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 realised that, despite the natural talent I’d been given, I might never beat people like Senna or Bellof”
“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.”