Gerhard Berger: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

His career at Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton didn't bring the success that Gerhard Berger's talent merited; but he admits that he couldn't beat his most famous team-mate

Gerhard Berger, 1988 Monaco GP

Berger sat in his Ferrari in 1988 at Monaco

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

A couple of days before the Revival Meeting at Goodwood, BMW held a splendid lunch in honour of Gerhard Berger, who — for the moment — has left the world of Formula One after 20 years, first as a driver, then as BMW’s competitions director. To commemorate the occasion, we were each given a model of the Benetton B186-BMW in which Berger won his first grand prix, in Mexico in 1986.

“Ha! I remember this car. Fantastic horsepower. I really loved the turbo era, particularly with qualifying boost: top of the hill at Monaco, into Casino Square, and you got wheelspin in top gear, even in the dry.

“We had a good season with that car, but it could have been better. They slowed us down the whole time because the new concept of engine — laid on its side in the Brabham — did not work and so they never gave us the power because we would have been far ahead and, politically, they could not have the old engine in front of the new one.”

It was that kind of occasion, a time for reminiscing. And it dawned on Gerhard that he was talking about nearly 20 years ago, a worry for one who always claimed to have little or no interest in the past. The following day, he was due to handle a variety of different machines at Goodwood: Nick Mason’s 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, Lord March’s ’63 Ford Galaxie and — undoubtedly closest to his heart — the ex-Sheene Yamaha 500 of ’81: Barry, who died earlier this year, was among Gerhard’s dearest friends.

“I’ve never really been into ‘old cars’,” he grinned, knowing his words would appal us, “but people say this GTO is really special. What’s it look like? It’s an open car, or what?” To his delight, we rolled our eyes in horror. “What I am really worried about is damaging it,” he went on. “Nick’s a good guy, and they tell me a GTO is worth millions.” Indeed so, we said.

A couple of days later, though, I watched him at Goodwood, getting the hang of the car, drifting it beautifully through St Mary’s, and clearly enjoying himself. “It’s lovely to drive, I must say. Beautifully balanced. The most difficult thing was getting used to shifting gears again — it’s a long time since I had to do that in a racing car.”

Gerhard Berger, 1997 German GP

Hakkinen and Schumacher flank Berger at Hockenheim after the Benetton driver’s win.

Bongarts / Getty Images

Berger retired from driving at the end of 1997, a year which contained a great deal of personal trauma. Contracted to Benetton once more, at midseason he missed three races following surgery for a persistent sinus problem, and then his father, to whom he was very close, was killed in a light aircraft accident. Gerhard returned to the cockpit at Hockenheim, awash with emotions of every kind, not least a determination to silence those who murmured he was past it. This was the old Hockenheim, with its long, flatout stretches and fast chicanes: Berger started from pole and dominated the German Grand Prix. “He may be the oldest guy in F1,” Martin Brundle commented admiringly, “but he’s still the bravest.”

“That was a very special race for me,” said Gerhard. “All that weekend I felt I was somewhere else — this speed was just coming, coming, you know, and I didn’t know from where. There was so much in my mind — losing my father, and the fact that no-one believed in me any more. Everybody was saying, ‘Yeah, he’s a nice guy — but why doesn’t he stay at home now and let some young guy drive his car?’ I was very pissed off: it was time to remind everyone of what I could do.

“By that time, I already knew I was going to stop at the end of the year, and actually what I really wanted to do was go up to the podium and say goodbye. But then I realised how much money I would lose by doing this, and I wasn’t a strong character at that moment. On the one hand, I was angry with myself for being weak: I should have said, ‘Okay, who cares about three million dollars?’ But on the other hand, I said, No, no, no, I’m not giving that up!”

If his first and last F1 wins came at the wheel of a Benetton, the meat of Berger’s career was spent with Ferrari, for whom he drove in 1987-89 and ’93-95, and McLaren, where he partnered Ayrton Senna in ’90-92. Was life as Senna’s team-mate difficult?

“No,” he answered, “it was okay.” Pause. “Once you understood you couldn’t beat him, it was okay!

“The thing about Ayrton, that put him on a separate level, was that he didn’t respect any conditions. In qualifying, I would go out, set third-fastest time and say, ‘That’s it. The two Williams are ahead, they’re quicker than we are, so that’s the best I can do’. For Ayrton, though, the Williams did not exist. In his mind, the only thing that existed was himself — and he had to be first. And, you know, by this thinking he was able to create a power. That’s the only word I can use. There would be a car that, on paper, was a second a lap quicker, and you knew you couldn’t beat it. Ninety-nine per cent of drivers will accept that and say, ‘Well, next week well have a new engine and we’ll be right up there.’ For Ayrton, no. He’d say, ‘I have to be the quickest’ — and he’d do it! It wasn’t that he was dreaming. He did it! And it would be the same in the race.”

In the course of his three years at McLaren, Berger learned a great deal from Senna, but he believes that Ayrton, too, benefited from their partnership. “As people, we were entirely different, which is probably why we became friends. For sure, he had strengths where I didn’t, but I think it was true the other way round, too. I could always easily separate working time from free time, but Ayrton could not do that, and I think, when I arrived at McLaren, I made him even stronger, because he became freer. I believe, through me, he learned to laugh, and then he began to do the same things I did. He seemed to discover a sense of humour, as if it was something he had had all along but never used.”

Berger thinks Senna and Michael Schumacher are very similar, in terms of working practices with engineers, team-mates and so on. “The only difference is the personalities: one was a Latin, the other is a cold German.”

If his victory at Hockenheim in 1997 was emotionally the most satisfying of his life, Berger’s best from a driving point of view came in the ’87 Australian Grand Prix — perhaps because it involved a fight with Senna.

Gerhard Berger, 1991 Portuguese GP

Berger and Senna share a word in Portugal in 1991

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

“For a start, that year’s Ferrari turbo was my favourite of all the cars I ever drove — it just suited me so well. I won at Suzuka with it, and then we went to Adelaide; I got pole position and led from the start. But I had a fever that weekend, and it was also very hot. Ayrton started catching me and, physically, I was completely finished, but I really wanted to beat him — and also I was in the middle of doing a new contract! Ayrton was still coming, so I put the boost up to make him think that I could easily respond — and he backed off. Then I reduced the boost again, and I couldn’t go quick any more because I was f*****! Anyway, it worked.”

In the course of 13 seasons of F1, Berger drove in 210 grands prix, and qualified either first or second in 32 of them. That being so, one might have expected him to have won more than 10. He doesn’t disagree.

“When I think of my driving career, more than anything else I think about what I screwed up. With the talent I had, I really should have done more, I think. Okay, there were some races I should have won and didn’t, like at Estoril in 1987, when I spun under pressure from Prost in the last few laps, but I don’t really mean things like that—they happen in racing. What I’m really talking about is being just too busy in my young years. For example, when I arrived in Imola this year, I thought to myself; ‘Why didn’t you rent a house here, stay close to Ferrari, learn Italian?’ But it was always much more important for me to get back to a girl somewhere! It was a great life, but I could have done better.”

Given that he was always something of a hedonist, when Berger accepted BMW’s offer to become its competitions director, many viewed his appointment with scepticism. Gerhard would not, they suggested, take it seriously, would play at it until it bored him. In point of fact, they were entirely wrong, and Ron Dennis was one of many to acknowledge his surprise at his diligence in the new role.

“I never thought of myself as lazy when I was a driver, but 80 per cent of the people in the paddock would have said that. They’d say, ‘Oh, he likes to go the beach, he likes girls, he’s naturally talented, so he can do it without a lot of effort; he does his race, but otherwise isn’t very interested — he only wakes up when it’s the time of the year to do the next contract!’

“I knew I had this image — and I didn’t care. Somehow it fitted me. I think in F1 everyone gets a role: Prost had his, Senna had his, Lauda had his — even Mansell had his role! And I had mine, and I was quite happy about it. But people never seemed to realise that, once a race weekend was over, I was involved with my father in the family transport company a lot of the time, and I did all my deals myself. I was playing around in a lot of other small businesses. I was always behind a desk somewhere.”


Berger in the scarlet red Ferrari where he spent most of his F1 career

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

If he loved his time as a driver, Berger also immensely enjoyed his years with BMW, working with Frank Williams and Patrick Head. “There’s always been a lot of friction in the relationship, but that’s just because both parties are quite tough: if one side screws up, the other tells them to their face, but it’s the only way to be successful in this business. So long as it isn’t personal, I think it’s the right way to operate.

“I really like Patrick. He is a guy who is really straight, who tells you everything to your face and has a very good sense of humour. As for Frank… well, he’s a bastard — but a good one! Whatever he’s doing, he’s trying to push to the limit. I admire him so much: his discipline, his fighting spirit — he is really tough.”

As of now, though, Berger is preparing to take it easy, at least for a while, having declined to renew his BMW contract. Simply, he says, he has got tired and feels the need for a break.

“It’s difficult for some people to understand that you just get tired. First, there’s consistent pressure in this business, and that’s not nothing, you know? The worst thing, though, is the travel — and I have my own plane, so people are going to think I’m crazy!

“But if I miss it, I’ll be back in it one day — and I’ll be surprised if I do not miss it…”