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Entry Number 1: Interview with Gerhard Berger

(Originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)

Carte Blanche

by Jim Kenzie

Gerhard Berger interview


What’s with Austrians and Formula One racing?

I mean, Austria is a little country, about eight million people, almost hidden beneath Germany, the Colossus of Europe.

Yet two of the most important people in Formula One are Austrian - Niki Lauda at Jaguar and Gerhard Berger, BMW’s Director of Motorsport.

(OK, Berger’s F1 responsibilities are shared by BMW’s Technical Director Mario Theissen and team owner/manager Sir Frank Williams.)

I had a chance to chat with Berger during the off-season, and while I’m a bit late getting this to you, his comments still resonate on the eve of the 2002 Canadian Grand Prix.

Berger was a late-comer to racing. It wasn’t quite “the first race he ever went to, he won’‘, but it wasn’t far off either.

“I can’t really remember my first car, but I was probably 14. I’d buy them, fix them up, and sell them to make money.

“One day when I was about 19 I bought an Alfasud, which had been prepared for a showroom-stock racing series in Austria. It didn’t have an engine, so I found one and got the car running. Someone suggested I give racing a try, and it went pretty well.

“We won the championship the next year. The local Alfa dealer also ran a Formula Three team. He said he’d give me engines if I bought a car. So we tried that, and a couple of years later won the German championship.’‘

Berger also raced in the European Touring Car championship in a BMW 635CSi, an almost-spooky precursor to his long association with BMW.

The back-marker ATS Formula One team, which began when a German industrialist bought the remains of Roger Penske’s squad in 1976, offered Berger a ride for 1984. Ironically, they also used BMW engines; Berger finished sixth in just his second Grand Prix.

So, hardly the karting-from-age-six trajectory of most modern F1 drivers?

“No. But it seemed to work for me!’‘

His was a good if not legendary career - 10 wins, 12 poles and 21 fastest laps in 210 races over 14 seasons, often partnering with such demi-gods as Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. His highest championship finish was third with Ferrari in 1994.

We tend to think of Teutonic guys as being dour. Not Berger - he was the ultimate party animal.

“If I had partied less on Saturday, I might have won more on Sunday!’‘

Berger had a particularly close relationship with the enigmatic Senna. In one famous incident, Berger tossed Senna’s briefcase out the window of a helicopter...

He taught me a lot about our sport; I taught him to laugh...

“There’s so much more money involved today, it’s difficult if you go over the top like Eddie Irvine does sometimes. It’s a pity because it was really good fun!’‘

How did he get his current position?

“Bernd Pischetsrieder [now chairman of Volkswagen, then-chairman of BMW] wanted a strong motorsport division. He contacted me while I was still driving for Ferrari. It took me half a year to say yes. A lot of people were surprised I got this job.’‘

Maybe behind this fun-loving racing driver, Pischetsrieder saw an astute businessman?

“Maybe he was looking for more parties!

“ My friends were laughing at me, about how I put myself into a big pile of shit. ‘How are you going to get a big manufacturer to work the way a racing team has to work?’

“I didn’t feel good about it because I know how different the two worlds are.

“Our first project was the Le Mans car in 1999 [which BMW won in its first and only crack]. I didn’t have any Le Mans experience, and I can’t take much credit for the success, but it proved we had a strong team.

“Everybody was there - Audi, Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes. I remember they didn’t take us seriously, and when we went quick on the first testing day, they said, ‘Well, wait until Mercedes runs with full tanks’.

“Well, we were still quick, and we won the race.’‘

Did you learn anything on the technical side that helped the Formula One project?

“No. Toyota was the quickest car, but they had an automatic gearbox, a lot of technology. We decided to go with a simple car, a normal gearbox. Audi said they could change a gearbox is seven minutes. Toyota said they could do it in five. We said we’d need half an hour but we don’t want to change the gearbox at all!

“We tried to make a very light car, a real racing car, a go-kart for 24 hours. Williams was a big help [with the chassis]; aerodynamically it was all right.

“We had a fantastic operation, the shortest pit stops, no mistakes.

“It was more race craft, team building, rather than technical advancements that won it for us, and some of that carried over into the Formula One team.’‘

There are romantic stories told about an underground group of BMW engineers who kept building F1 engines in their basements to keep abreast of the technology while BMW wasn’t formally involved in the sport.

Berger admits they were never totally out of it, but that effort didn’t really play a major role in their initial successes.

“In the old days of John Barnard [ex-Ferrari] or Gordon Murray [ex-Williams], you had one ‘star’. Now it’s more a group of people working together, with the right resources, the right budget.

“The first idea was to go to the competitors, find out who the good guys are, and hire them out. Then we said that will just put us back in the shit again because if we can hire them away, the next team like Toyota comes along and hires our guys away again’‘ - which is exactly what Toyota has done.

“We had to find a new way. Engine building is physics, and BMW already has the highest standards of engineering, so we said, ‘Let’s find good guys within BMW’.

“Our engine development is done in Munich, not in England, where most Formula One engineering takes place. We think this is an advantage for us. Our people are BMW people. They are here not just for the money. They live here, they feel close to the brand, and won’t run away at the first better offer.

“Our biggest strength today is we build the engines in-house. We have our own foundry, our own machine shop, our own completion centre. We use the whole knowledge of BMW.’‘

The BMW engine is reputed to be the most powerful in the field. The 2000 engine was quick right out of the box, the 2001 was even better - and it was a completely new engine.

“BMW knows a bit about engines...’‘ Berger says with a grin.

“The deal with Williams was done before I arrived. We work well together, we are both technically oriented.

“So we are with a strong team with a strong engine.’‘

And two strong drivers, in Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya.

“I think it is the best pairing on the grid. Both are 24 - 25 years old, both very competitive. They may not be best of friends off the track, but they work well together on the team.’‘

Team - that word comes up all the time.

“And by luck, one is a German and one is South American.’‘

There was no pressure from BMW to have a German driver?

“Not at all. In this business, if he’s Chinese and he goes quicker, you pick the Chinese!’‘

You actually have three good drivers, with Jensen Button currently on loan to Renault.

“I had the feeling we had something special there [with Button]. He did a great job for us in 2000, but he’s still young, he needs to grow up, another two years to see how he develops.

“Juan Pablo was on contract with Frank already and we would have lost him if we didn’t sign him. I know Juan Pablo from Formula 3000, and I remember him as somebody special.’‘

So a decision may have to be made down the road?

“It’s a nice problem!’‘

Everyone seems to have picked Montoya as the heir-apparent to Schumacher-the-Elder.

“Montoya is very quick, has great car control. But I actually think that Ralf might have more pure speed even than Michael.’‘

Is Montoya rougher on the cars?

“Not at all. There have been some technical failures, some driving errors, but there’s no real reason behind it.’‘

At this writing (prior to the Monaco Grand Prix), Montoya sits second in the driver’s championship, orders of magnitude behind Michael but only three points ahead of Ralf.

How much difference can a driver make? After all, not even Michael could strap a Minardi onto his back and win a race.

“I’m not sure! [A driver’s effect] is enormous. Every race, every time, Michael is just there. He has the race won already before it starts. He knows the game.

“Michael is so hard to beat because he doesn’t give you any openings, there are no weak points you can attack. He may not be the very best in every area, but he is very, very good in every area. He is absolutely the fittest driver out there, he works harder than anybody, he motivates his team to do their very best.

“He also has a particular form of intelligence that lets him get the absolute utmost from the car’s technology. He knows how to make it work for him, where some drivers seem to fight it.

“He makes one or two mistakes, but he doesn’t crash much and he doesn’t break the machinery.

“No doubt he also has the best car right now, but then he attracts people like Ross Braun and Rory Byrne, who can make a great car.’‘

Same with his team.

“Ferrari might not be best at everything - maybe McLaren has better aerodynamics, maybe we have a better engine. But they are strong everywhere.’‘

Berger’s comments on other drivers:

“Jacques Villeneuve is a strong talent, a strong personality. I don’t understand at all why he kept going in this direction [staying with BAR]. After one year it was clear that it wasn’t going forward in a way that could deliver what he needs.

“Three years ago I would have bet all my money he was going to McLaren, it would have been perfect for him. Now it is getting dangerous for him to get into a routine [of not winning]. “Three years ago he would have been every team’s first choice. Now, they might go for a talented young guy - lately I see him giving up. I think he’s wasting the best years of his career.’‘

Finnish wunderkind Kimi Raikkonen, who has taken former World Champion Mika Hakkinen’s seat at McLaren?

“There’s a big difference driving for a middle-class team [like Raikkonen’s former Sauber team] and a top team. Heinz-Harald Frentzen for example cannot cope with the pressure of being in a top team. In a middle-class team there’s more of a family atmosphere. But what I have seen of Raikkonen so far I think he’ll be quite good.’‘

Can Hakkinen come back after a sabbatical?

“I think he can - he’s not that old. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the three of them [McLaren’s team leader David Coulthard, Raikkonen and Hakkinen].’‘

Any Americans on the horizon?

“Jeff Gordon [perennial NASCAR champion] seems to be very good, but it’s difficult for an American to spend the time necessary in Europe to develop.’‘

Are you ever tempted to “pull a Lauda’‘ and get into a current F1 car yourself to see what it’s like? You did a drive in one of your old McLaren-Hondas a while ago.

“No. You have to be on the limit to have any fun, and you can’t get there [if you’re not in shape] so it doesn’t prove anything. If you’re unlucky then you break your legs!’‘

What about Formula One in general - is it a better or worse show than the old days?

“In general, you always have had three or four boring races, four or five normal races and a few really big races. Today is no different.

“Today’s aerodynamics make it difficult to overtake. If you have a long straight like at Indianapolis, you get can more passing.

“Tracks like Spa and Suzuka are drivers’ favourites for the challenge.’‘

What can be done to make Formula One more exciting?

He makes a typical Bergerian analogy in pointing out the ever-rising attendance and TV figures for the series.

“Well, it’s like a dance hall. If it’s full every night and the girls are ugly, you’re not going to change the girls. If nobody comes, then you’ll change the girls!’‘

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