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Racing with a smile on his face



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Gerhard Berger






Austrian GP (19 August 1984)


The Ferrari went straight into the wall at Tamburello with a speed of 280km/h. A horrible crash immediately followed by flames. And a few seconds later it was all over as Bruno Miniati, Paolo Verdi and Gabriele Violi, three brave and fast marshals, had extinguished the fire. Hardly any time even for the spectators to get scared. It was the 23th of April 1989 at Imola.

Unlike Ayrton Senna five years later Gerhard Berger had survived the crash at Tamburello to race another day. Unlike his country man Niki Lauda 13 years earlier Berger had survived a ruptured tank on the Ferrari with only minor burns, a broken rib and fractured shoulder blade. Once again luck had been on Berger's side.

Gerhard Berger, the lucky man, the funny man, the mad man. His team mates soon got used to paddock wars with water bombs and custard pies, frogs in the hotel beds and pictures of nude blondes glued into their passports, just to mention the more harmless of the practical jokes. But there is more to Berger than that. Gerhard Berger, the quick and aggressive driver, who still did not crash too often. The man who did not understand anything about setting up a car when he started racing but ended up as first driver for Ferrari. Berger who almost retired from racing after Imola 1989 but didn't. The same thing with Imola 1994. Something made him to continue. And something made him to fight back after a terrible accident in 1984 (more about that later). A pure determination and will to win.

Gerhard Berger was born in Wörgl, Austria, on 27 August 1959. His father Hans was the owner of a quite big truck company and Gerhard started off working as a mechanic and later as a driver for the company. In 1979 Hans bought a small bankrupt truck company including 3 trucks and gave it together with some money to Gerhard to develop.

In 1979 Berger started a race in a friend's Group 5 Ford Escort at a local event at Zeltweg and won first time out. Unfortunately Gerhard's father found out and was furious, threatening to cut the cash flow. After some hesitation Gerhard decided to continue with racing, after all, bought an old Alfasud and entered it in the Europe Cup. At that time he raced against and became a friend of Karl Wendlinger Sr., father of the man who later would become a GP driver.

Berger tried a few races in local Formula Ford 1600 and Formula 3 before racing a Martini-Alfa for Josef Kaufmann in the 1982 German F3 championship. During the season Gerhard never crashed the car and was fast enough to finish 3rd in the championship. He also raced F2000, actually once racing against Ayrton Senna at Hockenheim. For 1983 he raced a Ralt-Alfa for ex-BRM GP driver Helmut Marco to finish 7th in the European Formula 3 championship with 2 second places as best results.

At the Macau GP he raced for Pino Trivellato to finish third behind Ayrton Senna and Roberto Guerrero. After that performance Trivellato offered him a F3 drive for 1984 and BMW entered him in the European Touring Car Championship together with Stuck, Quester and Ravaglia. Berger's first international victory came at the F3 race at the Österreichring and he followed it up at Monza after Capelli's Coloni was found to be illegal in one of the largest F3 scandals ever. Günther Schmid at the ATS Formula 1 team had now become interested in Berger and asked him to do a test drive.

Hans Günther Schmid had created his ATS Formula 1 team (not to be confused with Carlo Chiti's ATS - Automobili Turismo e Sport from the early 1960s) in 1977 to promote his ATS wheels, taking over the equipment when Penske decided to leave Formula 1. The next year he acquired a FOCA membership from March and started building his own cars.

During the years the yellow ATS cars were a regular sight at the back of the GP field and drivers included some good ones like Keke Rosberg, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Hans Stuck and Jochen Mass. However Schmid's autocratic style and temperament created a situation in which constructors and team members moved in and out at an ever increasing speed and the team had never any real chance to succeed.

For 1983-'84 Schmid somehow managed to obtain BMW turbo engines and the new car for 1984, the D7 with carbon fibre monocoque, could perhaps in the right team and with the right development have proved to be a regular points scorer, but at ATS driver Manfred Winkelhock was suffering terribly with various problems and two 8th positions was the best he could do that year.

The test drive for Berger was set for Zandvoort on 27-28 July. The only problem was that Berger would start in the Spa 24h race the same weekend. Various problems made the test session take longer than expected and the Spa race was well on its way when Berger finally jumped into his car and started his trip from Zandwoort to Spa with his racing overall still on. He made it to the track just as Ravaglia, who had already raced a double stint in the BMW, was prepared to give up!

Berger had to pay for a GP drive at ATS and in the final moments and with some support from BMW the deal came through and Berger could make his GP debut for ATS at the 1984 Austrian GP at Österreichring. ATS had raced the season with just one car and was barely able to support it so the decision to race two cars was a bold and controversial one. As feared the team proved unable to make both their cars running simultaneously. Winkelhock was unable to make a lap during the Friday free practice and Berger was suffering from gearbox troubles during the qualifying. On Saturday the gearbox on Winkelhock's car broke and Berger had to give over his car to his teammate. Berger's 1.31.904 on Friday was enough for a 20th position on the grid. Winkelhock was 14th on the grid but due to a shortage of spare parts he had to be a non-starter after the rebuilt gearbox broke down again at the Sunday warm up.

The season had been about two men, Niki Lauda against Alain Prost. The situation before the Austrian GP: Prost 43.5 points, Lauda 39 points. Both De Angelis (Lotus) and Rothengatter (Spirit) stalled at the grid forcing a restart. At the restart Berger was hit from behind by Gartner (Osella) and almost crashed, but somehow he managed to regain control and continue in 19th position, Piquet leading the race from Prost and Tambay. Both McLaren drivers suffered from gearbox problems but while Prost spun on oil from De Angelis' blown engine, Lauda advanced through the field, attacked Piquet, passed and managed to hide his technical problems from Piquet who decided not to counterattack. Thus Lauda took his first Austrian GP victory and the 9 points that eventually would give him his third title. And Berger finished 12th in his first race, 3 laps behind Lauda. A good achievement.

Berger followed it up with a sensational 6th place in the Italian GP. With Lauda first and Gartner 5th there were three Austrians among the top six. However, there weren't three Austrian point-scorers at the race, because due to the curious rules the fact that ATS had only entered one car at the beginning of the season made Berger's entry non-valid for any points! Berger was eliminated in a start crash at the European GP at Nürburgring and finished 13th at the end of the season at Estoril.

ATS retired from GP racing as they lost their engine contract. Berger had been forced to interrupt his F3 program due to his F1 racing but next up would be the Macau GP and after that tests for the Arrows team.

But only a week after Estoril Berger was driving from his home to his office to collect his overalls. The distance was so short that he did not bother to put his seat belt on. But passing a bridge Berger's BMW was hit by another car. The BMW rolled several times, crashed through the railing and fell into the brook. Berger, who had been thrown out through the rear window, lay beside the car with two broken vertebrae in his neck.

Once again Berger's amazing luck did not fail him. The first to arrive to the scene were two doctors, who were returning from a conference in Munich about car accidents and neck injuries! They prevented the ambulance personnel from moving the patient and Berger remained in the brook for hours while special equipment was flown in by helicopter.

At the hospital he was offered two choices: a highly dangerous operation with months of recovery or half a year with his neck in plaster. Berger selected the former. Two days later there was a great fuss at the hospital when the doctor found that Berger's bed was empty. The doctor had indeed met someone in the corridor who had said "Hello" to him but he had not realized who it was. It was indeed Berger, who in great pain was taking his first steps back to save his career. A career that would take him to Arrows, Benetton, Ferrari and McLaren. That his first GP victory at Mexico City 1986 came when he had influenza and a high temperature is both amazing and typical at the same time. That's the other side of Berger.

Born 15 years earlier, Berger would possibly have been one of the greatest drivers ever. Now he had to suffer most of his career with the handicap a tall driver has in driving modern GP cars. Starting off without any knowledge about car behavour Berger later in his career got a good understanding of the cars and Berger's victories typically came at the end of the season when the initial problems had been sorted out. Berger proved victorious at the two last races of the 1987 season and he was the only non-McLaren driver to take a win in 1988. The San Marino crash destroyed the 1989 season for Berger and it took most of the year before he could match Mansell's speed again. 1990 saw Berger as Senna's teammate at McLaren. He had problems to fit into the car and managed to take two pole positions but no victories. In 1991 Berger realized that he was unable to beat Senna and he calmly settled down as number two driver for 1991 and 1992 achieving three more victories.

Then followed several seasons with Alesi at Ferrari and Benetton, where Berger got the main responsibility for the development of the cars. The Ferrari seasons proved frustrating, with only one victory, Hockenheim 1994. With Senna and Prost gone Berger however became the best paid Grand Prix driver for a while. For 1997 Berger and Schumacher swapped places, Gerhard once again joining Alesi, this time with Benetton. Berger expected himself to be able to match Schumacher's performance at Benetton but in fact he had a miserable time, especially as the new rules made Berger's head destroy the aerodynamic flow of the car, but when things were right he still could show his true abilities, as when he completely crushed the opposition at Hockenheim.

Berger retired at the end of the season but would return to racing as head of BMW sports section. Success came immediately as the team won the 1999 Le Mans race. Then, at the start of the 2000 GP season, the Williams-BMW finished its first race on the podium. Today, the BMW engine is winning races. So Gerhard is back where he belongs, again with a smile on his face.

Reader's Why by Greg England

Gerhard Berger was an up and coming young Austrian driver, who used his BMW contacts to land a test with the German ATS team that was running BMW engines. Berger had raced in the German Alfasud series before moving up to the German Formula 3 championship. He won a race and finish third in the German F3 series in 1982. That success landed Berger a contract to drive for BWM in the European Touring Car Championship in 1983 as well as competing in F3. Berger would win a couple of German F3 races and finish second in the All-Star F3 race at Monaco in 1984. That would lead up to his F1 debut for the BMW powered ATS team in the 1984 Austrian GP. ATS had been racing in Formula 1 since 1978 without a great deal of success. For the 1983 season, ATS dropped the venerable Cosworth V-8 engine and got a deal to run the powerful turbocharged BMW engine. Berger qualified his ATS-BMW twentieth in his first Grand Prix and was classified a twelfth place finisher as the gearbox failed after 48 laps. A sixth place finish at Italy in only his second start assured Berger would stick in Formula 1, even though his point was not allowed because ATS had started the season with one car. ATS however closed up shop after BMW withdrew its engine support to the team. Berger moved to the Arrows-BMW for the 1985 season. He raced in every race even though he had suffered a broken neck in a road accident and against his doctor's orders. It was a miraculous recovery for the Austrian. He scored his first official points of his F1 career with a fifth in the penultimate round at South Africa, and added another point with a sixth in Australia. Berger moved to the more competitive BMW-powered Benetton team for the 1986 season. He consistently qualified in the top ten and started second at Belgium and Austria. He scored two sixths in the first two races then a third place finish at San Marino. Berger would score the first victory for Benetton with a surprising victory in Mexico City late in the season. That led to a drive with Ferrari for 1987. He only finished four of the first eleven races that year, each time in fourth place. Then he won his first pole at Estoril and went on to finish second. Berger dominated the last two races of the season starting from pole both times and leading 132 of 133 laps in winning the races in Japan and Australia. In 1988, everyone ran second to the dominant McLaren-Honda, and Berger finished third in the championship and won the only race not won by McLaren. Another season with Ferrari in the new non-turbo era produced eleven consecutive DNFs for Berger to start the season. Berger then scored a second at Monza, won the race at Estoril, and was second at Jerez in the next three GPs. With Prost leaving McLaren for Ferrari, Berger landed the second seat on the team with Ayrton Senna for 1990. He claimed two poles and seven second place starts, scoring points in eleven of sixteen starts, and leading six races en route to a fourth place in the championship. Still with McLaren and Senna for 1991, Berger scored one win, although Senna checked up at the end of the Japanese GP to let Berger through. Two legitimate victories for Berger followed in 1992, at Canada and Australia as Berger finished fifth in the championship and one point behind Senna. Berger returned to Ferrari and raced there for the next three seasons. He scored points in 23 of 49 races, including leading flag to flag in the 1994 German GP. Berger then returned to the Benetton team for the 1996 and 1997 seasons. His last win was a surprise victory in the 1997 German GP where Berger started on pole and led 38 of 45 laps. He retired following the 1997 season having make two hundred ten starts in F1, winning ten races, twelve poles, and had twenty-one fastest race laps. He now is the director of motorsports for BMW and heavily involved with the current Williams-BMW program.