Gerhard, S14611 and me

I will always remember one particular ride in a BMW 325i. I can even recall the number plate of the car - S for Salzburg 14611.

It was 1984 and the driver of S14611 was a young up-and-coming racing hero called Gerhard Berger.

At the time I was a struggling freelance reporter -- on the verge of finally going broke. I had been trekking around Europe, sleeping in tents, trucks and stations and "depending on the kindness of strangers" for the best part of a year. I had started by reporting European Formula 3, but necessity meant I had also to include the European Touring Car Championship in my calendar.

This schedule matched exactly that of Berger, so we saw a great deal of each other and had several adventures in BMW S14611. The first occasion, which stands out particularly, involved reversing on a motorway slip-road.

There developed a strange psychology for driving with him. If you accepted that you were dead before you climbed aboard, the rest did not matter. It became fun.

The most memorable drive came during the weekend of the Spa 24 Hours touring car race. Gerhard was a factory BMW driver. He was sharing one the Schnitzer team's BMW 635CSis with Roberto Ravaglia and Manfred Winkelhock, who was (we spoke of such things in awe) "a Grand Prix driver".

Qualifying at Spa started on the Tuesday and ran for two days. By Wednesday evening everyone was getting fed up. I was standing in the pitlane waiting for the final session to begin at 9:00pm when I was tapped on the shoulder.

"In 10 minutes you are going to Holland," said a voice.

"No I'm not. I have to report this," I replied grumpily.

"There is something better to report in Holland."

"Like what?"

"I'm doing my first Formula 1 test," said Gerhard.

"So what," I said uncharitably.

"I want you to come..."

I could not refuse. I suppose he wanted moral support. We would be back, he said, in time for the start of the 24 Hour race.

We set off and it must have been about 11pm when we crossed the Dutch border and began to run out of petrol. I had no money and Gerhard only had German marks. We could not find any garage which took credit cards. The situation became critical so we drove into the first garage we saw and offered a passing Dutchman a one-to-one swap Marks for Guilders. He looked suspiciously at us: you don't get something for nothing. Well he did.

The next stop was Schipol airport where we picked up an Austrian mechanic who was coming to help Gerhard. We reached Amsterdam in the small hours, found a hotel room, into which we all three crammed, and fell asleep. The BMW was parked -- as was Gerhard's way -- half on the pavement outside.

The following morning the hotel owner was in something of a flap when we emerged. The car had been broken into and the radio stolen. At this Gerhard began to laugh.

"There is a spare set of keys in the glove box. They could have taken the whole car!" I think we were still laughing about that when we arrived at Zandvoort.

For much of the day we wandered around, waiting. Gerhard would not test until the Saturday. When the testing was finished for the day, as dusk fell, Gerhard and I headed out onto the track in S14611.

"To begin with," he said. "We go very slow."

It didn't seem that slow. As we came steaming out of Bos Uit, I remember thinking that I had survived. I also remember the sinking feeling as we went past the pits, with Gerhard muttering about "going a little quicker this time". We did, tire screeching and chassis twisting. Schlievlak, the diving right-hander out among the dunes, was simply horrifying. We made it to Bos Uit again -- and I relaxed. For a second.

"Now we try going fast," said Gerhard. Gulp. As we arrived at Schlievlak I remember quite clearly thinking that if I survived it would be something to tell my grandchildren about.

The next morning Gerhard was like an excited kid when he climbed into the turbocharged ATS-BMW and did a few tentative laps.

"You cannot believe the power," he said, bug-eyed.

It was after three o'clock when I first realized that we should get moving to be back at Spa in time. I thrust a watch in front of Gerhard's helmet in the pits and he nodded, then drove out of the pits again.

It was at about 4:30 that I had a horrifying thought. The 24 Hours began at 5pm. I figured we could miss an hour or so, no problem. It would take probably three hours to get back, but Ravaglia could always hand the Schnitzer 635CSi on to Manfred at the first pitstop.

It was then that Manfred drove by me -- in Holland. He was also there testing the ATS. I tapped Gerhard on the helmet and explained the problem. He shrugged. Finally, I think something broke on the car, because he gave up and came running towards me, waving at the mechanics and thanking everyone as he ran. In full overalls he climbed into S14611 and off we went.

The Dutch Highway Code has never been so abused. We went straight through red lights without thinking; we overtook cars on the grass between the fast lane and the central barriers; we dodged and weaved. It was race against the clock. Once, and I don't remember why, we stopped at a traffic light. Alongside was a local petrolhead in a souped-up something-or-other. He looked across at me and revved his engine. I smiled back and then sat back to let him see the driver in racing overalls. The man's jaw dropped and, at the same moment, the lights changed. We did not see him again.

As we went into Belgium it started to rain. Life became infinitely more interesting. Finally, after getting lost in the lanes around Spa and several handbrake turns, Gerhard slithered to a soggy halt in the paddock at Spa and ran off, yelling "Park the car!"

A few moments later he was out on the track in the Schnitzer 635CSi.

"Not bad for an afternoon," he said later. "I drove three BMWs: one with 1000 horsepower; one with 350 and the other with 150."

A fortnight later Gerhard made his F1 debut with ATS. Within three months he and S14611 had gone off a cliff in Austria - when he was hit from behind. He broke his neck and was lucky to live. Within a few weeks he discharged himself from hospital and went off to England to sign a contract with Arrows.

A year after our adventures Gerhard and Roberto won the Spa 24 Hours for BMW...

As for S14611, I expect it can still be found at the bottom of a remote Austrian ravine.

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