car series. In the 1970s he built a short-lived Formula 5000 car, followed by some Formula Threes in the mid-1980s. Never again, however, would the Berta marque make such an impact on the world stage.