Gerhard Berger may be fondly remembered as one of the jokers of Formula One’s past, but with ten victories over the course of fourteen seasons, he is also one of the most highly respected drivers of the 1980s and 90s.
Now 60 and long retired as a Formula One driver, the Austrian tells World in Motorsport of his final year as a driver at motorsport’s top level.
“Y’know there was a funny thing,” Gerhard Berger says dryly. “There was Monza and I was staying in a hotel and I was in the top floor in the penthouse, and when it starts raining.”
Situated toward the rear of the DTM’s paddock motorhome with a few deft touches of the table-top, Berger motioned the changing conditions with the tips of his fingers. “You hear the [rain] tap, tap, tap, tap, because you wake up and over all the years I used to say, ‘Oh great, there’s rain, I have an extra chance and an extra risk.’
“Then suddenly I heard the tap, tap, tap, tap, and I said, ‘Oh shit, it’s raining tomorrow, it’s dangerous’, and I said to myself that it was a clear sign.”
Berger came into the 1997 Formula One season looking to improve on what had been a tough previous year. Having moved from Ferrari to Benetton at the end of 1995, neither Berger nor teammate Jean Alesi were able to come close to emulating the success enjoyed by the Italian team and their German pilot, Michael Schumacher.
From race winners and champions, Benetton were resigned to collecting occasional podia amidst a smattering of points finishes. Indeed, of the 16 Grand Prix held in 1996, Berger failed to finish in eight, including – most gallingly – that year’s German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring, where the Austrian retired three laps from the end, having dominated the event. On the other side of the garage, Alesi fared little better.
Although rumours floated that he was in discussions with Williams and Sauber for 1998, Berger admitted to World in Motorsport that his decision to leave Formula One was made relatively early in 1997, revealing that, “It came from all sides at the same time and it was clear for me to change my life.”
Despite an early season podium at Interlagos, followed by the birth of daughter Heidi the next day, Berger’s season began to unravel after the Spanish Grand Prix in May. Surgery to tackle an inflamed sinus, followed by an aggravated infection and additional surgery, kept Berger out of his Benetton seat for three Grand Prix. During this period, Berger’s father Johann was tragically killed in private aeroplane accident in the mountain regions of Tirol.
Upon his return to Grand Prix competition at the German Grand Prix, Berger once again dominated at the Hockenheimring – this time taking pole, winning the race and apart from the pit stops, he led every lap. It proved a popular victory and is considered the finest of his ten race wins in Formula One. “All the stories are known. The thing with my father, the sickness, the difficult period I had with my team,” he remembers. “Still it worked out. And it wasn’t really a car where we had an advantage to the others and it became so clear – pole position, quickest lap, winning the race.
“My mind said prove again what you are capable of doing and it showed me how much the mind can actually [do]. It’s unbelievable, it proved it even to myself what the mind is able to move and to do.”
Time was moving on however, and at the end of the season, Berger officially announced his retirement from Formula One. “It felt very welcome in the paddock, because I felt people liked me, but at the same time, it was like, ‘What are you doing here? Your time is over.’”
Since retirement, he led BMW’s return to Formula One in the early-2000s, before becoming 50% owner in the early days of Toro Rosso (now Alpha Centauri).
For three years, he was also President of the FIA Single Seat Commission and later became chairman of the ITR – the promoter of the DTM. Although he may not be competing anymore, Berger continues to push and use some of the lessons from his racing in his business dealings.
“This mixture between discipline, killer instinct and competition – you can use it in different ways in business,” says Berger. “I find it is an extremely good advantage. Also, I have my logistics business and my business meetings, and, in the discussions, it is quite interesting, because what you don’t measure has no value. You have to measure numbers, how long you need for this and people are sometimes surprised.
“My life was always measured by a stopwatch and the watch wasn’t lying, the numbers weren’t lying, so forget all your feelings and all these things – get it measured and then get judged by your performance. This basic way of thinking helps you in a lot of ways.”
For the full version of this interview, as well as conversations with and Rubens Barrichello – Formula One’s most experienced driver – and WRC’s Richard Millener, Andrea Adama, Yves Matton and Colin Clark, come back for the next issue of World in Motorsport, to be published in July.