Features - Interview
SEPTEMBER 1, 1989
BY JOE SAWARD
For the 30-year-old from Austria, 1989 has been a cruel year, yet it has also been a lucky one.
Millions of television viewers across the world watched his Ferrari smash into a wall at the fastest corner of the Imola circuit. The wrecked car pirouetted to a drunken stop and then burst into flames.
The next 15 seconds seemed like a lifetime, as rescue crews rushed to the scene, extinguished the fire and pulled the unconscious Austrian free of the wreckage.
Everyone was amazed as it emerged that Berger had escaped with very few injuries. outside the medical centre there were tears of joy.
In Europe the escape grabbed the front pages of national newspapers, making Berger a household name.
Gerhard had some nasty burns to his hands which needed skin grafts, but he fought back from his hospital bed, shrugging off the injuries, to visit the Monaco GP just a fortnight later. Three weeks after that he was back in a racing car in Mexico City.
"I can only drive here because of the semi-automatic transmission," he admitted at the time. "If I had to change with a gear lever, it would be impossible."
After his brave showing in Mexico, where he qualified sixth and ran fourth in the race, he hit a run of misfortune and, until Monza, failed to score a single World Championship point, failed even to finish a race. Retirement followed retirement.
Monza marked the first anniversary of Gerhard's last Formula 1 victory and, in front of the tifosi, he took his Ferrari to the provisional pole position in the Friday qualifying, when the McLarens were struggling.
On Saturday Senna had put in a blistering lap to snatch the pole and in the race Gerhard discovered he could not compete with the McLaren-Hondas in terms of power. He dropped behind Prost, but inherited second place after Senna's retirement. It was a huge relief for him.
"I wouldn't have minded anything this year, if I had had some results," said Gerhard before the race. "Never finishing was bad for the confidence.
"I don't believe in bad luck, but what can I do if a front wing breaks, my clutch fails or there is an ignition problem?
"Not scoring does have an effect. As a racing driver you make mistakes -- I have made some this year -- but sometimes the team makes mistakes. This year has been unbelievable."
It brought the indignity of breaking Ferrari's record for the most consecutive non-finishes in the team's history.
But Monza ended that and Gerhard looks forward to a strong end-of-season, with the Ferraris increasingly closing on the McLaren-Hondas. His team mate Nigel Mansell beat the Marlboro cars fair and square at the Hungaroring and Gerhard is confident that things will be close as the season draws to a close.
Next year, of course, he looks ahead to a future with McLaren-Honda -- the very team which has caused him such frustration in the last two seasons.
He also looks ahead to a new team mate -- Ayrton Senna, the rigning World Champion, the fastest driver in the world.
Gerhard wants that title to be his and he has set himself a deadline. In three years time, he will quit racing -- if all goes to plan. And if the plan works he will have been World Champion -- at least once.
"I cannot say I will quit for definite," he explained, "but that is what I want to do.
"I have nothing to be worried about," he added. "I have been in F1 for five and a half seasons. When Prost won his first championship he had been in Formula 1 for six years. Senna was quicker, he took only five. I want to win the championship in the next two years.
"In my class generation: Ivan Capelli, Pierluigi Martini, Johnny Dumfries, Senna, Martin Brundle, Luis Sala and Emanuele Pirro, only Senna and I have done the work, won the races. I'm happy with my career."
It was certainly a meteoric career. He had one competitive year in European Formula 3 racing in 1984. He gave up his chances of winning that series by graduating mid-season straight into turbo-charged Formula 1 with an ATS-BMW. It was a big jump, yet Gerhard finished sixth at Monza -- in only his second Grand Prix.
For 1985 he moved across to Arrows before switching again for 1986, this time to Benetton. He led his first race, at home in Austria that summer and in the autumn to his first victory in Mexico.
His performances attracted the attention of all the top teams and for 1987 he moved to Ferrari. At the end of that first season with the Prancing Horse he won twice in convincing fashion in Japan and Australia and looked set to sweep the championship in 1988.
But then along came the McLaren-Hondas and 15 out of 16 races last year went to the McLaren team. Gerhard was the only man to beat Senna and Prost, but that was a fluke after Senna collided with Jean-Louis Schlesser's Williams in the closing laps of the Italian Grand Prix.
"After winning in a Ferrari at Monza," said Gerhard, "the only thing I can do to beat that feeling is to win the World Championship.
"To have the tifosi behind you is the best, the biggest, feeling. The first time you get to Monza with Ferrari, you feel the crowd. It's amazing, but you still have to win. When you come back again, it gets you down a bit. They change so quickly. In two minutes they change the banners from Berger to Mansell.
"I've been very happy at Ferrari. I've had good times. But I've haven't had the car to win. It has improved but it is not good enough to win. Still I have won races. I know drivers who have competed in 100 GPs and still haven't won."
But Gerhard wants to win more and it was this which convinced him that a move to McLaren in 1990 was the best career move available.
Way back at the end of 1986 he had had the opportunity to join McLaren. He walked around for a while with three contracts in his briefcase: one from ferrari, one from McLaren and one from Benetton. He chose Ferrari. It was, he admits, an emotional decision. His heart ruled his head on that occasion.
"I have no problem with Ayrton, but it's always difficult between drivers in a team. I feel Ayrton is not a bad guy -- a hard guy -- but not a bad guy.
"All through my career I haven't had a problem with my team mates. Everything has been okay. I had no problems with any of them.
"I wouldn't necessarily want to go on holiday with them, but I don't believe it will be a problem between me and Senna."
Of the four big F1 stars, Gerhard remains the most down-to-earth, the most approachable. He has always enjoyed his racing and has never been averse to a little clowning-around. Will he foit in with the slightly austere atmosphere of McLaren?
"I'm easy. I like fun and I really have fun in racing. If Ron shows me things that are better and if it makes sense I will do it. I want to be champion and he has the experience to help me."
People often remark about Gerhard's press-on driving style. He is often ragged, but always quick. Has that style changed much since the Imola crash?
"My motivation is to be the champion," he smiled, "but I promise you I will not kill myself. Every driver is lucky not to have a big accient. The one I had is something that you never get out of your head. It hasn't affected my speed, but now I don't leave anything to chance, to let that happen again. I don't take a risk unless it is absolutely necessary.
"Everything hurt when I was in the ambulance at Imola and I swore to myself that I'd never go in an ambulance again! It's been hard on the confidence, fighting back, and frustrating because there were no results until Monza. But there is no point in running 10th. If you are not racing 100%, you are not racing."
Gerhard is no stranger to fighting back from injury. In 1984, having had just a few races with the ATS that year, he was involved in an accident in Austria, when his roadgoing BMW was hit from behind on a country road. the car somersaulted off the road and into a river, Gerhard being thrown out of the car head-first, backwards, through the right rear passenger window. He broke his neck.
The next car on the scene had a pair of doctors on board and they saw that the injured Berger was treated correctly. After a few weeks in hospital in Innsbruck he discharged himself and flew to England to sign a deal with Arrows. He carries a macabre scar to his neck -- from ear to ear -- to remind him of that.
But accidents aside, motor racing has been good to Gerhard. He is now a very rich young man. Does the money have any effect on him now?
"No. I am in the class of drivers who win races. The money is the price for your work. If you don't get enough money, you didn't do your job well. That's how I look at it."
He will, of course, enjoy Honda power in 1990, something which in recent seasons he would have been happy to have. On his 29th birthday last year, he was asked what he would like as a present.
"A McLaren-Honda," he said at the time. Now his wish has come true and he relishes the new challenge of taking on Senna.
"It'll be a new motivation," he smiled at Monza. He acknowledges that he has still has much to learn in the business of Formula 1, but he has already learned a great deal, particularly from Ferrari designer John Barnard.
"He is the best engineer I have worked with," he explained. "They wer all good, but John is in a special class. He's intelligent and experienced. He has everything together."
With or without Barnard, Gerhard clearly still believes that, despite his trials along the way, the Imola accident and the frustrations at Ferrari, his best is yet to come. But where has he driven his best race?
"My best race?" He said thoughtfully. "I think it was Adelaide in 1987. I was racing like mad and I didn't make any mistakes. That was the best.