JULY 28, 2001

BMW must wait until 2003 before hoping for title success says Berger

THE rivalry between Michael and Ralf Schumacher is set to reach its zenith tomorrow in the minds of the 120,000 strong crowd expected to flood into Hockenheim tomorrow for the German grand prix.

THE rivalry between Michael and Ralf Schumacher is set to reach its zenith tomorrow in the minds of the 120,000 strong crowd expected to flood into Hockenheim tomorrow for the German grand prix.

Yet this will be just one facet of what promises to be a high octane confrontation. An equally crucial battle is raging between two titans of the German motor industry in the form of BMW from Munich versus Mercedes-Benz from Stuttgart the famous car companies battling as engine partners with Williams and McLaren respectively.

In the recent past Mercedes have had the upper hand, powering Mika Hakkinen's McLaren to world championships in 1998 and 99. Currently McLaren driver David Coulthard is also holding second place in this year's title chase behind Schumacher senior's Ferrari.

Yet many insiders are predicting that BMW's prodigiously powerful V10 engine will help Williams drivers Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya administer a knock-out blow to its key rival on the long straights of this challenging and dramatic circuit through the pine forests near Heidelberg.

Gerhard Berger, BMW Motorsport's director, is sufficiently seasoned in the capricious ways of motor racing to play down such upbeat predictions.

"We know our strengths and our weaknesses," he said cautiously. "Our strengths are more on a circuit like Hockenheim and we obviously hope that we can get the most out of the circuits which play to those strengths. But, you never know. This business is just too unpredictable to say anything for certain."

Yet Berger is quietly delighted with the performance of the Williams-BMW package in only its second year. The performance of the all-new 90-degree BMW V10 engine - a completely new unit for 2001 - has rocked many of its rivals. Yet still Berger is cautious.

The 41-year old former grand prix winner is a man who has experience of the formula one business from both sides of the pit wall. The millionaire heir to an Austrian road haulage fortune, Berger raced in the sport's senior category between 1984 and 1997.

He won ten grands prix, including the 1994 and 97 races here at Hockenheim, both of which he dominated in unchallenged style at the wheel of a Ferrari and Benetton.

Berger is a hugely popular personality within the formula one community, something of a playboy-turned-elder-statesmen. He was also one of the few individuals to forge a close friendship with the legendary Ayrton Senna, whom he partnered in the McLaren line-up from 1990 to 1992.

Senna knew a thing or two about integrity and his affection for Berger says all you need to know about the Austrian. "Ayrton taught me how to be professional," he said of the Brazilian who was killed in the 1994 San Marino grand prix, "and I taught him how to laugh."

For the moment, Berger, the man charged with the responsibility of massaging BMW's relationship with the Williams team on a race-to-race basis, is aiming for the 2003 season which he reckons will be the point where the cars will be genuinely ready to challenge for the championship.

"We have definitely made another step in terms of performance, reliability and team work since last year, both by ourselves and our partners at Williams," he said. "So I would say that BMW Williams today is half-way to becoming a world championship contender.

"We started already at a very high level last year, helped by the fact that we chose a very competitive team as a partner, but that inevitably triggered high expectations in terms of the results we might have achieved.

"It was a very high level starting point, which I think was quickly justified. But it was difficult to make a big step from last year to this year and the only realistic way forward was to take more risk and not pursue any conservative path.

"By that I mean a totally new engine - not one developed from the year before - and I have to say that our people in Munich did a great job. That has helped move our baseline to a higher level.

"Hopefully another significant one for next year, but I don't think it is at all realistic to imagine that we can challenge for the championship in 2002.

"Only when you look at the level that Ferrari is operating do you appreciate just how much work is still ahead of us."

Berger gives much credit to the drivers, particularly Ralf Schumacher who is currently third in the world championship after winning both the San Marino and Canadian grands prix.

"Ralf has done a fine job this year raising the standards of his game, changing his personality and his approach," he said.

"Montoya? He is very good, but his problem from the start of the year is that everybody (outside the team) treated him as a superstar, but the reality is that he still has to learn.

"People forget that he's just come into F1. Ten races is just not enough time for him. On the other hand, he's led races, finished second, he's doing a good job.;

"Even if sometimes I'm explaining where he perhaps weakest, that's not a criticism, it's meant to open his eyes and if he corrects a few things he's going to be a great driver, because he's very, very talented."

Berger also retains a high regard for Jenson Button, making the point that the young Englishman was fortunate to be at Williams last year - and unfortunate to be with Benetton this year. Even so, he has a word of warning for the 21-year old.

"He was very lucky last year when he got into a top team, then unlucky because he had to do in his second year what most drivers do in their first year," said Berger

"He needs to focus totally on his job but I still believe 100 per cent that he will be successful in the long term. Yet Jenson must also remember that if he doesn't make a success of the short term, then he's not going to have a long term."

Will Button be back at Williams in 2003? A non-committal grin crosses his face. He's too streetwise to be drawn into a contentious debate of that nature.

"Frank Williams makes the decision on the drivers," he said. "All I know, is that by then BMW wants to be fighting for the championship on fully competitive terms."