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Portrait of a senior citizen

The other day an Italian lady rang me up and asked me to tell her everything I knew about Gerhard Berger. Oh dear, I thought, what has he been up to now? It turned out that she was writing a book about Formula 1's senior citizen.

I was rather reticent as I had never heard of the lady in question and thus assumed that she would be producing a bodice-ripping paperback full of scandalous exploits - like the average book on the British royal family.

Eventually a fax came through explaining that this was to be an officially-authorized biography and that I could check with Berger and his people if I wanted to.

So I started to think back to the days before Gerhard was a multimillionaire and the voice of reason in the F1 paddock. Good Grief! Gerhard. The voice of reason? The man's a lunatic. He has been as long as I've known him.

We met at the Zandvoort round of the European Formula 3 Championship in the summer of 1983. It was my first race report and his first season in international racing. He smiled a lot and spoke English is a strange back-to-front way. You understood what he meant but when you wrote out the words it made no sense at all and you had to change it all around.

He has got much better over the years and I remember being incredibly moved at Monaco in 1994 after Ayrton Senna's death when he spoke so eloquently about what it takes to be a racing driver.

It was some months before I discovered that Gerhard was actually barking mad. In Spain a few weeks later Gerhard, Tommy Byrne (who is as mad as Gerhard) and others started an enormous water fight in the paddock. You could not go anywhere without getting soaked by one of the drivers. They were hiding behind trucks or on the roof of the pits. It got completely out of control when a Spaniard in a blazer - the president of some automobile club - turned up looking important and was promptly soaked from head to foot. The locals quickly banned water fighting.

One evening Gerhard and Tommy continued their battle at their hotel. Gerhard managed to get into Tommy's hotel room and threw everything he could find out of the window and into the hotel swimming pool. Byrne and his mechanic Seamus Campbell (who is now a sober and stable citizen and managing-director of Galmer Engineering) set about dismantling Berger's road car - loaned to him by the BMW factory - and threw as much as possible into the pool. Windscreen wipers were followed by wheels, headlights and then the tool box. If Byrne and Campbell had an ignition key I am sure the car would have gone in too.

Gerhard and Tommy spent the evening duck-diving in the pool, collecting toothbrushes, clothes and sparkplugs, and then they went out to find a new hotel because the management would not have them back.

It was in Jarama that I first drove with Gerhard. We had gone somewhere in his BMW and on the way back he took a wrong turning onto a motorway. Gerhard braked calmly and then drove backwards - at top speed. I remember being very impressed when a truck came into our path and he simply jinked the wheel and went past, still talking about something or other. After that I started to refer to him as "talented" in my race reports.

I didn't go to Macau that year but Gerhard and Tommy had plenty of fun and games. They threw the captain off a junk in Hong Kong harbour and tore up pillows on the aeroplane on the flight back to Europe, filling the entire plane with feathers.

The following year we had exactly the same schedule of races: European Formula 3 and European Touring Cars. We had a lot of fun and at the end of the year I ranked Gerhard higher than both Ivan Capelli and Johnny Dumfries in the end-of-season survey - which made me very unpopular.

"He should go a long way," I wrote, "...once he learns to curb his exuberant driving style away from the tracks."

In touring car racing he was partnered by our old mate from European F3 the previous year Roberto Ravaglia - known as "Bob Ravioli". That year Gerhard went to a lot of races in his BMW - repaired after the vandalism of Jarama 1983. It had the number plate was S for Salzburg 14611 and we had a lot of adventures in that car. I quickly developed a way of dealing with his driving. I simply accepted that I was dead before I climbed into the car and that whatever happened after that therefore did not matter. It became fun when you forgot to be scared.

The most memorable drive came during the weekend of the Spa 24 Hours touring car race. Gerhard was sharing a BMW 635CSis with Bob Ravioli and Manfred Winkelhock, who was - we spoke of such things in awe in those days - "a Grand Prix driver".

Qualifying at Spa started on the Wednesday and ran for two days. By Thursday 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," Gerhard said.

"No I'm not. I have to report on 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..."

How could I refuse? We would be back, he said, on Friday evening. We told Ravioli the good news and disappeared off into the night. It was midnight when we crossed the Dutch border and began to run out of petrol. I had no money of any currency and Gerhard had a few Deutschmarks. All the garages were automated but did not take credit cards and would not accept German money.

In the end we had to stop at a garage and there we waited for a passing Dutchman who would be willing to swap Deutschmarks for Dutch guilders. We didn't know the exchange rate so figured we would offer one-for-one. Every Dutchman who arrived assumed that we were con-men because the deal was far too attractive but finally we found one who would take a chance. He went off into the night a wealthier man.

The next stop was Amsterdam Airport where an Austrian mechanic had been waiting for us since the early evening. He had flown in help Gerhard at the test. We reached Amsterdam in the small hours, parked - as was Gerhard's way - half on the pavement, found a hotel room and the three of us crammed in and went to sleep. We were woken early by the hotel owner who reported that the BMW had been broken into during the night. The radio had been stolen. Did we want to call the police?

Gerhard laughed.

"They are so stupid these thieves," he said. "There is a spare key in the glove box. They could have had the whole car!"

Eventually we drove off to Zandvoort where for much of the day we wandered around getting bored. In the early evening the testing stopped and we decided that we would do some laps in S14611.

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

It didn't seem that slow. As we came steaming out of the long curling final corner, I remember thinking that I was happy to have 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 back to the main straight and I relaxed. For a second.

"And now," said Gerhard, "we go really fast." As we arrived at Schlievlak I remember quite clearly thinking that if I survived it would be something to tell my grandchildren about. After that lap, I am delighted to say, we stopped.

The next morning Gerhard was like an excited kid when he climbed into the ATS-BMW and did his first tentative laps in a Grand Prix car.

"You cannot believe the power," he said, with his eyes wide. He grew accustomed to it and then he just wanted to test and test. By early afternoon I was very bored. I knew that soon we would have to head off back to Spa because the 24 Hours would begin at 5pm. I figured it would take three hours to drive back and so at 3pm I tapped Gerhard on the top of his helmet and thrust my watch in front of his visor. He nodded and drove out of the pits. It was at about 4:30pm that I began to wonder what Bob Ravioli was going to do because both Gerhard and Winkelhock were with me testing ATS-BMWs, while he was at Spa, driving a 24 Hour race by himself...

Finally something broke on the ATS and Gerhard gave up. He came running through the paddock and in full racing overalls climbed into S14611. We had 200 miles to do and two hours in which to do it. The Dutch Highway Code has never been so abused. We went straight through red lights without thinking; on the motorways we overtook cars on the grass between the fast lane and the central barrier; we dodged and weaved. It was race against the clock. Once - only once - and I don't remember why, we stopped at a red traffic light. Alongside was a local lad in a car he had souped-up. He looked across at me and revved his engine. I smiled and sat back to let him see Gerhard in full racing overalls. The man's jaw dropped and, at that moment, the lights changed. We did not see him again.

As we went into Belgium it started to rain and life became infinitely more interesting. Then we got lost in the lanes near the track. Several handbrake turns later we slithered to a soggy halt in the Spa paddock. Gerhard ran off, yelling "Park the car!" and within minutes had replaced a tired Bob Ravioli.

A few weeks later Gerhard made his F1 debut at Monza and within three months went off a cliff in Austria at the wheel of S14611. He was thrown out of the driving seat (it was a left-hand drive car) and went head-first, backwards through the right rear passenger window. Think about that for a minute. He was only saved because the first car that came along has two neck specialists in it.

Six months later we were at Anderstorp in Sweden. I was in a car behind Bob Ravioli, who was driving Gerhard back to the hotel. Something was thrown out of a window and we watched as the car ahead sailed off the road and up and embankment towards some trees. Berger had thrown the ignition keys out of the window, an automatic steering lock had been activated and so Ravaglia could do nothing to change the trajectory of the car. It stopped a few inches short of the trees - which Gerhard thought was very funny.

And now, here we are, Mr. Berger is F1's senior citizen and the voice of reason in the paddock.

What a strange world we live in...

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