Profile: Driving out the demons: Gerhard Berger: David Tremayne studies the qualities of a joker seriously considering a life in the slow lane

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'SO, YOU want me to say something shitty about Mansell?'

The remark is accompanied by Gerhard Berger's irrepressible grin, an almost child-like smirk that lights up his eyes and is invariably followed by a breathless laugh.

Tall, good-looking and only 34, the Austrian is a throw-back to the days when grand prix racing could be fun as well as a deadly serious sport, an irreverent joker and one of the few capable of divorcing his feelings on the track from his behaviour off it. Life, he understands, is there to be enjoyed.

But it is a different Berger that we are seeing in Monaco this weekend. The endearing candour remains, but confusion is evident. We are witnessing a man at war with himself, a racer lured by a siren's song who in recent weeks has become only too aware of the danger of answering the call.

Many came here expecting to hear him say he was hanging up his helmet, that the deaths at Imola of his fellow-countryman Roland Ratzenberger, and then his close friend Ayrton Senna, had finally proved too much. He of all the drivers knows what it is like to crash at the same Tamburello Curve that claimed the Brazilian. He owes his life to the 'Angels of Imola', the marshals who pulled him fom his burning Ferrari during the 1989 race.

'I will try to explain my feelings,' he said as he struggled to find the right words. 'After the race in Imola, I went to the hospital because I wanted to see Ayrton again.' Senna, he knew by then, was dead. 'I did see him, and then Monday morning back home was very, very difficult, a strange day. Very empty. I felt nothing. I felt very far away from myself, and it was the first time I had ever felt this. What was I going to do?

'When you're young, obviously you want to race a lot, it's your life. You have accidents, or you see accidents, maybe you see people die. It doesn't affect you so much. But when you're older, you've had your own accidents, your own experiences. You feel completely different. This is a critical point for me. You realise there are other points in life that are very important.'

He reiterated his commitment to racing cars, but he was a man fighting his own demons. One who has peered into the black pit and seen how horrible its secrets can be, yet has decided once again to risk falling headlong into it. Last Thursday there was another reminder when his fellow-countryman Karl Wendlinger crashed, and on Friday Berger was nominated one of the three drivers who will represent the newly re-formed Grand Prix Drivers' Association to protect safety interests.

Gerhard Berger always had more than a nodding acquaintance with danger. He has courted it most of his adult life, and even as a child. When he was a schoolboy he and his friends in Worgl used to nominate one person to lie in the road to stop approaching cars while the others crouched in the background on their skis. When a gullible motorist stopped they would grab hold of his rear bumper and be towed along as he pulled away again.

Unusual situations have always been part of his life, and he has had a long-running affair with fortune. His career started in mundane circumstances when he began racing an AlfaSud 'for fun'. But after brief flirtations with Formula Ford 2000 he made his mark in Formula Three. He broke his neck in a road accident in 1984, but by sheer chance the first car on the scene was driven by a doctor who was able to prevent paralysis. Within months he was racing as if nothing had happened, and made the step up to Formula One with a mercurial autocrat called Gunter Schmid, who owned the ATS team. There was competition for the drive, and the first time he drove, Berger scratched round the Zandvoort track in the Netherlands on the very limit, desperate to move up. 'When I got back to the pits the first time, Schmid said: 'You leave your braking pretty late,' and I just shrugged as nonchalantly as I could and said, 'Yeah.' He never realised how much my heart was pumping.'

Like his fallen compatriot, Ratzenberger, Berger has no enemies within the Formula One paddock. He speaks his mind, criticises Ferrari when he feels it necessary, yet gets away with it. His honesty is its own excuse. And his sense of humour and practical jokes have passed into legend. One year in Czechoslovakia he drove his hire car beneath an articulated truck at a road junction, just to see what it would be like.

'Gerhard is a liability, a guy you watch very carefully,' says Peter Collins, who used to work with Berger at Benetton and now runs Team Lotus. Once in Detroit the two kept meeting the same woman at traffic lights until Collins eventually persuaded Berger to get out and talk to her. When the lights turned green both he and the woman drove off, leaving Berger stranded on the expressway. Collins remains one of the few to get one over on the Austrian.

Berger was also one of the few who could really make Ayrton Senna laugh at race meetings, and the Brazilian found to his cost that superiority on the track did not exempt him from the Austrian's mischief. He would casually throw Senna's address book pages out of a moving car, one by one. In Australia one year he infested his hotel room with 26 frogs. Senna found 16 of them and accused his tormentor, who informed him that there were 10 left, and asked if he had found any of the snakes yet.

He once substituted an image of male genitals for the photograph in Senna's spare passport, and at Monza in 1991 the Brazilian's expensive briefcase mysteriously landed a while before their helicopter did. Senna was lucky: Berger's original plan had been to jettison it over Lake Como.

When Berger went to McLaren for 1990 he had heard all the tales of the Brazilian's underhand cunning from Prost and Mansell, but the two forged an alliance born of trust and respect. They learnt from each other and acknowledged one another's merits with an honesty few competing sportsmen are able to summon. In Formula One, after all, your team-mate is always the first man you have to beat.

In his early months in 'Senna's team' Berger seemed to try to become a clone of Senna, but he only really settled down once he became himself again, discarded the abstemiousness he had learnt from the Brazilian, and took up his own hedonistic pursuits. Ron Dennis, the team boss, genuinely regretted Berger's departure to Ferrari, and says to this day: 'There will always be a place for Gerhard at McLaren.'

A mixed career has so far yielded Berger the great prize on eight occasions, the first a canny drive in high ambient temperatures with the Benetton-BMW in Mexico in 1986, the most recent his finale with McLaren in Australia in 1992. When he returned to Ferrari for 1993 he understood that it would take time to develop a winning car. His sights were set on 1994, but first there was the groundwork to be done. And the accidents to be endured. He had a lot of them last year. In Brazil he crashed in practice and could then have been decapitated in a start-line shunt with Michael Andretti. At Monza he hit a wall at 203mph after colliding with his team-mate Jean Alesi when the chequered flag to signal the end of practice had already been waved. Berger, apparently, had not seen it. In Portugal weeks later his Ferrari turned sharp left across the track as he left the pit lane. He narrowly avoided being T-boned by Derek Warwick, who was bearing down on him at 190mph. We began to worry for him, as if we were witnessing a punch-drunk fighter at work.

'Formula One is so technically complicated that you always have failures,' he said this weekend. 'So you have to be prepared to take risks. But let's say I have lost a bit of faith in technology.'

Berger does not say it, but he does not appear to believe that Senna died because he made a mistake. Drivers have to hold such beliefs dear when the man they acknowledged as their king has perished.

Last week he went to Senna's funeral in Brazil, and then to Ratzenberger's in Austria. Johnny Herbert apart, he was the only driver to go to both. All week he was in anguish over his future, and in the end he decided to carry on. 'It is not something that comes from the head. But one day I would love to sit with my children and say, 'I was world champion.'

'You know, after Monza and Estoril last year I went home to think about things. And I said to myself, it is like you have a cheque book and you write them out, one after another to the angels. And then one day you have an empty book and you cannot give them out again.'

In the aftermath of one of the sport's darkest hours even Gerhard Berger knows that the risk remains total despite the progress there has been on safety. But he will go on. In the first session on Friday, his first time in a car since Imola, he was quickest. He is a racer; racing is his life.