INTERVIEW

In the shadow of Jean: Eric Bernard

Eric Bernard was right on the pace during pre-Grand Prix testing at Silverstone. It was no big surprise. If it wasn't for Jean Alesi, Eric Bernard would be a very successful young Grand Prix driver. The amazing Jean has stolen much of Eric's thunder with his sparkling performances in the Tyrrell 019.

Funnily enough, this is not a new problem for Bernard. He and Alesi have been in competition since their earliest days in the sport.

"I think Jean is a very quick driver," says Eric in his rather charming Franglais accent. "I think, in his position, it is normal to be quick. He is a good driver in a good car. He has not a bad Cosworth engine and very good Pirelli tyres -- they are very important to be at the front of the grid for the races.

"Then he has a very reliable car as well and it is possible for him to finish the races in a good position. He also has a little more experience than me because he did half a season of F1 last year. It is very important to do a lot of races. Those are the differences now."

It sounds for a minute like a chapter from the racing driver's book of excuses.

"But," he adds with a smile, "I am very happy for Jean because I like him. I certainly hope to have the same possibilities in the future."

To hear such words is rare in F1. It is even rarer to believe them, but with Eric and Jean, you know they go back a long way.

"We have been together all the time in our careers," continues Eric. "We arrived at the same time. We passed through the same formulae at the same time. Jean was a very quick driver in go-karts. We were in the same team, but in different categories. I think I was quick because I was four times the French Champion.

"After that I did the Volant Elf with Jean and I won that. In Formule Renault Turbo I was champion and Jean finished in a good position. After that I did the French Formula 3 championship and I lost the title at the last race and Jean won. It was very close. He won a lot more races than me but he changed his car three times and his budget was certainly bigger than mine. In F3000 the first time I was quicker than him and the second time he was quicker than me. Then we arrived in F1 on the same day. I started fifteenth on the grid, he was seventeenth. My engine blew up and he finished in a good position.

"For the moment Jean is ahead of me, but I hope I will overtake him again."

Eric is not the only one to have suffered from the Alesi phenomenon: Martin Donnelly is not getting the recognition he deserves for his performances with Lotus and Bernard's own team mate Aguri Suzuki has been doing spectaculat things as well. But as, Eric admits, that is racing. It has been that way throughout his career. There is another problem too. His name is Erik Comas and F1 will be hearing a lot of him in the future.

"It is very difficult to say that this one is good and this one is bad," says Bernard. "I think in France there are three very good drivers at the moment: Erik Comas, Jean Alesi and, I think, Eric Bernard. I think Erik will be in F1 next year. His place is in F1.

" I am younger by six months that Jean and Comas is a year older than me, but we are all around the same age and we all arrived at the same time.

"If you are not good there is no place in F1, but I think that Jean, Comas or me are good. I hope. Then there is a place for us."

In recent years times have been hard for French F1 drivers. After the initial burst of newcomers in the seventies, when Jacques Laffite, Patrick Depailler, Patrick Tambay, Didier Pironi and Rene Arnoux arrived in F1 there was something of a glut on the market. The arrival of Alain Prost and his subsequent success only added to the problem and the Philippe Alliot, Philippe Streiff, Olivier Grouillard, Pierre-Henri Raphanel generation suffered in comparison. Today the three youngsters are preparing to take F1 by storm.

"Alain Prost is Alain Prost," says Bernard. "He has been World Champion three times. He has won a lot of races in F1 and I think he is probably the best French driver of all time. It is very difficult for Jean, Erik or me to beat Alain in this way. In the middle generation, there are a lot of drivers who didn't arrive at a good time. It was too close in comparison to Alain and it is very difficult. A lot of young drivers were not lucky."

Was Prost an inspiration to the young generation?

"When I was younger Prost was very important to me," explains Eric. "I saw his last race in a go-kart and his first car race. In my head, I probably said, 'I must do go-karts and after that I must go car racing'. That was because of Alain. I respect him because he is a very good guy and very professional, but he is not a hero for me. I have no heroes.

"I would like to have a little bit of the skill of Prost and a little bit of Senna, but I am Eric Bernard and I will stay Eric Bernard. The only possibility to improve is to work and get better.

"It's very hard because F1 is the top in everything. My feeling is to work hard to do the most professional job possible."

This year Eric has found himself in pre-qualifying. He has been successful, but it takes a lot out of a driver.

"It is very difficult to be in pre-qualifying because it is very psychologically demanding. Every time you pre-qualify, you lose the first session and that carries through the whole weekend. It is very bad for this.

"But the Larrousse team is very good for me. It is a team of the future. It is not a really a very good F1 team now but it is getting bigger and bigger. There is a new factory coming -- and a wind tunnel.

"For me it is very important to get out of pre-qualifying. It is not a good time to think of the future. I have to learn."

Eric has only a one-year contract with Larrousse, but there is an option fo him to continue with the team if they want him, or if he gets a better offer he can quit.

For much of his career Eric has been associated with the Elf oil company. The cnnection has led to suggestions that he couold be picked up by Williams, which receives considerable support from Elf.

"For me Elf is very important. I have had support from then all my career. At the moment I am with BP! So it is important to get results with them in F1..."

Eric comes from the south of France and the little town of Istres, close to the old French circuit at Miramas, close to Marseilles.

Like many youngsters, his ambition to become an F1 driver was a childhood dream.

"Racing is my life," he explains. "When I was 11 I said I wanted to be a Grand Prix driver. It was completely crazy. But now I am now an F1 driver!"

Eric would let nothing stand in the way of his ambition.

"When I was a student," he recalls, "I was learning agriculture, but that was because there was a lot of time for practising karting -- not because I was interested in agriculture. Every part of my life is cars. I married three years ago. My wife is very important for me because she is a support. When times are bad I know my wife is near me. She is the stability -- for the bad moments and for the good moments. It is very important. Before we married, I aksed her if she was sure she wanted to marry me, because for me racing cars come first. She said yes. And it's no problem."

Such dedication and sacrifice is rare, but he will do whatever it takes.

"I like the south of France," he explains. "All my past is there, but now I prefer to be very international to work for the future.

"Every driver wants to be World Champion. We all think we can do it, but you have to learn.

"There are a lot of important people for me in my career. Each year there are good people who give you their experience. The most important is my sponsor -- not because he is a sponsor, but because he has a lot of experience. He is very -- how do you say? -- wise.

"Today the most important for me is Gerard Ducarouge. He has a lot of experience and he is very nice with me. I have a lot of respect for him.

The British Grand Prix should mark Eric's escape from pre-qualifying, having scored a point for the team at the Monaco Grand Prix.

It may not be quite the firework display which accompanied Alesi's arrival, but Bernard is waiting for his moment.

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