Flashback: Mischief with Gerhard Berger in Detroit

For two decades Maurice Hamilton reported from the F1 paddock with pen, notebook and Canon Sure Shot camera. This month we’re en route to a bash before the 1986 Detroit Grand Prix when a young lady catches the eye of Gerhard Berger

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I may have been in a minority, but I enjoyed the Detroit Grand Prix from the very first race in 1982. The streets were bumpy and angular but there was something about being in the United States and staging a motor race in the heart of a riverside metropolis.

Another attraction, it must be admitted, was the fact that we were on the Ford Motor Company’s doorstep and the auto giant took the opportunity to throw a not-to-be-missed welcome party in their magnificent museum each year; 1986 was no exception.

Benetton had BMW engines, but that did not stop team boss Peter Collins and his driver, Gerhard Berger, from accepting the invitation. I cadged a lift with them on the 30-minute drive west to Dearborn.

With the party due to start at 5.30pm, we hit rush-hour traffic. As we pulled up at a red light, a racy blue Chevrolet Camaro drew alongside. It took Berger a nano-second to appreciate that the driver was a very attractive woman on her way home. It was also the work of a moment to open his window and engage in conversation – with the lady happy to reciprocate.

“I looked back to see a future Ferrari driver making an undignified leap towards the pavement.”

Sitting in the back, I could only hear Gerhard’s end of the dialogue. The gist of it seemed to be: “Can I take you to a very good party?” Whether through extreme optimism on Berger’s part or a smiling affirmative response from the burbling car to our right, I couldn’t be sure but the net result was Gerhard opening his door and jumping out. As he began to quickly walk around the back of the Camaro, the lights turned green – and the lady floored the throttle. So did Peter Collins.

I looked back to see a future Ferrari driver making an undignified leap towards the pavement and safety. Peter pulled into a layby some 100m further on. Berger ran towards us (cue photograph through the rear window). Just as he was about to reach the hire car, we roared off once more, safe in the knowledge that Gerhard, had he been driving, would have done precisely the same thing. In fact, knowing the mischievous Austrian, he might not have stopped.

Eventually, he was allowed back in. After all, there was no time to mess about; we had a party to go to.

The weekend didn’t get much better for Gerhard when his engine cut out after just eight laps of the Grand Prix – meaning he had failed to score for a second time within a few days.