The Cult – Gerhard Berger
Gerhard Berger's carefree attitude and ability to turn it on behind the wheel on an F1 car made him one of the more successful drivers of a hugely competitive era.
In the build up to the 2016 Formula One season we're inducting six grand prix stars into The Cult. First up, it's carefree Austrian prankster Gerhard Berger. You can read past entries here.
Cult Grade: Don't Give a Shit
Like a lot of humans, I spend most of my life worrying about what other people think of me. I am concerned that my friends do not like me; I fret that my co-workers are laughing at me; I'm even starting to think that my mum isn't much of a fan.
It's fairly debilitating to enter every situation consumed by fear of what others think of you. I believe – again, I suspect many people do – that it would be the greatest blessing of all to be freed from this handicap and float through life not caring about other people's opinions. What a gift that would be.
Gerhard Berger had this gift. He did not give a shit.
Of course, Berger was in some sense concerned by other people's opinions of him, but only insomuch as how that might hinder his future career prospects and earning potential. He might have worried about how a bad showing affected his upcoming contract negotiations, but that did not make him nervous and overwrought. It just made him drive the hell out of the car at the next race and show everyone that he was, despite the odd whisper to the contrary, an excellent Formula One driver. Not an all-time great, but an excellent professional who probably deserved a few more than the 10 grands prix wins he ended his career with.
It seemed to spread through all areas of his life. He ignored his father's wishes that young Gerhard stayed out of racing. He enjoyed life in a world of very serious men. He wasn't even that fussed about F1, seeing it simply as another gig in his life as a professional racing driver. Then he got there, was very good at it, and realised it was the best way to make a living driving racing cars. So he stayed for 13 years.
To some extent, the jovial approach Berger brought to grand prix racing hides what a talented, brave bastard he was behind the wheel. 'Just' 10 wins, yes, but Berger's career spanned the eras of Senna, Prost and Schumacher, which meant anyone else getting a victory was rare. He suffered some horrific accidents – ">his awful fiery shunt at Imola in 1989 stands out – but it did nothing to dampen his desire. And he wrote his name into Ferrari folklore by winning the first Italian Grand Prix to be staged after the death of their founder, Enzo Ferrari, in a season utterly dominated by the McLaren-Hondas of Senna and Prost.
And so in truth it would be a shame if Berger truly did not give a shit, because what he achieved in Formula One is worthy of tremendous pride.
Gerhard Berger, truly a man who knew when to go out and when to stay in.
Point of Entry: Medium
Formula One is filled with ruthless people. Berger was no different – he was ruthless and he could be a bastard when required, and he'd probably be the first to admit this.
But in a sport where everyone is stabbing everyone else in the back, Berger has a unique claim to fame. Yes, there were the wins and the heroic drives, but ask F1 fans what they recall of Berger and there's a second strand: his friendship with Ayrton Senna.
The pair were teammates for three years, arguably Senna's peak (certainly in success terms) of 1990 through '92. During that time the Brazilian picked up a pair of world titles, while Gerhard didn't rise above fourth in the drivers' standings. Ayrton won 13 races, Gerhard just three.
But Berger achieved more than this. Following Senna's very public and poisonous fallout with previous teammate Alain Prost, he helped to rehabilitate the Brazilian's character. He made him laugh, made him seem like one of the lads rather than a possessed racing animal who would risk his life and others to be champion. Though Senna has become an almost universally loved icon since his death, it's easy to forget that he was a devise figure by 1990, adored and hated for his ruthless nature. Berger helped to balance this with something approaching normality.
The stories, some of which may be apocryphal, actually make Berger sound like a bit of a prick – throwing Senna's briefcase out of a helicopter, filling his room with frogs, putting a picture of a penis in his passport – but perhaps that's because I'm applying normal human standards. When you're competing in a sport in which death lurks around the corner, you probably need something a bit more intense than Rio's World Cup Wind-Ups to make you laugh.
And that is beside the point – what matters is that Berger humanised Senna (and to a lesser extent team boss Ron Dennis) at the time he needed it most. This was only possible because Berger was that little bit slower on-track than Senna, and relied heavily on Berger's relaxed attitude and his determination to enjoy life.
And it also required Berger being comfortable playing second fiddle. That sort of acquiescence does not sit well with everyone. Barrichello to Schumacher, Massa to Alonso, Webber to Vettel – it seemed to tear those guys apart that they were (largely) unable to match their teammates.
But Berger appeared at one with his ability, comfortable in his own skin. He seemed capable of taking a step back and looking at grand prix racing objectively – not as Gerhard Berger the driver, but as an outsider who can survey the whole scene and make rational decisions.
It was for this reason that he was able to relax, make the most of his opportunities at McLaren, and forge a relationship with Ayrton Senna that has gone done in F1 history.
Of course, Berger was no mug; in fact, I can think of few grand prix drivers who were shrewder than Gerhard. He was well compensated at McLaren and was smart enough to know that trying to beat Senna was a fool's errand. But it still takes something – a special calm, an intelligence and humility often missing from the racing driver psyche – to achieve this.
Now 56, he's still not lost his childish sense of humour. These days, it's often revealed by Berger swearing on live TV to make his former grand prix rivals squirm.
The Moment: A Final Hurrah, Germany 1997
Having been 10 years old when this happened, I didn't really appreciate the significance of it. But looking back, almost 20 years on, what Berger did at Hockenheim in 1997 was nothing short of incredible. He was the oldest man on the grid, back from three races away after being operated on for a sinus problem, and he'd just lost his father. In his absence the 23-year-old Alex Wurz had starred in his Benetton, taking a podium, and team boss Flavio Briatore didn't much want Gerhard back in the car.
Everything was against him; no one would have begrudged him a thoroughly average performance at Hockenheim, an anonymous run to sixth. And so Berger took pole, then won the race, the last of his career and just a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday. If you want to talk top F1 performances of the '90s, this one has to be in the mix.
"With a hose, we improvised an extension to the fire extinguisher and we put it under his room door at three in the morning. We invited some people to watch and when we pushed the lever, Senna flew out of the window like a rocket. It looked like a bomb had exploded inside the room." –– Gerhard Berger
Next up: Juan Pablo Montoya