Much of Gerhard Berger’s competition career was founded on BMW racing cars and engines, but now he’s gone back to his roots, enjoying ride-outs on BMW motorcycles. I chatted with him at the Goodwood Revival.
A handful of F1 drivers started out on two wheels - John Surtees, Damon Hill, Jean Alesi - and Gerhard Berger is another. Mid-’80s ETCC star in a BMW 635 with a Spa 24 Hours victory to his credit, his F1 career blossomed from ATS via Arrows to the giddy heights of Ferrari and McLaren, after which he masterminded BMW’s 1999 Le Mans win and the company’s joint venture with Williams into F1. But he could just as easily have gone down the two-wheeled road: ‘I rode bikes and I was always close to them. I did a couple of speedway races and my intention was to go to bike racing, but for various reasons I ended up in cars.’
Born 27th August 1959 in Wörgl, Austria, his racing exemplar was naturally fellow countryman Jochen Rindt, posthumous F1 World Champion in 1970. Forty years on from his hero’s death at Monza, I caught up with Gerhard at the Goodwood Revival, which wasn’t difficult as he’d hurt his foot – bandaged up, he was hobbling around, able neither to ride a bike nor handle the E-type he was down to drive in the programme. Despite missing the last three Revivals he’s been a Goodwood regular over the years, on two and four wheels; ‘I like to do a bike and a car,’ he affirms.
We’re up in Lord March’s inner sanctum atop the control tower opposite the pits, watching the Tourist Trophy qualifying. It’s like being in a cafe dedicated to mid ‘60s memorabilia, buzzing with top mods and prog rockers. Gerhard’s different though: while 95 percent of the males at the Revival wear sports jackets and flannels redolent of that indefinable classic era, he’s oblivious to the fashions of yesteryear in his A&F sweatshirt.
I get from his knowing look that he’s one of the boys, as if to say, ‘…it’s cool, we can be mates, never mind this charade,’ and we’re up and running. Motor sport - cars and bikes - radiates from every relaxed pore, though he came to racing relatively late, aged 20 in 1979, winning first time out at Zeltweg in a borrowed Group 5 Escort. Ignoring parental opposition, he persisted. ‘I raced my Alfasud in the Europa Cup, and then I moved on to Formula Ford 1600 and 2000, and Formula 3. Alfa Romeo said they would like me to go further - I didn’t have any money so they gave me Formula 3 engines for free.’ That allowed him to campaign a Martini-Alfa for Josef Kaufmann in the 1982 German F3 series, and he came 3rd in the standings. Next year he raced a Ralt-Alfa mentored by fellow Austrian Helmut Marco (erstwhile BRM F1 and Porsche 917 pilot and now Red Bull honcho) to finish 7th in the European F3 championship. ‘I was going OK in Formula 3, and then the Motorsport Director of BMW Racing, Dieter Stappert, noticed me and put me into a factory BMW touring car, a 635, with Hans Stuck, Dieter Quester and Roberto Ravaglia; that was the start of my relationship with BMW which still goes on today.’ From Alfasud to 635 CSi is quite a big leap, isn’t it? ‘Well, in touring cars, yes. But I had a bit of a different career going on too.’ As well as touring cars and F3 he had one race in a BMW M1 - at the Österreichring in 1983. Chief among his successes in the 635 CSi was victory in the 1985 Spa 24-Hours, sharing with Roberto Ravaglia and Marc Surer, a race he nearly didn’t make as it conflicted with ATS testing at Zandvoort. In 1986, Gerhard drove the 635 to 2nd in the Donington 500Kms with Ravaglia, came 6th in the Brno race and 3rd at Spa, proving that F1 drivers could score in other motorsport categories.
Meanwhile in F1, BMW’s M12 in-line 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo engines went to Brabham, but in 1984 Gerhard joined Gunter Schmitt’s ATS team and they received customer BMW engines. A bad road crash (he sustained a broken neck) curtailed his season so he did just three Grands Prix, but he was back in ’85 with Arrows who also got the BMW turbo engines and scored six top ten finishes. For 1986 he moved to Benetton, still employing BMW turbo power, and he logged 3rd at San Marino, finally winning his first F1 GP at Mexico City late in the season.
Every F1 driver aspires to a Maranello contract, so they say, and Gerhard got the call in 1987. Three seasons saw him rack up four Ferrari GP wins and a stack of podiums - though 1989 wasn’t so hot, post turbos, with the Tipo 640 V12. Actually it was exceedingly hot in one respect: Gerhard survived an appalling fiery crash at Imola’s notorious Tamburello corner in ’89, with burned hands and a broken rib. Ferrari’s innovative automatic paddle shifts allowed him to get back into the fray after just one race. That era produced his all-time favourite car: ‘the 1987 Ferrari F1/87. Gustav Brunner designed it with input from John Barnard. It didn’t work at first but Gustav made a couple of changes and then it was good.’ Good enough, in fact, for him to win the two end-of-season races at Suzuka and Adelaide. ‘I loved the turbo cars,’ he says; ‘all that horsepower, no traction control and no automatic gearshifts, just big back wheels,’ he laughs.
Three seasons at McLaren followed, and though he raced in Senna’s shadow during 1990, there were pole positions at the US GP and Mexico, and he was first on the road at least in Canada - then penalised for creeping at the start. Taller than the average GP driver, Gerhard had problems fitting into the McLaren. In 1991 he was in form, taking pole in Portugal, Spain and Japan, though Senna invariably seemed to have better race pace. If the Brazilian had the upper hand on the racetrack Gerhard had it in downtime: the past-master of the practical joke, he once threw Senna’s allegedly unbreakable Kevlar briefcase out of their helicopter to see if it were true. And once Senna returned to his hotel room to find it full of toads. Senna saw the funny side and retaliated by filling the air-con ducts to Gerhard’s bedroom with over-ripe French cheese. And so it went on; water bombs in the paddock and nude blondes glued into passports were the tip of the Berger repertoire.
Bearing in mind the ongoing furore over team orders this year, particularly at Ferrari, I had to ask the question. On the whole, teammates deferred when one of them was on course for the title, no matter how closely matched: viz Ronnie Peterson to Mario Andretti in ’78. So were there team orders at Ferrari? ‘No,’ says Gerhard; ‘not then. Besides, neither of us was in contention for the championship.’ How about with Senna at McLaren? ‘When there was nothing between us and it could have been me or him then I would push hard,’ he responds. ‘I was always pushing. But we were team members, and when Ayrton was uncatchable I would give him as much help as I could. It was always part of the job.’
His final year at McLaren brought victories in Canada and Australia, and he finished one point behind Senna in the World Championship. Fellow Austrian Niki Lauda encouraged him to return to Ferrari for ’93, and in turn Gerhard brought in Jean Todt as team manager, sowing the seeds for Maranello’s renaissance when Michael Schumacher came on board in 1996. Apart from winning Hockenheim in ’94 in the aftermath of Senna’s death, there were no outstanding successes for Gerhard, though there were numerous incidents and displays of supreme race craft such as his passing Damon Hill in Canada in ’95.
Gerhard has consistently gone well at a number of tracks: ‘my favourite circuits would be Hockenheim, Adelaide, Suzuka, Mexico City; Estoril was good too. Spa was always special to me, though I never won there in Formula 1, but over the years I enjoyed it a lot.’ What about all the tarmac run-off areas? ‘They save lives. It’s not my favourite way - well it is, cos at the end of the day the most important thing is safety, that motor sport doesn’t hurt people - but from a challenge point of view the old one was much better. It would be interesting to go to Eau Rouge and say, “can you do it flat or not …? Well let’s try it, but if it doesn’t work out, you’re dead!”’
For ’96 he went back to Benetton, giving the team its final victory the following year at Hockenheim. With 210 Grand Prix starts and ten wins under his belt, he called time on his top-line racing career and, after a year off, from 1999 to 2003 he was BMW Competitions Director. ‘When I announced that I was going to retire from racing BMW contacted me to ask if I would like to run the BMW Motorsport department. Of course it was a big pleasure to be invited and I didn’t have to think very long about it - this is the company I’m closest to and I have good experience with, and it was an opportunity to be on the other side of the pit wall, a great chance to get into management. So I just took the opportunity.’
In his new role outside the cockpit, Gerhard was at the forefront of BMW’s Le Mans win in 1999. ‘That was my first project, and we won!’ Picking up from the unsuccessful V12 LM of 1998, BMW commissioned Williams Grand Prix Engineering to build the V12 LMR with all new bodywork, and the cars ran at Le Mans and in the new American Le Mans Series (ALMS). The open-top 580bhp 6.1-litre V12 could hit 214mph (342kph) on the Mulsanne Straight. ‘That was great; together with Frank Williams we prepared for Le Mans and we brought Schnitzer back into our team to run it and we won. It was a tough year: Toyota had the GT-Ones, Mercedes, Nissan, Audi, all the manufacturers were there and it was quite a close run thing.’ The two BMW V12 LMRs ran strongly in the race, but JJ Lehto’s crashed out late on with a stuck throttle. Nevertheless, the Jo Winkelhock/Pierluigi Martini/Yannick Dalmas car pulled off a brilliant victory - just one lap ahead of the surviving Toyota - and it remains BMW’s only outright win at La Sarthe.
With Gerhard heading BMW’s F1 involvement for 2000, Williams-BMW scored three podiums with Ralf Schumacher, then Juan-Pablo Montoya won Monza 2001, the team hitting its stride in 2003 when Ralf won at the Nürburgring and Magny-Cours and Montoya took Monaco and Hockenheim. Gerhard quit at season’s end, and for three years was uninvolved. Then in 2006 he bought half of F1 up-comers Scuderia Toro Rosso in a symbiotic arrangement whereby the Red Bull boss bought 50-percent of Berger Logistik, the trucking company founded by Gerhard’s father in 1961. It marked the rise to stardom of Sebastian Vettel, who at 21 became the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix with his Toro Rosso at Monza in ’08. Berger then sold his share back to Dietrich Mateschitz: ‘we’re just friends. The Toro Rosso era is finished.’ I wonder if he mentors up-and-coming drivers: ‘No, I don’t like driver management,’ he replies; ‘I’m just having fun.’
It’s no surprise to hear what captures his attention nowadays: ‘fettling my latest BMW motorcycle!’ he says. ‘It’s the Super R1000 RR, the race replica.’ That is one heck of a machine - 999cc, four-cylinder twin-cam pushing 193bhp at the rear wheel, which thrived in World Superbikes in the hands of Ruben Xaus and Troy Corser. ‘I’m enjoying riding BMW motorbikes around Europe in the summer and going skiing in the winter.’
And his current four wheels? Invariably BMWs, though he can pick and choose: ‘I switch between cars; mostly it’s the X6 at the moment.’ A BMW man to the core.