Motor Racing: Berger rolls back at top speed

German Grand Prix: Veteran and pretender leave championship favourites trailing to take front row at Hockenheim
Click to follow
If you held a popularity poll in the paddock Gerhard Berger would always be close to the top, but in this sport such things count for nothing when the cars run. The fitness problems which have kept the Austrian out of the cockpit for the last three races were beginning to look like the prelude to an inglorious slide into that twilight oblivion where F1's forgotten stars dwell: Dear old Gerhard, sad he isn't racing, isn't it? Now, who's fastest?

Well, yesterday at Hockenheim, on his return to active duty, it was Berger who was fastest, silencing his doubters with a splendid performance which at a stroke re-established his market credibility, and provided the Benetton- Renault team with its first pole position since Michael Schumacher's pre- Ferrari days.

Mika Hakkinen set the qualifying ball rolling with a lap in 1m 42.516s, which would resist the efforts of the Schumacher brothers, Giancarlo Fisichella in the second Jordan-Peugeot, Jean Alesi in the Benetton-Renault and Jacques Villeneuve's Williams-Renault, but then Berger came from nowhere with a lap in 1m 42.086s which set everyone back on their heels.

As the Williams team struggled, Berger insouciantly tossed his similarly- powered car through the three fiddly chicanes and the stadium section of the track that join the long tree-lined straights. The effort withstood everything his rivals could summon until Fisichella embarked upon his third try, and then it transpired that Berger's subsequent improvement came not a moment too soon. The Austrian trimmed down to 1m 41.873s mere moments before Fisichella produced an equally inspired 1m 41.896s, which would be good enough to hoist him on to the front row.

Had he not had to abort his second run when he sensed an unsettling problem at the rear of his McLaren-Mercedes, Hakkinen would also have been firmly in the hunt.

"As it was," the Finn said, "it was better to stop for safety reasons." He lost much time while mechanics replaced various components to cure the unspecified problem, and though the car was better for the work he had to be satisfied with a marginal improvement which left him third. "I had one run left but then I came across Gerhard after he had spun on his last lap," Hakkinen explained. "But in any case, I'd gone straight over one of the chicanes, so it would not have been a better lap."

This was quite the best qualifying session of a season notable for the closeness of the competition, though from the locals' point of view it was disappointing, with Michael Schumacher managing only fourth place on the grid as he wrung out everything that his Ferrari had to offer, Heinz-Harald Frentzen producing only fifth best time in his Williams, and Ralf Schumacher being ousted from sixth place in the closing stages by Alesi.

Quite the most remarkable aspect, Berger's performance apart, was the fall from dominance of the Williams-Renaults. The team came here expecting a rougher ride on a circuit where downforce-generating aerodynamic excellence is of much less importance and can be countered by top-end horsepower. But few expected to see Frentzen on the third row and Villeneuve as low as ninth, only fractions ahead of Eddie Irvine's Ferrari. Both drivers complained of poor handling balance with the low downforce set-up, while the technical director Patrick Head expressed his own view of the situation when he said: "I don't think that the set-ups being selected by the drivers and race engineers are the optimum for the car. But that's something for the team to discuss. There is no animosity in the situation, it's a matter of trying to get the best settings for the car, but we must sort it out internally." It was not sorted out in time to prevent the team's worst qualifying performance in 10 seasons.

Though Michael Schumacher is noticeably the one driver the fans really get excited about here, he is paradoxically the one that the team managers are ignoring in a driver market that is bubbling like a pool full of piranhas. Traditionally this is the time of year when the silly season really gets underway, and this season is no exception. Schumacher, of course, is staying put at Ferrari, while Benetton has confirmed that Fisichella will switch from Jordan. And as Berger has disclosed that he won't be staying, the smart money is on his stand-in, fellow Austrian Alexander Wurz, being the permanent replacement. But elsewhere all is in flux. Berger needs a win to help him decide whether to carry on; Hakkinen needs one to make up for his Silverstone disappointment; Damon Hill - a strong 13th overall - and Jean Alesi need anything they can get to boost their chances of finding meaningful employment in 1998.

Berger, the best placed of them all, said his pole position would not necessarily influence any decision about his future plans: "In F1 and in all sport, you have to prove yourself all the time," he said. "Sports reality is that you are forgotten very quickly and you need to prove yourself the whole time, even to yourself. I don't want to do anything when I feel I am not doing it in the best way. I'm not here to enter into any discussions at the moment because I want to get my head straight. I want to be happy and motivated. I think it's going to be like this but I want to make sure. Then we can talk."

A position of strength will always help.

Grid positions, page 19