Features - Interview
OCTOBER 1, 1992
BY JOE SAWARD
Gerhard Berger is 32 - the same age as Ayrton Senna. Of the top F1 drivers Berger is the least controversial. He doesn't make a fuss if a team mate is quicker than him - he merely learns how to go faster...
Gerhard has lived in the shadow of Senna throughout his F1 career. The two began in F1 in 1984: Senna with Toleman and Berger with ATS. In 1985 - with Lotus - Senna was in a winning car and won. Berger had to wait until the end of 1986 - with Benetton - to win his first. Berger then went to Ferrari and in 1988 Senna went to McLaren. At the start of 1990 Berger left Ferrari to join McLaren. Most people thought he was mad, but Gerhard quickly explained the logic of joining a team which was built around Senna. He wanted to find out if he was the best. The only way to do that was to put yourself up against the best.
Senna was the best.
Three seasons down the line it would be logical to think that Berger has learned that Senna is still the best. Ayrton seems to have done all the winning with his Austrian team mate struggling in his wake. The real story, however, is somewhat different. This year Berger is ahead of Senna in the World Championship. Gerhard makes no secret of the fact that his first year at McLaren was a nasty shock. He spent the winter testing, getting into shape, and then Senna arrived after his long winter holiday and left Gerhard standing. By the end of the 1990 season he had failed to score a win, while Senna had notched up six wins and the World Championship.
Gerhard faced a crisis of confidence.
"My experiences at McLaren have really matured me," he admits. "I am a much better Berger than I was at the end of 1990."
Much of the credit for this must go to McLaren team boss Ron Dennis, who made sure that his driver did not crumble when faced with the Senna onslaught. Slowly, gradually, Berger has fought back. He has watched and learned from Senna, he has take the blows and with each passing race he has been pushing the Brazilian more and more. At the same time, rather than spinning off at a tangent and getting upset about being beaten - as many of the other top F1 drivers would do - Gerhard has plainly worked for Senna, helping the Brazilian to score points, helping to wear down the opposition. Senna is not always an easy man to be friends with, but Berger, with his easy relaxed charm, thinks of Senna as a friend.
"With Senna there are no problems," he admits, "but driving in 'his' team is difficult."
"Sure" says Berger, "All F1 champions have their own teams. With Niki Lauda in the old days it was Ferrari. Now Nigel Mansell has Williams; Ayrton Senna has McLaren. McLaren is an excellent team and I am not saying that one car is different from another - I don't believe that - because in my opinion McLaren is the only team which is capable of giving both drivers the same, from a mechanical and psychological point of view, but you have to take this sort of thing into consideration.
"It is no secret that I have worked hard for Senna. It is logical that I help Ayrton to win the title."
Senna is well aware of the help he has been given by Berger and last year in Suzuka he showed his appreciation to the Austrian by slowing at the finish and allowing Gerhard to pass him on the line to take the victory. It was gesture that few people in F1 would ever have imagined Senna doing and he admitted at the time that it had been hard for him to do - but he did it. Towards the end of last year, with Senna intent on defending the championship against Mansell, Berger was allowed free rein to do as he pleased and he took two pole positions towards the end of the year. Over the winter when asked if he wanted to re-sign Berger for another long-term contract Ron Dennis admitted that he had no problems with the concept. To have a driver who is only slightly behind Senna - and sometimes ahead - is no bad thing.
The problem for both Senna and Berger this year is that McLaren is no longer the winning force in F1. Williams-Renault is the team to beat and - just now - it looks as though the team will not be beaten, at least not his year. For Berger this is an opportunity to show his mettle: for it is now beyond hope that Mansell can be beaten to the title. There is no need to help Senna. In Canada Berger took his first win of the year, we have seen him nipping past Senna on several occasions and, for much of the rest of the time, he has been sitting on his tam mate's gearbox. Gerhard's hopes of winning are based largely on the two Williams-Renaults breaking down, but a win is a win and he will not turn it down if the opportunity arises again. Gerhard's has been something of a frustrated career. He has scored just seven GP wins: the first back in 1986 for Benetton. When he was at Ferrari the team was going through a difficult patch against the all-conquering McLarens and he collected just four wins in his three seasons with Maranello. He joined McLaren and found Senna in his way.
"Ferrari was strong but without knowing why. Having a Prost or a Senna taught me. At McLaren I thought I would immediately be able to show my talent. Instead it has taken time to build the foundations and to come back."
So what does the future hold for Gerhard Berger?
He could easily stay at McLaren, but his name has also been linked to a return to Ferrari.
"I have only good memories from Ferrari," he admits. "The victory at Monza in 1988 was fantastic. It is still my best win without a doubt It was the first Ferrari win after the death of Enzo Ferrari. You know I can still tell you all the smallest details of that day. It was incredible."
The impression one gets, however, is that Gerhard is quite happy to stay where he is.