Imola, April 25, 1982. This date is remembered above all for the misunderstandings born between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, and for the third place won by Michele Alboreto, with a Tyrrell that was not on the road.
However, few know that at the Tosa bend there is a young man born in Worgl, on August 27, 1959, whose name is Gerhard Berger, and who through the networks attends the Grand Prix of San Marino:
"It was on that day that I wanted to drive a Ferrari and I understood the value of Michele Alboreto, whom I consider one of the best Formula 1 drivers ever".
It is from this moment that the desire to become a Formula 1 driver enters the mind of the young Austrian, but above all to race for Ferrari. Berger like Niki Lauda comes from a wealthy family. His father owns a trucking company with over 100 trucks and various importexport companies. But unlike his fellow countryman, Gerhard doesn't borrow money from a bank to get to Formula 1, but starts working hard at twenty, in a small company with about ten employees.
Boy, clerk, warehouse worker: he did a bit of everything, even driving heavy trucks for many hours a day. A bit later, the company will have twenty-five vehicles and will even be able to compete with that of the father. But from now on Berger will have little time to deal with it: he is about to begin his incredible history in Formula 1.
First, however, Gerhard took part in the Alfasud single-make trophy and then in Formula 3, arriving in Italy in 1984 with Pino Trivellato's team, with the car of which he won third place in the continental championship. The trainer from Vicenza will judge him like this:
"First of all, a very good boy, generous, sensitive, open. His human relationship with mechanics is excellent. Then, unlike what some say, a driving technician, a driver who learns quickly, also gifted with natural talent. a complete runner who could go anywhere".
Also, in 1984, Berger signed a contract with BMW to compete in the European Touring Championship, where he competed alongside Roberto Ravaglia, but Formula 1 awaits him. His career in the premier class began at the end of 1984, and exactly at the Austrian Grand Prix, when the German ATS team entered and granted a second D7 powered by the BMW Turbo to the Austrian driver, who was up to now in Formula 3.
In qualifying, Gerhard does not go beyond the twentieth place, while in the race he will be forced to retire with three laps to go due to gearbox problems, but he will still be classified twelfth as he had covered over 90% of the expected laps. Berger will also participate in the Gram Prix of Italy, Europe and Portugal, getting points only in Monza, thanks to a sixth-place finish.
In the following year, Berger switched to Arrows, racing all season aboard the A8. The season is full of retirements, but even when he is not forced to stop, he fails to score points, finishing very often in seventh position. Only in the last two races of the season will he be able to get a fifth and a sixth place in South Africa and Australia.
In 1986 Gerhard moved to Benetton, a team born from the acquisition of the Toleman, and with the BMW-powered B186 he began the championship by collecting two sixth places in Brazil and Spain, while surprisingly he conquered his first career podium in Imola. It is destiny that Imola will re-enter more than once in the history of his life and his career.
In qualifying, Gerhard did not go beyond the ninth time, but the following day he led a careful race, with the intention of bringing the car to the finish. With the consolidated positions and a lap away from the first place, Rosberg first stops two laps from the end having run out of fuel, then Patrese slows down for the same reason and Stefan Johansson, hero the previous year with his Ferrari, accuses of brake problems.
To take advantage of the incredible situation is Berger, who has managed his car well and crosses the finish line in third place, winning his first career podium, four years after that love at first sight born in Imola.
At the excellent start of the season there is a negative streak that even reaches four consecutive retirements; after that, his performance improved at the Austrian Grand Prix, but the Austrian was forced out of the points due to a drop in oil pressure while leading the race.
Three weeks later, in Monza, he finds himself involved in the same situation, when he is forced to stop in the pits losing a lap while leading the race. The B186 is competitive but lacks reliability. However, it will be at the Mexican Grand Prix that, thanks also to the competitiveness of Pirelli tires, everything will go smoothly and Gerhard Berger will finally win his first world championship victory.
In a race that will see all the riders stop several times in the pits to change tires, Pirelli chooses to mount hard tires on the Benettons, which look splendidly throughout the race on a very abrasive track, which heats the compounds to prohibitive temperatures.
It is Berger's first victory, it is the first for Benetton, it is also the first for the tires of Pirelli, who will leave Formula 1 the following year.
The Austrian from Benetton, future Ferrari driver, builds the victory by not stopping to change the tires. At the end of the race all the drivers are shocked by the heat. Senna is exhausted, Mansell and Piquet are out of energy, while Berger is pale as a rag, despite the joy of victory, and he even has to use an oxygen tank to revive himself, after almost fainting as soon as he gets out of the car:
"We had set up the car well in the last few days but I wasn't very confident before the start. We hadn't planned anything for the stop regarding the tires. Halfway through the race I realized that I could continue and that the car was holding very well. The winning factor, together with an excellent chassis and an engine that was perfect this time, were undoubtedly the Pirelli tires, as we were the only ones who didn't stop to change them. I'm very satisfied. I dedicate this victory to the team, to Benetton, that I am about to leave. I think this is the best gift I could give to my teammates who have helped me a lot throughout the season".
The excellent performances lead Berger to join the Ferrari court alongside Michele Alboreto in the 1987 season. Initially, Enzo Ferrari had closed an agreement with Nigel Mansell, but the latter's refusal to comply with the contract already signed will lead the homonymous founder to choose Gerhard and confirm his engagement on 24 September 1986:
"A first agreement with the Austrian driver dates back to August 4, 1986. Today we can say that it will belong to Ferrari, because BMW has released him. For this we thank the German manufacturer and Marlboro for paying the salary. I chose him because I think he has the qualities to become a great driver".
Ferrari presents the F1-87 for the occasion, a car that allows Berger to take fourth place at his debut in Brazil. But despite the good result, there is little to laugh about in Ferrari. The car has several problems, including poor road holding, looming understeer and various pitching. Even the transmission presents problems, due to the internal levers that occasionally get jammed.
The cars are very difficult to drive and their tuning is also problematic. Barnard immediately sets to work to make the necessary aerodynamic, suspension and set-up changes. But these are not the only major problems at Ferrari. In fact, when the Italian journalists arrive in Rio, they realize that the reserve car is destined for Berger:
"The car remained with the number 28 as it was at the end of the free practice last week".
Piccinini declares, but no one believes it. Barnard and the most qualified staff work directly on Berger's car, while Alboreto's car is instead entrusted to Nardon, with whom the English designer has occasionally exchanged information.
The season continues with ups and downs: in Spa, Friday 15 May 1987, thanks to rain and even hail, Gerhard Berger's Ferrari takes first place on the provisional starting grid, while Alboreto sets the third fastest time, positioning himself behind Mansell. In Germany, on the other hand, a new biplane aileron, studied in the wind tunnel by Harvey Postlethwaite, arrives during Friday tests: an aileron used on both the machines of Alboreto and Berger.
But if in Alboreto the new aileron guarantees the third row, in Berger it does not bring great benefits, since it comes off and flies on the stands fortunately semi-deserted, causing a spectacular accident. Subsequently, Gerhard conquers his first pole position in Portugal, but due to the pressure of Alain Prost he makes a mistake and has to settle for second place in the final.
During qualifying, the sky above Estoril is heavily covered with threatening rain clouds. After just twenty-eight minutes of testing, Piccinini senses what could happen on the fly, so he has Berger change the tires and sends him back on track; at the same time, in Alboreto, which was already on the track, the engineer Nardon communicated via radio to continue running.
Berger, after having recorded the best time, comes back with an excited face, he feels he has driven in perfect conditions: Gerhard would like to go out again but the push mechanics put him inside the garage, because it has started to rain and he has not left shrewd. Then when they show him the time monitor, the Austrian driver explodes, jumps out of the car and starts to walk up and down the garage; he can't believe it, he even speaks for himself: he has won his first pole position.
When he gets out of the car, he is so confused that he wants to go away, gather with the reporters, get inside all the cameras in front of him; for this reason, Piccinini lifts him up and pushes him back into the car. After practice, Bernie Ecclestone brings champagne to the Ferrari mechanics to toast this pole position. No one at Ferrari had thought of such an auspicious event and so the galleys were empty of all sorts of sparkling spirits to be used in moments of celebration:
"What do you want champagne to serve me, with the Brabham that I find myself? So, let's toast to this Ferrari, let's toast to the Commander of Maranello who is putting salt and pepper back on the championship".
Bernie exclaims, happy to see Ferrari again in the first places. The mechanics, the old ones hardened by so much bitterness and so much criticism and the young ones who are enjoying the first Grand Prix of a career that will be very long for them, all abandon themselves together for once to leaps of joy, hugs and smiles. The Spaniard Villadelprat, order carrier of John Barnard still absent from the racing fields, recalled the harsh daily reality, made up of wrenches and greasy hands:
"Now enough, everyone at work".
The next day, Gerhard keeps the lead, but Prost begins to recover. The race order remains stable until the sixty-eighth lap, when the Austrian's car begins to suffer from a loss of pressure and spins. Prost took the opportunity to pass him and won the race in front of the Ferrari driver, who had to settle for second place when he seemed destined to win.
At the checkered flag, the joy is such that Ron Dennis almost throws himself out on the track to celebrate with his driver, while poor Berger, on the other hand, is immediately consoled by the Ferrari top management after the mistake that cost him his first victory in Rosso; it is even Enzo Ferrari who calls him to cheer him up.
"What would the people, the fans, the engineer Ferrari have said, if for too much prudence, I had let Prost overtake and overtake me? I had no alternative, I had to push hard. And the risks were there, because we were traveling at a pace from qualification, but with the brakes already overheated, with worn tires. I know: a Lauda, a Prost maybe they wouldn't have made a mistake. But I'm neither Lauda, nor Prost, I'm Berger. I'm sorry, because the car was competitive. But now it's time to think about the next race".
Gerhard declares, but Ferrari is back competitive and the rewards will come to Suzuka and Adelaide, where the Austrian will triumph, deluding the Ferrari fans that he has finally found the right way to return to success.
After ten years of absence, Formula 1 returns to Japan, at the Suzuka circuit, owned by Honda. The Japanese manufacturer, which hopes to see a battle on the home track between the two Williams drivers fighting for the world championship, will instead have to witness a relatively calm race, with Berger maintaining the leadership after taking pole position and dominates the race on a Ferrari that has finally improved also in terms of reliability.
For the Austrian driver it is the second victory in his career, while for the Maranello house it is a return to success for the first time since the 1985 German Grand Prix.
Curious mistake after the end of the Grand Prix: instead of the Austrian anthem in honor of Berger's victory, the organizers, confused by the name Ferrari, played that of Mameli. Berger laughs at us and applauds.
“It wasn't a tough race. When you win, everything is easy. I reduced the turbo pressure after the second lap and increased it again only to pull Johansson off after the tire changes. I could have gone faster. I think I have made a good start. I had some difficulties in engaging the gears, otherwise everything went smoothly. What was Ferrari strongest in? Overall: fantastic chassis, good engine. But we still have to improve to achieve constant competitiveness with the cars powered by Honda engines. For the next race in Adelaide I am optimistic. However, we must not underestimate that Mansell was missing here, that Piquet was unmotivated, that Prost had problems. The finish line it's not just winning races, but fighting for the world championship".
While Berger releases this interview to Italian journalists, Piccinini snatches the Austrian, awaited on the phone by Enzo Ferrari. When he returns to talk to the reporters, Gerhard pleasantly tells that he told Ferrari:
"Good morning engineer, today everything is fine. And he replied: a very good race. Now you have to work hard. Next year you will fight for the world title. No, I'm joking. I understood very little, almost nothing. I realize that he too was happy".
After the triumph in Japan, Gerhard Berger neatly re-assembles his suitcase, calls Worgi, a village in the Tyrolean Alps, to greet his partner Rosi and his seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter Cristine, then greets everyone and leaves for Thailand:
"A week's vacation, I want to sleep twelve hours a day, sunbathe and not think about racing. But it won't be easy: I am a guest, by coincidence, of Frank Convalexius, a friend who made me a pilot in an attempt to cheat me".
And here it is the story of Gerhard, which happened almost by chance in the world of motoring:
"It's a strange and funny story and I want to tell it. It was 1979. I was twenty years old and, like all young people, I loved motor sports. At that time I limited myself to following Niki Lauda's exploits, watching television and, at most, I was doing a bit of motocross. One day Frank arrives but he was racing in his car and says to me: listen, I always take them. Would you like to try it? He lends me the car, a Ford Escort, I get my license and I show up on the track in Zeltweg. I set the best time in the category, three seconds faster than everyone else. Convalexlus seems surprised and offers me to rent the car: about one million lire".
"I don't have the money, I answer. He appears annoyed and then offers me another contract: free wagons, but if you crash, you pay for everything. I'm in it and I win big. And then I learn that that smart man had mounted an increased engine and that he wanted just sell the Escort. He even went to detach the tables with the times attached to the notice boards of the circuit so that the others would not notice the differences in the times. But, in the meantime, I had been hit by the racing virus and I continued".
Then, speaking of the positive moment for Ferrari, Gerhard admits:
"I knew that I would not have made a mistake in betting on Ferrari, even if this championship has been very difficult, due to the controversy and the pressures more than the negative results. It is not easy to race for this great team, the relationships at the 'inside and outside. We won, we were strong for a day. The car was fine. But let's not fool ourselves. We still have to work a lot, we mustn't rest on our laurels. To be competitive, it will always be necessary to make a lot of efforts, tests and research. In short, we are alone. at the beginning. The other teams are strong".
And finally, he jokes, as he has always been used to doing, saying:
"When I arrived in Japan, I found my mechanics with a long beard. They said they would not cut it until I won. So, out of a matter of decency, I did everything possible to please them. No, jokes aside, it's not enough. I'm optimistic for the future. But I wouldn't be able to settle for a few exploits every now and then. My goal is to fight for the world title. That's why I came to Ferrari".
In Australia, starting again from pole, Gerhard loses the first position in favor of Piquet, who has a better sprint, but the Austrian driver regains the leadership already on the first lap and starts to dominate this race too. Senna will desperately try to push hard to get him back, but the Ferrari driver will manage to manage his advantage and win his third career Grand Prix, second in a row, also scoring the fastest lap which, added to the pole position, will result in a hat-trick.
"I don't know if more could have been done. We worked a lot, but the fruits only came at the end. It was a particularly tough season, but I'm quite satisfied. And above all I'm happy to be at Ferrari".
He declares Gerhard at the end of the race, before adding:
"I asked myself several times if I hadn't made a mistake: I could have stayed at Benetton, I had received offers from Williams and McLaren. Perhaps if I had gone to one of these two teams the results would have been more immediate. But here, with Maranello, I gained an inimitable experience. The environment is difficult but reactive, stimulating. There was a lot of pressure. But we managed to find a solution for every problem: Barnard's departure from the slopes, relations with Alboreto, with the team".
"At the beginning the team was a bit cold towards me. Now things have changed; I think they love me. There were frictions with Michele, perhaps misunderstandings. It is natural in an individualistic sport like this. But we have never quarrelled. And now the relationships, for a few weeks, have been excellent. We experienced the most difficult moments during the Siverstone and Hockenheim races. I had some doubts, I was a bit demoralized, then the situation got better. Even when I made the mistake that perhaps made me lose the race in Portugal, I didn't feel guilty. I did it convinced I was doing the best, to win".
And speaking of the preparation for the 1988 season and the preparation work to be done, Gerhard admits:
"This doesn't scare me. From my home, in Austria, I can get to Mannello in one amen: half an hour to go to the airport, a thirty-five-minute flight to Bologna and the same amount to Fiorano. The important thing is to prepare well for next season. I think I have reached my limit so far only in qualifying. In the race I can still improve. This is why I am ready to work. Ferrari has to fight for the world championship. It takes motivation to go fast. It's an old speech: you are fast if you have the right psychological drive. And if there is the energy you can improve further. If our cars are up to speed. height, and I am convinced, next year we will play another music, not just some exciting songs like in Japan and Australia, but an entire symphony".
The 1988 season manages to be more continuous for Ferrari and Berger, and retirements thin out with the arrival of the 88C model, which is in fact a simple evolution of the F1-87, given that Maranello prefers to exploit all the energies in forecast of the 1989 season, year of the change of technical regulations, with the prohibition of the production of turbo-compressed engines.
But McLaren built an unbeatable car, capable of winning fifteen out of sixteen races. The Austrian remains satisfied with the numerous podium finishes, including two second places in Brazil and Monaco, and two third places in Mexico and Germany, and the fortunate victory in Italy, ending the season in third position with 41 championship points.
In Monza, Senna made no mistake and at the start he kept the lead ahead of Prost, Berger and Alboreto, and there were no important changes until the thirty-fifth lap, when the Frenchman had to retire due to an engine problem. At this point Senna seems to have the victory in hand, but due to a misunderstanding, at the Variante della Roggia he collides with Schlesser during the dubbing maneuver two laps from the end of the race. The Brazilian's retirement thus allows Berger and Alboreto to win a double for Ferrari, less than a month after the death of Enzo Ferrari.
"A great satisfaction, all the more beautiful because it was unexpected. I swear to you: the triumphant crowd at Monza is worth the career of a driver. But it is not only for that. We are on the right track, I am convinced that we will become more and more competitive. came to this team above all for the recall of the Ferrari myth. With the disappearance of the manufacturer the myth has remained and in addition there is new blood and a great desire not only to continue, but also to break through, making a full commitment with all means available. Which are not few. I don't regret joining Ferrari for so many reasons. First: when I left Benetton there were other alternatives, but no team was better on paper than the one I chose. Let's face it: McLaren wasn't there at the moment".
"Honestly a few months after the engagement I had some uncertainties. Great confusion, enormous pressure, difficult environment. Then I realized that it was a particular period, of transition, of transformation. Now I think we have passed it. I'm happy with my decision. I think I have no problems whatsoever when I am on the track. No hesitation, no awe. Give me a valid car and there is no Senna who cares, even if I recognize that the Brazilian is very fast. If a Formula 1 driver doesn't. he runs convinced that he is competitive, he better stop. There is no doubt about this".
But if the Italian Grand Prix distributes great emotions to Ferrari fans, the traditional technical checks of the cars, which began while most of the people had started to leave the circuit, will risk turning success into a sensational mockery for the men from Maranello.
After the race, the commissioners of the International Federation happily carry out their task, when one sees one bleaching in the face after checking the capacity of the petrol tank of Berger's Ferrari which, according to the regulations, must contain a maximum of 150 liters of fuel.
The commissioner begins to do the math several times: the final figure is threatening: 151.5 liters, which would have meant the immediate disqualification of the Austrian driver. The Maranello team would still have obtained first place with Alboreto, but the success would have aroused controversy and suspicion.
What happened? A mistake, a simple and trivial mistake. Not being able to have a 150-liter container, the commissioners first empty the tank completely and then fill it with seven 20-liter tanks, for a total of 140. The remainder is introduced with 2-liter bottles.
Six were poured instead of the five planned, which is why there must have been at least 151.5 liters inside the tank. At this point the operation is completely repeated, and in the end, it is clear that the tank contained exactly 149.5, that is two liters less than what was previously calculated.
Obviously, a small crowd gathers in the closed car park, especially with the sports directors of the other teams. But in the end the technical commissioners remedied the oversight by inserting in an official statement that the tank of Berger's car is regular, making the Ferrari men breathe a sigh of relief. Although the hypothesis of fraud was to be excluded, it could have been an error in the construction of the tank, which would have transformed a day of celebration into a nightmare.
In 1989 the English lion Nigel Mansell arrived alongside Gerhard Berger, the very one who should have respected the contract and had arrived in Maranello since 1987, but favored the arrival of the Austrian, after his rethinking. The new Ferrari 640 features some noteworthy innovations, the most important of which is the introduction of the semi-automatic gearbox.
The season does not start in the best way: in fact, after a first retirement in the inaugural stage in Brazil, the Austrian is the victim of a terrible accident at the San Marino Grand Prix, held on the Imola circuit. Once again, this circuit enters its destiny.
On the fourth lap, Berger's Ferrari crashes into the barriers at the Tamburello corner at a speed of about 290 km/h: after the very violent impact caused by the collapse of the front wing, a radiator punctures the body in the area of the fuel tanks, and the car of the Austrian driver suddenly catches fire, bringing to mind in no time at all the terrible accident that involved Niki Lauda at the time.
Fortunately, especially thanks to the timely intervention of the men of the fire service of the Imola circuit, who put out the fire in less than twenty seconds, Berger comes out of the accident with only a broken rib and burns on his hands, which force him to a month off.
The race is logically interrupted, and only after the driver has taken the necessary care and precautions out of the cockpit, can one breathe a sigh of relief. The next day, Ayrton Senna will call Gerhard to find out how he is. Berger, still shaken by the accident, will confide to his Brazilian friend:
"We have to remove that fucking wall, it's too dangerous".
But, as Gerhard will later tell, when the two return to the Imola track to carry out tests:
"Ayrton looked behind the wall and saw that there was a river and he said...we can't move it, behind there is a river. We looked at each other and we agreed. So I told Ayrton...we can't do anything, but surely someone will leave their mark on this curve...".
Having skipped the Monegasque appointment, the Austrian returns to the track in Mexico. The semi-automatic gearbox proves too fragile and Gerhard accuses eight retirements in a row, a negative streak broken only in Monza, where he gets a second place. In the following race in Portugal he obtained his fifth victory, while in the last round of the season he obtained a further second place in Australia.
On the Estoril circuit, starting from the front row, Berger sprints better than Senna and takes the lead. The Austrian driver will keep the lead until the end, winning the first and only race of the season ahead of Prost who, thanks to second place, will further increase his advantage in the championship, while in third place comes the surprising Stefan Johansson, who will bring the first podium to Onyx of its history.
But the race will be remembered above all for the contact between Mansell and Senna, after the British driver was disqualified following the reverse performed along the pit lane. And Gerhard himself does not hide that he is sorry for this:
"This is a success that few will remember after what happened. I am still satisfied with my race and with the Ferrari that was truly superior to McLaren. But this statement does not change my situation one iota. I am convinced that I was right to leave. Ferrari at the end of the year to look for new motivations and because I am convinced that McLaren will still be competitive".
The Grand Prix in Adelaide is the last one disputed with the Prancing Horse, given that on 12 July 1989 Ferrari decided to break off its relationship with the Austrian, who a few days later formalized his move to McLaren for the three-year period 1990-1992.
"Gerhard Berger will not be behind the wheel of Ferrari in the 1990 Formula 1 championship. The team reiterates its appreciation for what the driver has done in the last three years and for what he will still be able to deliver in the remainder of the current season. time contacts with other riders, the outcome of which will be communicated 'at the time of formalization of the agreement".
On the eve of the British Grand Prix, on Thursday July 13, at 11:00 am, the official announcement of the transfer of Gerhard Berger to McLaren for the next three years arrives, at a cost of seven million dollars a year:
"Honda Marlboro McLaren announces that Austrian rider Gerhard Berger will be the partner of reigning world champion Ayrton Senna in the 1990 season".
Gerhard, for his part, comments on the transition to McLaren saying:
"I wanted new motivations, different stimuli. I received a lot from Ferrari, I became famous, I was lucky enough to meet Enzo Ferrari. Beautiful, unforgettable moments. And I'm sure that the Maranello team will be back on top. But it will take a while. of time: one year, probably two. I'm in a hurry. I want to win the world championship, I signed up for the team that has had the most successes in recent years. This is beyond everything, money, sympathy, and also the presence in my future Senna team, today the strongest rider. A bit of bad luck deprived me of good results. But I will leave as a friend, I hope, without slamming the door. And I can assure you that until the end of the championship I will be a Ferrari driver and I will try to win with Ferrari".
Then Ron Dennis, McLaren's general manager, added:
"We are happy that Gerhard has joined our team. His presence reinforces our strategy of always having two riders capable of winning the championship. Honda and McLaren clearly want to continue with the policy of providing both riders the same material and technical support".
While instead Ayrton Senna will say for the occasion:
"Berger? One is as good as another. In Formula 1 everyone wants to win. Better a good driver than a car wrecker. Gerhard and I are more or less the same age and the same character. In any case, he's different from Prost".
The divorce between Ferrari and Gerhard, unlike the words expressed in July by the Austrian driver, will be somewhat stormy, with the latter constantly accusing the team of favoring his English teammate during the season.
The first season in McLaren, alongside Ayrton Senna, the Austrian driver competes in the MP4 / 5B, a car that has many design flaws, but thanks to the excellent reliability and quality of the Honda project, he will be able to guarantee the Brazilian driver winning the world champion title.
Gerhard is unable to obtain any victory, also due to the fact that, being very tall, he is unable to fit comfortably inside the car, designed around the slender body of the Brazilian driver, but on the other hand wins two second places in Brazil and San Marino, and five third places in Monaco, Mexico, Germany, Belgium and Italy, defining what is his best season for points scored, even if he finishes in fourth place in the world championship standings.
The 1991 season, aboard the MP4/6, is along the lines of the previous season, to give a distinctive sign is the first victory with the English team in Japan, sold by Senna as a sign of gratitude for having covered his back during the world championship. There are two second places in England, Belgium and San Marino, while he gets two third places in Brazil and Australia.
The third and last in McLaren is certainly worse than the previous two years, given by the underperforming and unreliable car. But despite this, the Austrian, after an unlucky series of retirements, gets two wins in Australia and Canada, two second places in Japan and Portugal, and a third place in Hungary.
In addition, during the Portuguese race, there is an accident with Riccardo Patrese, caused by a hasty maneuver by the Austrian during his return to the pits, which will cost Berger a verbal warning from the FIA.
The jokes on Ayrton Senna
Despite Ayrton's much higher speed, for Gerhard the Brazilian driver represents more than a colleague or a teammate: Ayrton is a true friend, with whom to share moments of extreme hilarity. Yet it is certainly not in 1990 that the two know each other.
In reality, Gerhard and Ayrton met for the first time in 1983 at Silverstone, while the English Formula 3 championship is underway, as the Austrian driver will tell a few years later:
"That year I went to England to participate in the Formula 3 race, I had a really disastrous set-up, so I went to talk to Dick Bennets and Ayrton was sitting with him. I asked him what gears I needed and which springs, Ayrton he looked at me as if he wanted to say: Who is this guy who suddenly comes out and starts wondering how his set-up could be?"
Then, Gerhard and Ayrton meet again during the prestigious Macau Grand Prix for Formula 3 cars:
"Ayrton won the race and I finished third, and the fastest lap was assigned to me. I thought it was a mistake, as I was convinced that Ayrton had done it, but it was assigned to me, so I accepted the result. That evening I was at a party and there I met Ayrton for the first time. He told me: I did the fast lap. The official results were out and so there was nothing to discuss, I just told him: You did it you, but they assigned it to me! So we talked and laughed. I think our friendship began, although we didn't realize it yet".
In the years to come, the jokes that the two elaborate against each other become memorable, such as in Australia, when Berger, in a hotel room, fills Senna's bed with animals:
"I spent the last hour catching twelve frogs in my room".
Ayrton exclaims, between amused and irritated to his Austrian friend, who replies:
"Did you find the snake?"
Berger himself will explain later:
"They weren't frogs, they were bigger, more like toads. In Australia they have these kinds of animals. I thought they would like animals, but clearly they didn't".
The incident provokes a desire for retaliation in Senna, and a short time later he places a wheel of French cheese in the air conditioning ducts of Berger's room.
In Japan, Senna and compatriot Mauricio Gugelmin decide to fill Berger's shoes with shaving cream, while they are all traveling together on a rapid train in Japan, to go to a dinner: this forces Berger to show up for the appointment with the tennis shoes matched with the tuxedo.
But then, a few days later, just before the start of the Grand Prix, Gugelmin is approached by Joseph Leberer, the McLaren team nutritionist, who offers him a fresh orange soda. Suspicious, Mauricio declines the offer, then explaining:
"An hour before the race, Berger had squashed four sleeping pills into the juice he sent me. I would have stood like a fool at the start of the race where the world title was decided. The cars would roar on the track and I would be left snoring in my cockpit, can you imagine it?"
Best known is probably the joke in which Berger replaces Ayrton's passport photo with what Ron Dennis describes as an equivalent of the male genitalia. Senna's fame allows him to rarely see his passport withdrawn, but on a subsequent trip to Argentina, Berger's joke costs Senna a 24-hour imprisonment; as a result, Senna super-adhesive glues all of Berger's credit cards together. But the most memorable jokes between the two remain those conducted at the hotel. On one occasion, the good Gerhard says:
"With a hose we improvised an extension of the fire extinguisher and put it under the door of his room at 3 am. After that, we invited some people to watch and when we pulled the lever Senna flew out the window like a rocket. It looked like a bomb had exploded in the room. The confusion woke up many people, who began to berate senna for making all that noise. He was terribly embarrassed...".
Josef Leberer, Senna's physiotherapist, was also often involved in the jokes put in place by Ayrton and Gerhard Berger, as he himself admitted:
"Sometimes the two of them would band together against me making absurd jokes, which I then punctually reciprocated: for example, I remember that during tests in Monza they removed all four tires of my car, replacing them with four pieces of wood. I caught them in the act. and the next day I returned the pair to them: I treated the car they had hired together with a Japanese herbal oil, a very powerful nasal decongestant. I distributed drops everywhere, with abundance and impartiality; among other things it was hot and the car had been in the sun all day, so the effect was noticeably increased. When they got into the car they almost fainted and quickly turned on the car. air conditioning to get some fresh air: what they didn't know was that the air conditioner had also been treated properly".
And Ron Dennis will also be the victim of a joke from Gerhard. In Monza, for example, Dennis returns to his hotel room, in the luxurious five-star Hotel of Villa d 'Este, to discover that the walls have been covered with pornographic images:
"Needless to say, when one of our group went back to his room that night he really found nothing. No furniture, no clothes, nothing. I remember the laughter and the fun. If we wanted to look closely, there would have been things bordering on farce. gross and not so funny, for the simple fact that some structures were damaged. It was childish, but at the same time it helped to maintain a certain atmosphere within the team".
For Ayrton, in that world of politics and betrayal, Gerhard undoubtedly represents a breath of fresh and unexpected air. A true friendship, which will last a very long time.
"We were friends. We cannot forget the years spent together with McLaren. He was the strongest of all, a professional without equal. He worked like a madman, he was the best for this too. If he won so much it is because he worked harder than any other for the victory. He had extreme confidence in his abilities, and incredible insights as a pilot. I learned a lot from him even though I sometimes tried to involve him with some jokes. He also knew when to do them and I guarantee you that some of his jokes were terrible. A great champion with whom I had the honor of working together".
The return to Maranello
Just in the summer of 1992 there is a sensational announcement, Gerhard Berger decides to accept the offer for a return to Ferrari. In Maranello, the Austrian driver finds Jean Alesi as his teammate, even if Ayrton, worried about the possible withdrawal of Honda from Formula 1, persistently tries to move with his friend to Ferrari. However, the situation around the Brazilian champion remains very tense, to the point that Senna himself declares:
"I'm so nervous I can't even stand myself".
To soften the climate of tension and stress, Gerhard Berger thinks nicely, who, as usual, plays one of his jokes on Ayrton. In fact, having arrived in Monza by helicopter, Gerhard has the good idea of throwing his teammate's briefcase out of the window. A few moments later, a gentleman in the vicinity brings the dented briefcase back to Ayrton, who angrily yells at his friend-colleague that it had cost him $ 1.000. The Austrian colleague replies by saying:
"You did wrong, you should buy a $ 50 one like I did! And you were lucky, because I tried to open it before throwing it, but one of its locks was closed".
On board the F93 A he achieved results far below expectations, this is due to both the unreliability of the active suspension mounted on the car and the lack of competitiveness of the latter. After three retirements in the first four Grands Prix of the season, the Austrian sets the second-best time on the Munich street circuit.
In the race he struggles for a long time with Damon Hill, but a contact with the English driver forces him to retire, even if he will be classified as fourteenth. The only joy for Gerhard is the third place in the Hungarian Grand Prix, thus determining the eighth position in the world championship standings, with only 12 points scored.
In 1994 the car’s performance improved, and so did the results for the drivers, with the Austrian registering a win in Germany, three second places in the Pacific Grand Prix, Monza and Australia, and a third place in Monaco.
The vintage also became famous for the famous joke made by Gerhard to Jean Alesi and unintentionally to Jean Todt. In fact, the day before the presentation of the new F412 T1, the two teammates are in Fiorano and, waiting for Jean Todt to arrive, they are carrying out tests with the new car. During a break, the Austrian notices a Lancia Y10 parked on the track with the keys on the ignition, then convinces Jean to get into the car to do a few laps of the track.
Berger, seated on the passenger side, as often happens, begins to make fun of Alesi for his driving and for the pace he is sustaining, provoking the reaction of Jean who, touched in pride, increases the pace. But it's time for the joke to come to life, as the Austrian lifts the handbrake lever in tight corners. At the umpteenth corner the subcompact converts, sliding on the Fiorano track and finishing its run a few meters before the 412T that was to be presented to the press the following day.
The two drivers, extracted from the car by the track security men, complain of severe pain. Then they are taken to the hospital for an investigation, and in the meantime they discover that the Y10 is Jean Todt's.
The French manager, notified by telephone of the hospitalization of his drivers, goes to the hospital, without however knowing that his car had been damaged. Here, Berger immediately declared himself sorry for what had happened and confessed to the Ferrari DS that his small car shows only slight signs of the curb on the roof.
As has already happened several times, Imola returns to write pages of history in the life of the Austrian driver. This time, however, Gerhard won't smile because there won't be a happy ending. On Saturday April 30, 1994, his Austrian colleague Roland Ratzenberger, who had recently joined Formula 1, went off the track at the Villeneuve corner and lost his life. The next day, Ayrton Senna hits the wall that delimits the perimeter of the Tamburello curve, and there is nothing for him to do, despite the timely rescue.
Once the wreck of the car had been cleared of the track, the start was ordered within thirty-seven minutes, also resolving to draw up the final classification by adding the times of the two tranches.
Following the second start, after an escape attempt, Schumacher regained control of the situation by overtaking Gerhard, who had virtually taken the lead. A few laps later, the Austrian is blocked by a mechanical failure and retires. Only at this moment, the Austrian driver discovers the seriousness of his friend's state of health, and runs to the hospital. Throughout the weekend, Gerhard ponders retirement from racing.
Especially watching from the television screen in the pits to the rescue brought to Roland, during the qualifying on Saturday, the Austrian driver wonders several times what he was doing and if it was worth it, but arriving at an unequivocal answer: racing is his life, and it can't stop. Not now.
A few months later, Gerhard's victory on German soil broke a fast that lasted almost four years for Ferrari. Starting from pole position, Gerhard keeps the lead, but in the rear there is a first accident involving four cars, and at the end of the straight, Hakkinen tightens towards the center of the track and causes a contact with Coulthard's Williams-Renault; the McLaren driver loses control of the car, which turns and exits the track, cutting off the cars that arrive, involving six other cars. Fortunately, there is no physical consequence for any of the drivers involved and despite the danger of debris on the track and of cars stationary in various points of the track, the race is not interrupted.
So the race continues with Berger in first position, followed a few tenths by Schumacher. The German driver of Benetton is clearly faster on the lap, however he is unable to overtake the Ferrari driver as the superiority of the Ferrari V12 engine is revealed on the straights, compared to the Benetton Ford V8.
Schumacher therefore decides to anticipate the pit stop, trying to take advantage of Berger, however on the twentieth lap he is forced to retire due to the breakdown of the engine of his Benetton. This allows Berger to remain calmly in command of the race and win for the last time with Ferrari.
Sacrifices, doubts, polemics, criticisms, disappointments, four years of anger. Everything vanishes at 3:26 pm on a very hot Sunday in July. There is room for smiles, tears, hugs, in a dance of almost irrepressible joy. Nobody is spared.
From Jean Todt to the last mechanic, for a moment Ferrari is no longer a team, but a party, a drunkenness of happiness, a happening that recalls the great triumphs of the past. The best way to put an end to what has been the darkest period in Maranello's history so far: fifty-eight races without winning, just 1400 days of waiting. Since September 30, 1990, when Prost won the Spanish Grand Prix, then missing the conquest of the world title by a whisker. Then, after all the ceremonies, Berger arrives, his face marked with fatigue and bright eyes. It is his ninth victory, five with Ferrari, three with McLaren and one at the wheel of Benetton, perhaps the most coveted:
"A special day. I want to dedicate this first place to myself: it is my answer to those who thought I was in decline. I still know how to go fast, I have shown it. And now Ferrari must not be satisfied with a success, it must aim for the title. When I returned to Maranello many had criticized me, others had said that Ferrari had taken a driver in decline. It seems to me that I have shown that I still know how to go fast. And in addition, I have an experience that I do not think has confirmation at the moment".
"At the beginning Schumacher pushed hard to overtake me, he was always very close. I knew that Michael is a dangerous rider, but once more I realized that with him you can't make the slightest mistake. I tried to keep the first position, to do not use too much tires and engine, given the environmental conditions, with terrible heat. I did not know what the German would do. I had decided to stop only once. When I saw that he had not passed me despite having to make two stops, I understood that I could do it. Then he retired, obviously everything was easier. But I couldn't relax. And in the last laps my heart was beating as if I had run the 100 meters. Now we enjoy this success. But we still have a lot of work to do. Ferrari cannot aim to win a race and that's it, they have to fight for the title. We owe a lot to president Montezemolo who started the recovery. We hope he is happy today".
In 1995 Gerhard won no victory, but got six podiums, finishing third in Brazil, Monaco, Germany, Hungary, San Marino and Spain. In 1996 Gerhard, due to the arrival of the two-time world champion Michael Schumacher, marries his teammate Jean Alesi to Benetton, a team that recently won the World Championship with the German champion in 1994 and 1995.
For the Austrian driver it is a return to his origins, and the ambition for the world championship is strong with a team equipped with the best engines, namely the Renault rulers of the nineties. But Williams puts an exceptional car on the track, which beats the competition with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, while at Benetton nothing turns right, and Berger gets just two podiums that make him close the season in sixth place with 21 points.
In 1997, the premises were the same as the previous year, and the conclusions were also very disappointing. The B197 is not at all up to the competition from Williams and Ferrari, and Gerhard is forced to struggle again, also having to miss three grand prixes due to health problems and the disappearance of his father in a plane crash. However, Gerhard conquers his latest career victory, again in Germany, just after his return.
"I don't know if there are fairy tales, but I have lived one. I think I had a special force available to push me today, and I think I know where it came from" - referring to his father, who passed away a few days earlier - I'm very happy".
"At a certain point in the race someone in front of me had broken the engine, and on the straight the smoke was so thick that you couldn't see anything, I almost had to stop. In that juncture I lost four or five seconds. I believed there. I lost the race, and honestly I was surprised to be so close to Fisichella when I came out of the pits. Then Giancarlo made a mistake at the second chicane and I was able to pass him easily. Today's performance shows that we have potential, to be honest we have it since the beginning of the season, but unfortunately, due to certain dynamics that have occurred, we have not been able to exploit it to the maximum. On this type of circuit the car she adapted very well and we were very fast. The next race will be on a track with completely different characteristics, and it will be interesting to see how our car reacts. I think we can be competitive until the end of the season, and be able to take away other satisfactions".
At the end of the year, the Austrian driver made the decision to retire from competitions. Curiously, Berger's first and last win in Formula 1 coincide with the first and last win for the Benetton team. Gerhard Berger leaves Formula 1 after competing in 210 Grand Prix, with ten wins and twelve pole positions. The Austrian driver, although not an absolute champion, is remembered as a good driver, especially for the first part of his Formula 1 career.
Hanging his helmet on, Gerhard has been directly involved since 1997 in an important transport company in Austria, which the family owns, following the death of his father. The Austrian will not completely abandon the racing world, in fact after having retired from racing, the former Austrian driver will be directly involved in the BMW motoring program from 2000 to 2003 and in February 2006 he will acquire fifty percent of the shares of the just founded Scuderia Toro Rosso, as part of an operation that involves the purchase by Red Bull of half the shares of Berger Logistik. The former Austrian driver will sell his shares to Red Bull in November 2008, after leading Sebastian Vettel and Scuderia Toro Rosso to the Italian Grand Prix.
Since December 2011 he is first a member, then president, of the Single-Seater Commission, a commission created by the FIA to put order in the various categories of single-seaters. Furthermore, he is the boss of ITR, the holding of DTM Championship and its support categories.
Furthermore, the strong bond between Senna and Berger will extend beyond the disappearance of the Brazilian driver and friend: the Austrian will in fact be the consultant of Bruno Senna, nephew of Ayrton, making his debut in the Formula 1 Championship with the Hispania Racing Team in the World Championship 2010.