Berger's finger on Button progress

British Grand Prix: Austrian delighted to use his vast experience to guide career of motor racing's brightest young prospect
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The Independent Online

The Boyish grin is undimmed by the passing years and the new burden of responsibility. "At last, after 15 years we are sitting next to each other," says Gerhard Berger, sliding alongside Frank Williams.

They had contemplated joining forces more than once when Berger was a driver, but it never quite happened. "He was too expensive," Williams reflected ruefully, to a concurring nod and another chuckle from the Austrian.

Berger was the Eddie Irvine of his generation. He was good enough to win races if not the championship, finding consolation in a healthy bank balance, the company of women, and his own sense of humour. He was never obvious executive material, yet here he is fronting one of the most important operations in the car manufacturing business, as motorsport director of BMW, latest partners to the Williams grand prix team.

Berger and the Formula One paddock were always comfortable with the image of the joking playboy. He was a welcome antidote to the intensity of most around him. But he maintains his BMW role is one for which he was groomed. "People tell me they are surprised I am doing such a job because it seems out of character," the 40-year-old Berger acknowledges. "But remember that I used to go straight from the races to the family 'haulage' business, not the gym. So I have had a lot of experience in business, and organising, and this job gives me the opportunity to use my knowledge of business and motor racing. I said I would not come just to be a kind of figurehead. I wanted to do the job properly, to be involved in the decisions and strategy, and play a real part. That's what I do."

BMW may have had their industrial and public relations problems in this country of late, but their return to Formula One has been surprisingly smooth and that may be due in no small measure to the astute recruitment of Berger. He is, despite his protestations, the perfect figurehead, a Franz Beckenbauer of racing. The charm and easy manner are irresistible in the boardroom, the pits and the marketplace. Popularity and respect are powerful commodities, even in the cynical environment of Formula One.

Berger's influence on the choice of Jenson Button, Britain's youngest ever world championship competitor, as a team-mate to Ralf Schumacher is recognised as a significant contribution. Berger stresses the ultimate decision lay with Williams, but the man who retired from driving two and a half years ago encouraged what, at best, appeared a long shot.

Button, 20, makes his British Grand Prix debut on Sunday with a point already banked and a bright future seemingly assured. The younger Schumacher has six points and, although the gremlins caught up with the team at Imola, Williams stand an improbable fourth in the constructors' championship after three races.

"What happened at Imola was not such a big surprise," Berger says. "We did not expect to cover more kilometres than any other team in the first two races, or score so many points. We know it is going to be hard. But that is also part of the attraction to me, to be involved in this from the start and to try and create something. Nothing is better than driving, but I had a good career. I drove for top teams and I was competitive to the end. This is a different kind of satisfaction. I am still in Formula One, working on a new challenge, and this excites me. I can see the potential here, at BMW and Williams. They have had success before and they are hungry for more. But it will be three years before we are in a position to compete for the championship. That is the reality."

Berger, for all his apparently whimsical nature, is big on reality. He has been ever since he was team- mate to Ayrton Senna at McLaren. "Like all drivers I thought I could be the best and quicker than anybody," he recalls, the familiar grin rippling across his face again. "Then after three races with Ayrton the fantasy was over. I realised I couldn't be as quick as him and concentrated on doing the best I could, otherwise I would have gone crazy.

"Berger's experience is on tap for Button, and the youngster readily draws from it. Before practice for most grands prix, Berger drives Button around the circuit, advising him on lines, braking points and particular techniques. I give him some suggestions but it's up to him if he uses them," Berger says. "I won't need to drive him around Silverstone. He knows that circuit very well and I'm sure he will be very quick there.

"I liked what I saw from the start with Jenson. He needs time to learn and I don't like to say too much. He has a lot of expectations on him for someone so young and it is too early to judge if he is going to be a superstar. But he is very calm, very impressive in or out of the car. Yes, he can be good, really good, and go a long way."

Michael Schumacher is regarded as the best driver in Formula One, followed, probably, by Mika Hakkinen and Jacques Villeneuve. However, Berger contends Williams-BMW could not have a better pairing than the one they have. "Sure, we know how good Michael is. Mika too. But they are 31. Our drivers are 24 and 20, they have big talents and are developing with the team," he explains. "They are the best drivers for us. Honestly, I would not change them. They are the future.

"People try to make something out of Brazil, where Jenson qualified higher than Ralf. That didn't trouble Ralf and you saw he was quicker in Imola. This sort of thing can happen. The important thing for us is that they are both quick."

The importance for Berger is the evidence of progress and the sense of achievement. When that diminishes he will doubtless move on, but he expects to be around for some time yet. "I guess there will be something else I'll want to do in the future, but right now I'm not looking beyond this job," he says. "This is a big project and we've only just begun." And, besides, he and Frank Williams have a lot of catching up to do.