Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler BlackJack’sBriefs
Such a list is not easy to compile, and it is even harder to be objective.
The way I reduced 830 F1 drivers to 20 is detailed in Part I. I wanted twenty top drivers (top No.2’s who might have been a team leader.) who had proved their ability to win – not drivers who showed talent but were unable to realise their potential, including drivers whose career was brought to an untimely end, for whatever reason.
Born in Worgl, Austria, in 1959, Gerhard Berger competed in fourteen seasons of F1 racing: 1984-1997: and, for the record books, scored the first and last victories for Benetton, eleven years apart. After quickly moving through European Alfasud, F.Ford, and F.F2000, his successes in F3 saw Berger promoted to F1 by ATS for the last few races of 1984, and in his second F1 appearance, in a less than successful car, he was placed sixth… which should have given him his first Championship point but… ATS only had one official entry; Berger was in a second car; and was thus ineligible to score points… Don’t ask me why…! Just occasionally the FIA leaves us all bemused…
To set the scene, this was the year of Lauda/Prost – and McLaren. Other new boys on the block included Thierry Boutsen, Stefan Bellof, Pierluigi Martini, Martin Brundle, and… Ayrton Senna.
At the end of that ‘half-season’ Berger was injured in a road crash when hit from behind. Not wearing a seatbelt he was thrown out of the rear window… and the first people on the scene were surgeons – who diagnosed a broken neck and spinal damage (from which at the time there was apparently a 2% chance of survival) but, after just a few weeks in hospital, Berger discharged himself – remarkably recovered.
BMW, apparently unhappy with the PR they were receiving from the poor ATS preparation, withdrew their engines, and ATS was disbanded. Berger was taken up by Arrows to partner Boutsen… but the Arrows also wasn’t a notable machine at that time and after a season of retirements and low finishes Berger was lucky to score a fifth and a sixth in the last two races.
Berger now moved to newcomer, Benetton, to join Teo Fabi, and was able to demonstrate his talent to finish seventh in the Championship, with a mere 17 pts. In the first two races he went from 16th on the grid to 6th; and then 7th to 6th; and at Imola he went from 9th on the grid to 3rd – and his first podium. The Benetton was better than Brabham at getting the BMW turbo’s power onto the track, and in Austria Fabi and Berger locked out the front row of the grid. Berger led for the first twenty-five laps but lost four laps in the pits with a battery problem. He managed to get one lap back (recording fastest lap on lap 49 of 52), to finish 7th, three laps behind Prost, who was a lap ahead of the entire field – a real, ‘what if’, situation.
At Estoril both Benetton’s qualified well but failed to convert this into points so, when they arrived in Mexico, it appeared their good days were already over, unable to better the all-conquering Mansell, Piquet, Prost, and Senna. Qualifying 9th, Berger kept going… and going… and, as the other drivers pitted (some twice) for new Goodyears, Berger found his Pirellis were holding out (and it’s not often you read that sentence these days…) and he kept going until he took the flag… and recorded his, and Benetton’s, first win, 25 secs. ahead of Prost.
I have hypothesised before [See: 11-Webber.] of a driver’s need to turn his potential into success within three years, or find himself failing to get the better drive opportunities he needs. Before his second full season was over Berger had won his first GP… and been offered a Ferrari drive for 1987… This alone justifies his consideration for this list.
Berger (alongside Michele Alboreto) was to find the Ferrari no more reliable than his previous cars: in the first ten races he retired seven times, and Alboreto retired from nine of the first twelve races… For most of the year Berger had qualified around 6th-8th but at Monza, in front of the tifosi, Berger qualified third behind the dominant Williams, ahead of Senna’s Lotus, and finished fourth in the race, unable to keep Senna behind him but… two weeks later, at Estoril, it all came good and he put himself on pole, and recorded fastest lap, to finish 2nd.
In Spain the Ferrari’s qualified 3rd & 4th, and retired, after Berger recorded the fastest lap, and in Mexico Berger was on the front row again – but retired again.
On to Japan, for the first time in ten years, where Soichiro Honda, whose engines were in the Williams and Lotus cars, desperately wanted victory at his Suzuka circuit, but Berger caused a loss of face by putting his Ferrari firmly on pole, with a McLaren-TAG alongside, and the other Ferrari and a Benetton-FORD on the second row… Honda- engined cars managed 5th, 7th, & 11th on the grid. Berger stormed away at the start, and stayed in front until the end.
In the final race of the season at Adelaide Berger again commandeered pole, and again romped to the chequered flag, in a Ferrari 1-2, and claimed fastest lap in the bargain… putting himself into 5th in the World Championship, with twice as many points as his teammate. His theoretical ‘three years’ are up, and Berger’s place can be confirmed on this list.
Now came the all-conquering year of McLaren/Senna/Prost who won fifteen of the sixteen races, tripping up in Italy (of all places…) when Berger took his ‘waiting-in-the-wings’ Ferrari to victory, and was virtually deified by the tifosi coming, unexpectedly, just a few weeks after the death of Il Commendatore… Berger had also taken pole position at Silverstone, and fastest laps in Brazil, Belgium and Portugal, to finish third in the Championship, with 41 pts… to Senna’s 90, and Prost’s 87. Ferrari took second place with 65 pts. to McLaren’s 199.
Against this backdrop Berger, and occasionally Alboreto, along with Piquet and the two Benettons, were the ‘best of the rest’, Berger added four more podiums to his Monza win, plus three fastest laps, and pole at Silverstone. He also out-qualified his teammate at every race, qualified third eight times, and was second on one occasion – there wasn’t much else he could have done this year… his main problem being the Ferrari engine, which was not as economical with the restricted fuel ration as the Honda, resulting in a need to run the cars slower than would have otherwise been possible. I don’t recall any fuss about this at the time, unlike the whining that occurs today.
When both Ferraris finished, Berger beat his teammate 7:1 which helped signal the end of Alboreto’s five-year spell at Maranello.
Nigel Mansell now stepped up to the plate. His berth at Williams was filled by Boutsen… whose Benetton seat was taken by Johnny Herbert, for the first six races only. Alboreto moved to Tyrrell, also just for the first six races, before being replaced by Jean Alesi… who later had to step down for a couple of races, in favour of Herbert… while Alboreto eventually found a seat with Larrouse. [I hope that’s clear… :)]
This ‘musical chairs’ allowed new drivers to get a race-trial rather than the pathetic FP1 sessions of today. In all, forty-seven drivers entered at least one GP in 1989, forty of them qualified for actual race experience, and twenty-nine scored Championship points. There were also twenty teams entered during the year, only one of which failed to qualify for a single race. Sixteen of the teams won points, which is even more astonishing, by today’s paltry standards, being only awarded down to sixth place…
In comparison just 23 drivers managed to get a drive in 2013, only 18 of whom scored points, despite being awarded down to tenth place…! There are of course only eleven teams now running, and yet only eight teams scored points… I’m not suggesting we need to go back, but it would be nice if we were actually going forward…
Any old road…
During 1989 Berger suffered appalling unreliability and only finished three races: but with a win in Portugal, and seconds in Italy and Spain… he finished seventh in the Championship. Mansell had a better time, finishing six races, with two wins, two seconds, and two third places. Gerhard Berger was no longer ‘top dog’. Nevertheless, at the end of the season, Prost decided to leave Senna (sorry, I mean, McLaren), and move to Ferrari, where he ‘bothered’ Mansell, instead (and who didn’t…?), while Berger swapped Mansell for Senna, and moved to McLaren… Did he accept his Championship chances might now be over, or did he expect to out-perform Prost, and perhaps Senna as well…
Some other drivers in this Top-20 series have shown potential, demonstrated their talent by pole positions and winning races, but not quite been able to gain the crown in the time-span available to them, often because of the constant arrival of younger drivers into F1 against which an also-ran tends to shine less and less. This was much the case with Mark Webber… who never gave up, and was capable of winning the laurels on more than one occasion… but other challengers were arriving all the time and he was perhaps lucky to remain with Red Bull… and not slip down to slower teams, a fate many others suffered.
Berger’s situation was different in that very few other talented drivers appeared in F1 during his sojourn – but… he did have to compete against a few very talented drivers who were already ensconced – such as Senna and Prost.
Berger. Senna, Mansell, Schumacher, Alesi, Prost…
In the first race of Berger’s three-year spell with McLaren, he put himself on pole, and recorded fastest lap, on his way to… er, a tyre barrier, on lap 9… as Senna went on to win, as he did five more times, to take another Championship, Prost took his Ferrari to five wins… while Mansell was ‘upset’ to record just one victory during the year. Berger recorded one more pole, in Mexico, but couldn’t touch Senna’s score of ten poles, though they did score two fastest laps each.
Throughout the year Berger never gave up, but was obliged to accept secondary status at McLaren. As with the Webber / Vettel scenario, Berger also held his own (but seemed to smile more…), but Senna (and Vettel) just seemed to get better… and better.
Now came a reversal of fortune. Mansell said farewell to Prost (sorry, I mean, Ferrari) to join Patrese at Williams, and was replaced by Alesi. The Ferrari that Prost had taken to five wins the year before, by the end of this season was infamously described by him as a ‘truck’… and Prost was obliged to sit in the ‘naughty-corner’ for the final race… [Have you noticed that Alonso doesn’t speak ill at the end of the season… :)] while Mansell took five wins for Williams, but couldn’t beat Senna’s seven, although, in the races where they both finished, Mansell beat Senna 4:3… Patrese also did well in the other Williams, to force Berger into fourth in the Championship, ahead of Prost and Piquet – the competition was that strong at the front.
Berger recorded two poles, two fastest laps, and was gifted the Japanese GP by Senna, who had already wrapped up the Championship.
1991 ended a seven-year cycle when the previous six Champions, Prost, Piquet, and Senna, (and 1992 Champion Mansell) last competed together. Piquet left F1, but suffered a big crash qualifying for the Indy-500, which led to his retirement. Mansell stayed put for another season but, when his nemesis, Prost, after a sabbatical year, now turned up at Williams for 1993, Mansell took off to the CART series, where ‘the boy done good’. Then, in 1994, Sir Frank drafted in Senna – and Prost promptly retired. After Ayrton Senna’s tragic demise Mansell was eventually brought back to fill the seat.
This period heralded the arrival to F1 of Jean Alesi, Schumacher, and Mika Hakkinen and, with Damon Hill, Eddie Irvine and Barrichello also on their way, Berger needed to do something… but things were still in a state of flux…
McLaren now took a dive, allowing Williams to assert their superiority, followed by Schumacher’s Benetton, leaving Senna and Berger in 4th & 5th places, with 50 & 49 points respectively. Just seven points covered 2nd to 5th but Mansell decisively took the Championship, with twice as many points as the others.
During the year Senna achieved just one pole, in Canada, but Berger set the fastest lap on his way to victory. Berger also won in Australia. Senna scored three wins. As Senna is rightly regarded as one of the greats of F1, for Berger to remain so close confirms his entitlement to a place in this list… and it wasn’t surprising that he was offered good money (allegedly) to return to Maranello the following year, after the Scuderia had dropped to fourth place in the Constructors Championship with just 21 pts. to Williams’ 164 – relegated to the midfield, along with Lotus, Tyrrell, Footwork, Ligier and March. And taking on, first Ivan Capelli to replace Prost, and then Nicola Larini to replace Capelli, must rank as odd acts by the team.
And on to… 1993
. . . when several drivers left F1, but a few more new chaps arrived. Prost returned (to Williams), partnered by Damon Hill; McLaren retained a concerned Senna (Honda had withdrawn, and Senna feared McLaren would loose their edge), on a race-by-race basis, alongside Michael Andretti (who proceeded to impress nobody, and was replaced by Mika Hakkinen – who impressed everybody…); Benetton added the greatly experienced Patrese alongside Schumacher; and Berger and Alesi fought it out for superiority in the unreliable Ferrari, still in the midfield, with Alesi showing the way… On the three occasions when both cars finished Alesi won, 2:1; and in qualifying Alesi won 9:7… Berger finished eighth in the Championship, to Alesi’s sixth… As with other drivers in this list, a point in time arrived… and it now seemed to be all over for Gerhard.
However… the fat lady did not start to sing, after all… Six podiums, and a win from pole in Germany, followed by another pole in Portugal (where he retired from the lead) put him back into contention, and another third place in the Championship, albeit some way behind the other two, but firmly ahead of Alesi. Berger had lost none of his determination.
Also, sadly, no way had Ferrari lost their unreliability and… in the same way that, “You can’t produce play without chequee…” you can’t win Championship without finishing races… Both Berger and Alesi had performed well throughout the year, to give Ferrari third place, but fourteen retirements between them is just too much.
1994 is also remembered (though best forgotten) for ‘The Great 1994 Cheating Controversy’. The excitement (for both drivers and motor-racing fans) of the 1985-1993 seasons seemed to be over, and a new odour appeared to waft from the State of Denmark – though through no fault of Denmark itself, nor of the Danish people, I hasten to add. Perhaps Westphalia (and/or Cuneo) is more appropriate… Benetton were mostly involved with the allegations, but Ferrari and McLaren (and others) didn’t escape scot-free.
1988, Berger’s middle year in his first three-year stint at Ferrari had been a peak time for him, and the middle year of his second three-year sojourn at Maranello proved equally so, finishing in third place in the Championship on both occasions. To have two such ‘peaks’, five years apart, suggests some bad luck in between – either car reliability, or incredible competition from the opposition, and Berger seemed to have both.
This year there was a drivers’ dispute with the FIA over Super Licenses, and an engine dispute between Minardi, Ligier and Benetton which ended in threats of law suits… and there are no prizes for guessing who was most involved with this… again…!
Otherwise it was a rather boring season. Alesi won his first and only GP, on his 31st birthday, after five years of trying; Hill gave Schumacher some of the greatest challenges the latter ever had to deal with; Mansell, having previously gone to America as reigning F1 World Champion, now returned as CART Champion, declaring his avowed intention to ‘fight for the Championship with Williams’… but Frank decided to go with David Coulthard… leaving Nigel to beg a drive with McLaren, where he found he was a tad too large to fit in the car (perhaps too many ‘Grand Slam’ breakfasts from Denny’s…) and, after two races, was dropped.
As for Berger… he posted fastest laps at Imola and Monza, and took pole at Spa, plus six third places to finish sixth in the Championship… out-qualifying Alesi 12:5, and never losing his fighting spirit.
Schumacher moved to Ferrari, with, ‘I-know-which-side-my-bread-is-buttered,’ Irvine, while Berger and Alesi crossed over to Benetton. Both teams were to have less than great seasons and were trumped by Williams. Nevertheless Berger managed 6th overall, with just one podium finish and one fastest lap to write home about.
Benetton slowly recovered but, for them, and Berger, it was perhaps too late. Berger did well to finish second in Brazil before scoring his, and Benetton’s, last win, at Hockenheim, from pole (and recording the fastest lap), after a three-race gap following illness and the death of his father in a plane crash. Berger had lost nothing of his ability after twelve seasons at the top of the pile. Each time he was beaten to the Championship it was by a really talented driver. He has no reason to feel ashamed.
After the German victory Gerhard Berger announced he would retire at the end of the season. A false rumour suggested another return to Ferrari, although he was offered, and declined, a seat at Sauber.
During his spell at McLaren Berger developed a great friendship with Senna and the two of them, to the surprise of many, became major practical jokers, usually at each other’s expense. During a helicopter trip at Monza Berger showed off his new, carbon-composite briefcase which Senna suggested must have been indestructible, at which Berger threw it out – later claiming he was only intent on testing the hypothesis… In Australia Berger filled Senna’s bed with ‘animals’. After clearing them from the room, and facing up to Berger, Berger asked if he had also found, and removed the snake…! Senna claimed: “In Australia they have this kind of stuff. I thought he liked animals but clearly not,” and later put some French cheese in Berger’s ‘air-con’ unit.
On another occasion Berger replaced Senna’s passport photo with a shot of male genitalia. Senna’s fame meant he rarely had his passport checked but, in Argentina, he was incarcerated for 24hrs, for this ‘offense’. Senna then super-glued Berger’s credit-cards together.
At Ferrari Berger and Alesi were ‘testing’ Jean Todt’s brand-new, specially made, Lancia, which Alesi flipped, when Berger pulled the handbrake on. Alesi was sent to hospital leaving Berger to explain to Todt why his car had, “some slight curb marks on the roof.” Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Berger became BMW Competitions Director, supervising their return to F1 in 2000 and later acted as advisor to Bruno Senna. On the 10th Anniversary of Senna’s death Berger drove Ayrton’s 1985 Lotus 97T for three laps of Imola, prior to the 2004 San Marino GP.
For 2006 Berger acquired a 50% stake in Toro Rosso and saw them to their first and only GP victory before selling his share back to Mateschitz at the end of 2008.
On the subject of teammates, Berger said: “All my team-mates had been very good, but no problem to beat them.” Then, at McLaren, with Senna, “I came into his team in the same way of thinking. I said, ‘Okay, I know he’s very good. But I’m going to beat him.’ But I realised then how outstanding he was. But I was not that kind of jealous or I wasn’t that kind of mean, and say, ‘Well, how can I weaken him in this way? And his image or whatever.’ I just said, ‘It’s up to me to get better, to improve myself to beat him.’ And I think he understood immediately that we would be playing a fair game when we’re competing with each other. And so we had room for friendship. And, I mean a great, great friendship over the years.”
On ‘elite’ F1 drivers: “Everybody is extremely competitive and extremely selfish. I remember when I went to school, I’d be known as the most selfish. Once I came into Formula One, I’d be not the most selfish. And when you come to guys like Ayrton, there’s even another league. So, I think it is part of the sport. You have to look after yourself. You have to have [a] certain killing instinct – selfish instinct. You have to have all of this.”
After Berger’s epic crash in the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix Dr. Sid Watkins dashed into the fire just seconds afterwards. As he worked to revive the unconscious driver, fuel from the Ferrari’s fractured tanks soaked Watkins, who could have become a human torch. Berger recalled: “When I woke up, Sid was sitting on my chest, still trying to intubate me [insert a tube for breathing]. He had saved me.”
In fourteen years Gerhard Berger started 210 GP… winning 10, plus 38 further podiums, 12 pole positions, and 21 fastest laps. In the eleven years between his (and Benetton’s) first and last victories he could ‘tiger’ (an expression not much used today…) with the best drivers of his time… and was undoubtedly one of the best F1 drivers never to win a World Championship.
to be continued, next week…
7th – Juan Pablo Montoya
8th – Giles Villeneuve
9th – David Coulthard
10th – Felipe Massa
11th – Mark Webber
12th – Tony Brooks
13th – Rene Arnoux
14th – Rubens Barrichello
15th – Dan Gurney
16th – Clay Regazzoni
17th – Didier Pironi
18th – Richie Ginther
19th – Francois Cevert
20th – Peter Collins