Out with a bang

Why Gerhard Berger’s heart is with Ferrari, but his future with Benetton

Picture the scene: Ayrton Senna is strapped in his McLaren, staring intently at the monitor as times are relayed to him. Behind, Gerhard Berger experiments with his own screen, his face brightening when he finally stumbles across the cartoons on a local TV station. He aims his remote controller in the Brazilian’s direction and in an instant the timesheets are replaced by Goofy, Pluto and friends…

The most experienced driver on the grid at Monza, Berger’s sense of humour has helped insulate him against adversity during the course of a career spanning 11 years. He needed it more than ever in Italy, where fortune launched not only slings and arrows in his direction, but also the camera once mounted on the rear wing of Jean Alesi’s sister Ferrari. With their major rivals out of the race, the two cars were heading for a showdown for victory when the projectile flew in Berger’s direction, demolishing his suspension.

“Jean lost the camera at 300 kph, and I met it at 300 kph,” he recalls. “If it had hit me on the head I would be dead, for sure. No chance. Then it wouldn’t have mattered who I drove for next year.”

Most had expected the 36-year-old Austrian to finish his career with Ferrari, to which he returned for a second stint at the end of ’92. Instead he sprung a surprise by signing for Benetton and Monza marked his farewell to the tifosi which chanted his name long into the night.

“There are three main things to consider when you think about swapping teams: the atmosphere, the money, and the chance of sporting success,” says Berger. “You have to consider which is the most important for you. For me success was by far the most important, so I looked at who has been successful in the last two years: Benetton and Williams. Williams already had two drivers, so I went for Benetton.”

In reality, the decision wasn’t quite so clinical. “It was very difficult from the emotional side, because you know my heart is always with Ferrari,” he admits. “When I rejoined Ferrari things were awful: the car was six or seven seconds a lap slower than some of the competition when we tested at Estoril. I worked long and hard to help get the team back into a position where it is in with a chance of winning again.”

So much so, in fact, that the team is likely to commence 1996 with a reigning World Champion in its ranks for the first time since 1990. Michael Schumacher’s arrival, and his number one status, was a significant factor in Berger’s decision to switch camps. “We would all like to have everything concentrated on ourselves and to have another driver who is quick, but not too quick,” he smiles. “But I remember Enzo Ferrari well. He used to try and get the quickest driver he could and put him next to a quicker driver still! The idea is for a team to get the maximum from its cars. The drivers don’t need to like each other or mix away from the circuit, they need to fight each other. I think that is a strategy that works out quite well. I think if you concentrate on one driver in Formula One then, in the long-term, you are history.”

Ironically, the team to which he is moving is notorious for concentrating on one car, but Berger is convinced that will change with Schumacher’s departure. “They know that the long-term strategy has to be to have a strong team, with two strong drivers, and they are prepared to change their way,” he insists. “I admire Benetton for having the strength to change its policy. I’m looking forward to next season because it will be a good atmosphere within the team and that will be great for my motivation. They know how to win races, and winning races is the most important thing to me. “

At the moment, though, I am a Ferrari driver and I will do my job 100 per cent up until the last race. I did the same at McLaren, where I won my last race for the team before coming to Ferrari. The fans were great at Monza. Even though I am leaving, they supported me and that meant a lot.”