Gerhard Berger, born August 27, 1959 in Wörgl is a popular Austrian Grand Prix racing driver. With 210 Grand Prix starts to his name, Berger has driven more Formula One races than anyone except Riccardo Patrese and Michael Schumacher.
Berger, a multiple race winner in European Formula Three, moved up to Formula One in 1984 driving for the ATS team. A full season for Arrows followed in 1985, but it was not until joining Benetton-BMW in 1986 that his F1 career took off. Exploiting the exceptional power of the BMW turbo engine, Berger won his first Grand Prix in Mexico, and was snapped up by Ferrari for 1987, the first of 2 spells he had with the team.
After mechanical failures robbed him of the chance to perform, Berger came on strongly in 1987, winning the final two rounds of the season, going into 1988 as a Championship favourite. Sadly for Berger, the McLaren team of Prost and Senna dominated the season, winning 15 of the 16 rounds. Berger was the only driver to break the McLaren stranglehold, winning the Italian Grand Prix after Senna tangled with a slower car. This was a particularly poignant victory for the team, as it came just weeks after the death of Enzo Ferrari.
For 1989, Berger was joined at Ferrari by Nigel Mansell. But again, the car failed to deliver the ultimate performance, and Berger was lucky to escape alive from a fiery crash during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola's notorious Tamburello corner. Suffering remarkably few injuries, Berger was back into the action from mid-season, proving a popular winner of the Portuguese Grand Prix.
From 1990 to 1992 Berger joined Ayrton Senna at McLaren, but was unable to match the brilliant Brazilian's pace. He took just three wins in these three seasons, gifted the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix by Senna, by then a firm friend; and two victories in Canada and Australia when other competitors fell by the wayside.
It was during the McLaren years that Gerhard Berger became most famous for his humourous side. Popular accounts tell of many ingenious practical jokes thought up by the Austrian to break through the serious, focused and unyielding Ayrton Senna. Senna, accepting the challenge, quickly submitted, and spurred on by team manager Ron Dennis the practical joking escalated.
Accounts tell of an incident at Monza where in a joint helicopter ride Senna had been showing off his new tailor made briefcase. Having been made of carbon fibre composite Senna argued that it should be virtually indestructable. Berger, without much hesitation and much to Senna's disbelief opened the door of the helicopter and threw the briefcase out, to test the hypothesis.
"It fell somewhere near the course but we found it again.," Berger recalled with a cheeky grin.
On another occasion, in an Australian hotel room Berger filled Senna's bed with animals. Senna understandably infuriated, confronted Berger by saying;
"I've spent the last hour catching 12 frogs in my room" to which Berger replied, "Did you find the snake?"
"Actually they weren't frogs, they were bigger, more like toads. In Australia they have this kind of stuff. I thought he liked animals but clearly not," Berger explained. It was an incident that prompted retaliation by Senna who then proceeded to put a strong smelling French cheese in the air conditioning unit of Bergers room.
On another occasion Senna and Brazillian compatriot Mauricio Gugelmin decided to fill Bergers shoes with shaving foam on a fast train ride to a dinner in Japan. Having been forced to attend the dinner wearing a tuxedo with sneakers Berger vowed for retribution. It was at the Japanese Grand Prix a few days later that Gugelmin was approached by Joseph Leberer, the Mclaren team nutritionist offering fresh orange juice. Ever vigilant Mauricio declined the suspicious offer. He would later expand:
"one hour before the race starts he crushed four sleeping pills into that juice and sent it to me. I would pass out at the start of the race in which the world title would be decided that year. The cars roaring by at the track and I snoring in the cabin, can you imagine it?"
Best known is probably an incident in which Berger replaced Senna's passport photo with what Ron Dennis described as "an equivalent-sized piece of male genitalia". Senna's fame meant he rarely had his passport checked, but on a later trip to Argentina Bergers prank resulted in officials holding the Brazilian for 24 hours.
Another incident years later at Ferrari, when Gerhard Berger and fellow F1 driver Jean Alesi were instructed to collect team director Jean Todt's new special made Lancia roadcar. Returning to the team headquarters entrance Jean Alesi lost control of the car after Berger unexpectedly pulled the handbrake. Having flipped the car and skidded upside down to a halt infront of the entrance, Berger admitted to Todt that they had put; "slight curb marks on the roof."
Berger returned to Ferrari in 1993, the team recalling a popular driver to try and help it out of the doldrums. In 1993, Berger was instrumental in bringing Jean Todt to the team as Team Manager, laying the foundations for the team's future successes. In 1994, Berger recovered from the deaths of close friend Senna and countryman Roland Ratzenberger at the San Marino Grand Prix, to score an emotional win at Hockenheim, the first win for Ferrari since 1990. A final season with the team in 1995 saw Berger score a number of podiums, but with the arrival of Michael Schumacher in 1996, Berger moved back to Benetton, who became a shadow of their former selves. Berger spent his final two years in the sport at the team, winning them their last Grand Prix, again at Hockenheim in 1997, coming back after a long layoff following illness and the death of his father. He retired at the end of the season, a 13 year career in the top echelon of motor racing yielding 10 wins from his 210 GP, and 3rd place in the championship on three occasions.
A hugely popular figure in Formula One, Berger was up until 2003 regularly seen in the pitlane in his new capacity as Competitions Director at BMW, overseeing their successful return to Formula One in 2000.