“The risks were a turn-on for me. I was always looking for the edge”

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Gerhard Berger ‘grew up’ in Formula 1’s most powerful era, pitted against Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet. In one key respect, he had ’em all beat – by having more fun

writer Rob Widdows

Shooting the breeze with Berger is a glorious oasis in a desert of political correctness. There is no messing around, no ducking and diving. Gerhard’s shots are fired from the hip. 

If only he would come back to the paddock, bring his energy, humour, intelligence and mischief to bear on Formula 1 as it stumbles towards yet another crisis. But, in case you’re wondering, he says he has no plans to return to the sport that has been his life. These days life’s a beach… in Monaco.

Gazing out across the harbour, chilled out in check shirt and jeans, Gerhard Berger is just as he always was – fast, funny, and impatient of long questions. When he talks he looks you very straight in the eye, goes directly to the point, no matter what the topic.

“OK, we can talk about what is wrong, or right, with Formula 1 but let’s start with the early days when it was just so much fun, and I never even dreamt of being in an F1 car.” This sounds like a good idea. So let’s enjoy some Berger banter over plates of pasta at Mozza, a favourite with racers at Portier, just down the road from his office above the famous Monaco tunnel.

Laughing as he talks, loving the memories, he takes us back to his boyhood in Austria.

“It’s crazy, but I started driving when I was six or seven. My father had a trucking company and he liked cars, but there were no karts or racing cars, nobody was racing. What I loved was working on the trucks, or going to the scrapyard, getting an old car and fixing it, bringing it back to life. Then I would take it out, slide around on snow and ice in our village. It was crazy. Soon the police knew my name and I spent a lot of my childhood in the police station or in the hospital… I was nine years old, no licence, no insurance, no number plates but I was sliding around town – it was fantastic, and the police told me they’d make sure I never got a driving licence.”

Pause for much laughter. “Then the real fun started: my father’s truck drivers knew I was out on the roads and by the time I was 12 years old they’d take me on long-distance trips and I would drive when they were sleeping. Forty tons in the back, snow and ice, flat out, to see how fast I could do the corners without it tipping over. I was small, so I’d put a box on the seat, and the tourists towing their caravans would look up at me with some shock on their faces. I loved it and I’m just thankful I never hurt myself, or anybody else… The thing I loved was finding the limit, whether it was a car, a truck or fork-lift in the yard. This was my life, the driving, but racing came much later. When I was 14 I discovered motorbikes and did some small races, some slaloms, street racing, and illegal night racing up in the mountains
and I found I was very quick in the rain, beating the other boys.

“I had a photo of Jochen Rindt on my wall. He was a big hero, but I didn’t follow motor racing as a fan, I was just obsessed with driving or riding on the limit. I had no big plan, no ambition. It’s incredible that I did only 40 races between those early days and arriving in Formula 1. It just happened; I’d been given this talent for driving, I was winning a lot, and I was never scared, nothing frightened me.”

***

There was a small local racing team in a nearby town and, having heard about Gerhard’s exploits on the streets, they allowed him to visit and look at the cars. Then, out of the blue, in 1979, they asked him if he’d like to race a Group 5 Ford Escort they had prepared at the Österreichring. 

“So I said OK, but I was still in college, no race licence, and I had no money. It turned out the guys were trying to sell the car and they knew my father had some money. Anyway, I did the race, and I won, which was a problem because it was in the papers and I’d never told my parents… They insisted I finish my education, so that was that until ’81 when I bought myself an Alfasud, prepared it, won the German Alfasud Trophy and brought home some prize money. Alfa Romeo came to me after I won at the Österreichring, said they’d like to support me, supply some engines for Formula 3, but I’d never driven a single-seater.” Pause for more laughter. “So I hired a Formula Ford and won my first race. Then I did Hockenheim in Ford 2000, Senna was there and many other big names, a strong field, and I qualified well. At the first corner somebody hit me, and at the chicane I had no brakes and I had a huge crash, cars everywhere, red flag, like a war zone, and I had no car any more. So I thought, OK, I know I have some talent and I need to find a way to Formula 3.”

In 1982 Gerhard finished third in the German F3 series, with a Josef Kaufmann Martini-Alfa, up against the faster VWs. Then the big break came: he met Helmut Marko.

“He says, ‘I’ve been watching you. Call me next week.’ So I did. I was almost bankrupt, no car, no plans for the next year. So I met him in Graz and he says he’s going to put me in the European F3 series. This was good because it was going to be more professional with him, I would learn about set-up and technical things, not just rely on my talent. I didn’t speak any English, I hardly knew where England was, but I hitched up a trailer and drove over there to buy a Ralt from Dick Bennetts. It was crazy, driving through London with my trailer – I’d never seen traffic like that before. Anyway, we got the car, took it home and did a race at Vallelunga. This was the start of being a professional driver with free engines from Alfa and backing from Helmut Marko.

“The car wasn’t very good, but I had no idea what to do about understeer or oversteer – I’d always just driven flat out. Helmut was very frustrated, he couldn’t believe I knew so little, and he helped me a lot with the technical side. We needed money so he took me to some slaloms in Austria where we could earn prize money and find sponsors. We won some races and Burghard Hummel, a long-time supporter from Austria, introduced me to Dieter Stappert at BMW. He offered me a touring car test at Mugello and I think I was quickest, so I got a place in the team and I was paid. Now I had money for F3 and I got to race the BMW. We got some F3 podiums in ’83 and decided to do another year in ’84 with Trivellato – but I didn’t want to be team-mate to an Italian in an Italian team, so Roberto Ravaglia lost his seat. I felt really bad about this; I liked Roberto, but Dieter Stappert got him a drive with me at BMW so it was OK in the end.”

***

Gerhard finished third in the European F3 championship, and now after fewer than 40 races in total he was on his way to F1 with ATS, recommended by Marko and Stappert, who brought BMW engines to the German team. Imagine it – no karting, some touring cars, a season of F3 and he was about to make his GP debut with more than 1000bhp of turbo power behind his back. The baptism was just four laps at Zandvoort.

“I know…” Pause for much chuckling. “It was crazy, this thing had so much power. I’d never felt anything like it – I mean I’d only done one proper season in a single-seater. It had 1300bhp, no tyre warmers, no power steering, manual gearbox, you’d spin the wheels in fifth gear… Incredible. Before I drove the car I walked down to Tarzan to check the braking point – it wasn’t just the power, it was the brakes. So I thought, ‘OK, I shut my eyes and brake where Piquet brakes.’ That’s what I did, and somehow I got it round the corner. [ATS boss] Günther Schmid said to me, ‘Wow, you brake late for Tarzan.’ I had to put on a good show – they could see what I was doing from the pits. Everything happened so fast, always changing gear, the power band was so narrow, just 1500 revs, so you raced sometimes with one hand – steering with one, changing gears with the other. Crazy.”

Everything was going according to plan. After just four races with ATS in ’84 Gerhard Berger, GP driver, had arrived at his destination. A year with Arrows, a year with Benetton and he was on his way to the Scuderia.

“I had no plan,” he chuckles, “but for the first time I could see some kind of professional career ahead. I also realised that, despite the natural talent I’d been given, I might never beat people like Senna, or Bellof, who had so much more racing experience. Bellof, I think, was the fastest of them all, and I’d met all the guys on my way to Formula 1. 

“They were great times. I had found my family, it was a dream. It was hard-core in those days, it was dangerous, but it was a great time for motor racing, for drivers and the fans.” 

In the winter of 1984, with an Arrows contract on the table, Berger survived a horrible accident in the Austrian mountains, hit from behind by another car and pushed over the edge of the road. “I thought it was the end of my career. I broke my neck in two places, head and kidney injuries, I nearly died. They put some screws in my head and a plate in my neck – they’d never done this before, very risky, but I said, ‘OK, go ahead.’ Afterwards I looked like a monster, no hair, plaster everywhere, holes in my head. The doctors said there was no way to think about racing, that I should be in bed for three weeks. After a week I got up and left, still like a monster, but I had to see Jackie Oliver and get the Arrows drive. It was so funny, I went to see him, talking with my hands over my head, telling him I was fine, and he gave me the job… Crazy. Anyway, I learnt a lot at Arrows; Jackie was good, totally a racer.” 

***

In these early years Berger came up against all our heroes of that era – Mansell, Piquet, Prost and Senna to name just a few. It was his approach to danger, his appetite for risk, that helped him take them on, even as the new kid on the grid.

“Yes, the risks were in some way a turn-on for me. I was always looking for the edge. It felt cool to put two wheels on the grass to overtake, like in the turbo Ferrari at Hockenheim, 205mph on the straight, then bring the car back in line. My first race in Austria, I was green behind the ears, a bit stressed, but I remember overtaking Piquet going down to the Boschkurve and waving to him, like the Queen passing by. He must have thought I was crazy, but I had no fear, it didn’t seem so special.

“I never thought about what would happen if I crashed, but all that changed completely after my accident at Tamburello at Imola [in 1989]. As I went towards the wall, flat out, no control, I knew it was going to be a big one. I could see it coming, then I blacked out. They said the hit was about 120g, that’s painful. There was the fire, that frightened me, and there was nothing left of the car. In the photos I am just somewhere in the wreckage, you cannot see me. It hurt, a lot, and I realised things can break on these cars, tyres can fail, nothing you can do, you’re gone.

“Looking back, the way I drove was perhaps not always the way to win races and championships, not the fastest way, but I enjoyed the risks, I was looking for them. After Tamburello I thought about the risks. When I went to McLaren, Ron [Dennis] tried to get me to change my style, be more focused on success, like Vettel these days or Lauda before, but it was not my personality. Ron said to me, ‘Gerhard, you are bloody quick, very talented, but you should stay off the kerbs, not be so sideways.’ But this was not me and in fact I went slower when I tried to be neater, to think more about points and championships.”

So whom did he respect above all the others at this, the highest level? He was teamed with the greatest, raced against the greatest for almost a decade.

“There were two guys I rated at a different level. Senna and Bellof. They were unbelievable. Everybody forgets about Bellof, he was on the level of Senna, a risk taker, he could challenge anyone. When I joined McLaren I thought I could beat Senna, otherwise I would not have gone there, but he was so quick, so determined. I learnt a lot about racing from him, and we became close friends. At McLaren there was always the fight with Ferrari, like between Hunt and Lauda, or Schumacher and Häkkinen, and Ron always aspired to be like Mr Ferrari with his road cars and his race team. That was a big motivation for him. He got upset when people mentioned he was a mechanic; he didn’t like that much. But we got on well, he liked my sense of humour. It was three good years.” 

***

But we’re jumping ahead: back to 1986. Berger’s first taste of the champagne came at Imola in April when he scored his, and Benetton’s, maiden podium. Then, in Mexico in October, came the breakthrough victory. En route to the podium at Imola he’d passed Stefan Johansson’s Ferrari, with two wheels on the grass, and back in Maranello Mr Ferrari made a little note in his black book.

“Benetton was a very happy time,” he says, “working with Pat Symonds, still one of the best engineers in F1. And there was Rory Byrne, a genius, the best designer of his generation, and later on with John Barnard, who gave us the automatic gearbox. These were the best ever in F1, next to Adrian Newey. At the end of ’86 I had offers from both McLaren and Ferrari: my brain said McLaren, my emotions said Ferrari, so I went with my emotions. I always did. Marco Piccinini had called me, said Mr Ferrari would like to see me, I thought, ‘Shit, this sounds good.’ So I drove to Maranello in my Audi 100, met Piccinini at a fuel station. He put me in the back of his car with a blanket over my head and drove me to Fiorano. I sat with Mr Ferrari and he says ‘Do you have a manager?’ I say no, and he says ‘OK, if we agree, you can sign today.’ He offered 700 or 800,000 and I thought, ‘This is good, I would have driven for free!’ ” More laughter. “So I signed, with an option for a second year, and that was it, done. It wasn’t the history. I just wanted to drive a Ferrari on the limit.”

And so began three turbulent seasons.

“It was difficult at first. Michele [Alboreto] was the big hero in the team, but I was quite soon the leader. After three years I was tired, though, needed a new challenge, and McLaren looked like the best team – very organised, good facilities – but when I got there it was just like Ferrari. Ron Dennis created this great image, while Ferrari was more about emotions. I am as much a McLaren man as a Ferrari man; both are brilliant teams and I had a fantastic time. It was difficult being teamed with Ayrton: he was ahead of me in experience, better at some things, and he deserved to be the number one. He was maybe the best ever. I studied how he worked but I preferred my own way, no point copying him. I’d never met a driver with the capacity he had; I underestimated him. At Ferrari I worked with Giorgio Ascanelli; he knew how to make me faster, did all the technical things, so when I got Prost’s engineer at McLaren I had no clue what to do with the car. I asked Ron to get Ascanelli for me, not easy, but he got it done. He says, ‘You want the good news or the bad? Ascanelli is coming.’ So what’s the bad news? ‘He’s going to be on Senna’s car’.” Cue more laughter.

“Yes, it’s funny now,” he grins, “but it was a big thing at the time. Looking back, I do regret that I didn’t take the technical side more seriously, and it would have helped if I’d done some karting like most of the other guys. I had the talent, but at McLaren I met the best, and I couldn’t beat him. Senna would always push the engineers to get everything right; it wasn’t just his speed, he played the game in every area, like Lauda, Prost or Vettel. I do regret not pushing harder, no question, but it just wasn’t my way, all the homework… But I had more fun than any of them. I’d known Ayrton since Formula 3; we were opposites, but there was a chemistry. We respected each other. I was sometimes quicker and he was shocked, but he had better racecraft, and he was fitter.

“We became friends because he’d had a bad time with Prost and I never wanted to get involved in all that bullshit, the politics with Honda or whatever. We trusted each other. I showed him some fun; we spent some holiday time on my boat, planning how much money we would get from Ron for the new season. Ayrton enjoyed that, loved doing that deal for one million a race. I always liked the business side, almost as much as the racing, but Ayrton wasn’t driven by money. He just wanted the best car; that was always his priority, the best car, one that could win.”

Sadly, Berger’s final years, with Benetton-Renault following a second spell at Ferrari, were not his best, or happiest. 

“I was worn out, moody, tired. Ross and Rory had gone to Ferrari, it was not the same. It was a downward spiral, and maybe I stayed too long. It was the black time of my career. My father died, I got ill, and in ’97 I did the deal to be Competitions Director at BMW, working with Frank and Patrick on the Williams-BMW Le Mans car and latterly on the F1 project. Frank said to me ‘I could never afford you before, now I have you for free…’ It was a good time, although the Sauber-BMW partnership never had the success it should have. It was a clash of cultures, the killer instinct wasn’t there, and the BMW board lost passion for the sport.

“Then in 2006 there was Toro Rosso. I’d known Dietrich Mateschitz since the early days in Austria, and when he started Red Bull I was the first driver to promote this new product. So we wanted to do something together. We brought good people, Franz Tost, Giorgio Ascanelli and Sebastian Vettel, and we won a race [Monza 2008]. To win a race as a driver is the best thing, no question, but the next best is to win with your own team. Now you cannot win as a private team; unless you have a manufacturer you will burn your fingers. In the end we agreed to part because in the media it was becoming all about Gerhard Berger, not Red Bull, so it was time for a change.”

 

ϖ

Finally, let’s take a look at today’s Formula 1 with a man who has seen it all, from all sides. As the FIA’s president of the single-seat commission he worked on building a more structured pyramid between karting and F1, on rationalising the regulations, strengthening the quality of Formula 3 and launching Formula 4 as a new step on the ladder.

“F1? It’s too complex and it doesn’t look right, feel right or sound right. Manufacturers have too much influence. The sport should be run as a dictatorship, as Bernie always says. It is just impossible to run F1 with commissions, committees and steering groups. You need one independent person making the decisions. When Max [Mosley] was president of the FIA, for a long time he and Bernie were one voice, making clear decisions on strategy. Jean Todt is very knowledgeable, no question, he has his own ideas and agendas, but he is no longer one unit with Bernie, so this has allowed manufacturers to put their voices between Bernie, or CVC, and the FIA. It makes good stories for the media but it doesn’t help the sport. The last Concorde Agreement gave more power to certain players and they are starting to use them, not for the good of the sport.

“Also, it is way too expensive: only Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull can afford it now. The business model is broken. If you put any businessman, without a passion for F1, into this situation he will say it’s not a viable business This is not healthy. We need to simplify the sport: it is too complicated, too much technology. The fans want close racing, man to man, wheel to wheel, some excitement and drama. They aren’t interested in tyres, DRS, KERS, ERS, or these stupid engine tokens and ridiculous grid penalties. Fans don’t want to memorise all the rules. I just hope Bernie and Jean Todt can work together now to simplify the sport, and reduce the costs by standardising some of the new technology and increasing engine mileage. None of this is easy but right now the sport is just not good enough. The key word here is simplify. Bring it back to man and machine, something the fans can enjoy and understand without being technical experts.”

Looking back over 2015 who most impressed Gerhard? “Lewis is outstanding, maybe unbeatable over one lap,” he says. “I rate Nico very highly too, in a difficult situation against Lewis. Ricciardo is a good package, a good overtaker, has a good brain. Verstappen is a future champion, he’s always fighting, always overtaking. It looks like he doesn’t breathe in the race. I’m glad Helmut Marko took him into F1 at 17 – there was no reason to hold him back. For me though, Sebastian Vettel is the best: four title at such a young age, and the way he has brought Ferrari forward. He is the strongest, most complete package in F1 today.”

Our time is up. The truck mechanic from a tiny village in Austria steps onto the balcony of his office overlooking Monte Carlo harbour, always just a sentence away from another funny story. Sadly, he isn’t coming back to the paddock, where his flamboyant style is still an indelible memory. As we say our goodbyes we walk past models of the cars he raced, from Ford Escort to Ferrari – a rich, colourful career.

“Yes. And I had so much fun,” he grins. “Nobody can take that away.”

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