Few drivers have ever been as popular in the Formula 1 pitlane as Gerhard Berger. But it was against a backdrop of personal drama that he reminded all of his class at Hockenheim in 1997
When Alex Wurz first appeared in Formula 1 at the 1997 Canadian Grand Prix, he didn’t set the world on fire, but at his next race, at Magny-Cours, he qualified seventh – ahead of Benetton team-mate Jean Alesi – and we duly took note. At Silverstone a fortnight later, he finished third, behind Jacques Villeneuve and Alesi, and it seemed we had a star in the wings.
Ten years on, Wurz is back in F1 with Williams, but only after a prolonged spell as a test driver; his is one of those careers which never delivered on all that initial promise. To make the podium in only your third grand prix is not commonplace, even in a world coming to terms with Lewis Hamilton, and Alex must wonder quite how it all slipped away.
Ten years ago he got his chance with Benetton because Alesi’s regular team-mate Gerhard Berger was not well enough to race. For more than a year the Austrian had been feeling less than completely healthy, always short of energy, and diagnosing his problem took a long time. Finally, it was traced to his sinuses, and it was obvious that surgery would be necessary.
At the beginning of 1996, Berger had contracted pneumonia, and his doctors concluded that his problems had stemmed from that. “It was very difficult to be sure where it all started,” Gerhard said, “but actually I think it was in my teeth.
“When you drive an F1 car a lot, you know, your teeth – up and down – quite often hit each other, and this can crack them. After a while you develop an infection under the teeth, and in my case this infection went up into the sinus. I’d already had it quite a while – this was why I often felt so weak, so short of power in ’96, but I didn’t know what it was. At the beginning of ’97, after the race in Argentina, I got a bad dose of ’flu and then everything just exploded. At the next three races – Imola, Monaco and Barcelona – I was on heavy antibiotics, which make you feel lousy, and I was struggling.
“Antibiotics make you soft. When you’re on them, and you try to go running, you can feel it in your bones – you’re weak, and not as sharp as you should be. Your fitness goes to hell.
“The doctors were concerned about my doing the next race in Canada, and said maybe it would be better to stop for a while and fix the problem properly. But if you’re a racing driver you think you can get over anything, and I didn’t want to miss races.”
Prior to travelling up to Montreal, Berger went to New York to do some publicity work for Benetton, but the seven-hour flight had affected him badly. “We were in Benetton’s new store on Fifth Avenue and I felt terrible – really terrible. I saw more doctors there and it was clear I’d be mad to race in Canada.”
So it was that Berger returned to Europe and as Wurz’s three-race opportunity with Benetton began, Gerhard underwent the first of three operations. At once he began to feel better, although progress was less speedy than he expected.
“I missed Montreal, but I was half-ready to race again at Magny-Cours, but Flavio (Briatore) said, ‘No, you shouldn’t race – you haven’t tested there’, so… Then I wanted to do Silverstone, but again he said no – I think he was very happy to have Wurz in the car. My relationship with Flavio had always been good, but that summer it really changed. I always really enjoyed working with Pat Symonds – a great, great, guy – but the atmosphere in the team changed a lot. Jean (Alesi) had decided he hated Flavio, and they were hardly speaking to each other. There’s no way a team can be successful in that atmosphere – there’s a big human side involved in sport, too.”
In Berger’s enforced absence, all sorts of stories began to circulate about ‘what was really wrong with him’. His state of health, some insisted, was much worse than we were being led to believe, just as had been the case with Gunnar Nilsson 20 years before. On that occasion the rumours had been true – Nilsson died of cancer at 28, little more than a year after winning his first grand prix – and many spoke darkly of Berger’s problems. Some even murmured that he had AIDS.
“Of course all that stuff really upset people around me,” said Gerhard, “but what can you do? A lot of political stirring was done at that time, and some journalists jumped into it, saying, ‘Oh, we don’t really know what’s the matter with Berger, but this infection sounds very strange…’ They made everything sound very sinister, but it was clear what I had: I had a sinus problem.”
Whatever, Berger made up his mind that, come what may, he was going to drive at Hockenheim, the scene of his last grand prix victory – for Ferrari – three years earlier.
What Gerhard went through at that stage of his life would have broken most men. On July 8, a few days before the British Grand Prix, he flew to England for a meeting with Benetton, and there it became clear that he would not be in the team the following year: Wurz, as Gerhard suspected, had already been pencilled in. Back he went to Monaco, and the following day his beloved father was killed in a light aircraft accident.
When Patrick Tambay won for Ferrari at Imola in 1983, thereby in some way avenging the race ‘stolen’ from his friend Gilles Villeneuve the previous year, he said afterwards that throughout the race it had seemed almost as if the late Gilles were with him in the car. Whatever, he said, he felt some kind of force at work that day; something with him, not of him.
Grieving at the loss of his father, but feeling more healthy than for a very long time, Berger went to Hockenheim in a very special frame of mind. On the Thursday, he called a press conference. No, he wasn’t sure about his future plans, he said, but that if he were to continue in Formula 1, it would have to be in a competitive car. As for money... well, he had already made his money so that didn’t really come into it any more. He would definitely not, he said, be continuing with Benetton, and for the first time made it clear that his relationship with Briatore – which was once very friendly – was now well below room temperature.
Next day he was fifth-fastest in practice, and said that driving again felt good. On Saturday – in front of a crowd roaring for local hero Michael Schumacher – he took pole position. When that happened, the press room erupted into applause.
Martin Brundle, too, was exultant, thrilled at what Gerhard had done. A one-time Benetton refugee himself, he said: “You need a clean driving style here to get through those chicanes properly, without messing up the lap. But more than anything else, Gerhard is on the pole because this place is all about late braking, and he’s still the bravest of the lot...”
Berger had a lot of scores to settle that weekend. “First there was my father’s death – it was very difficult for me to accept what had happened and I wanted so much to dedicate a victory to him.
“Second, the f*****g bastards in the F1 world – you get sick, and they forget everything you did in the previous 10 or 12 years. I said to myself, ‘Right, ‘I’m going to show you all in Hockenheim…’”
‘Show’, as you might imagine, was not quite the word Gerhard used.
Come Sunday, Berger’s Benetton took the lead at the start, and – save for a few laps, when he made his one stop for fuel and tyres – was never headed. The fact that Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen, the two leading lights of the season, were second and third served only to heighten his joy.
Ours, too. When he arrived at the press conference that afternoon, Gerhard’s reception was overwhelming. This was a well-loved man in the paddock, and everyone knew what he had recently been through and overcome.
“That was the optimum point in my career,” he said, and he says it to this day, 10 years on.
Hockenheim, while the best victory of his life, was also his last. As expected, Berger retired from driving at the end of the 1997 season, but he was competitive to the last, finishing his final race in fourth place, close behind the McLarens and Villeneuve’s World Championship-winning Williams.
“I felt I was getting worn out,” he said. “I don’t know if it was because of the sinus thing, or just because I’d been doing F1 for 15 years! It was taking me longer to recover from a race, but what really made a difference was the training – which was what I hadn’t been able to do.
“There was a lot of bad stuff in my final season but still I can remember it very well because of Hockenheim: I wanted that win, I needed it…”
What said everything about Berger was the obvious pleasure rivals took in his success that day. As he waved to the crowds on his slowing-down lap, Damon Hill pulled alongside and waved in salute, in part perhaps because he was remembering the previous year’s race when he had won only after Gerhard had blown up 10 miles from the end.