I’m lucky in that I can pick out the first toy F1 car I ever had. It was the Benetton of 1986, green with white and flashes of pastel colour. Sat in the car was a toy model of the driver, which was only identified by some letters on the cusp of the cockpit – “BERGER”.
As a child, that was quite cool. Bit of a stupid way of associating a driver with some fast food, but when you’re at such a young age, it’s the little things that get your attention.
Not that it’s a derogatory way of looking at Berger’s career, but in an era which is still regarded as golden, he was unlucky enough to be at his zenith at the same time of some of the all-time greats. Two stints hampered by woeful cars given to him by Ferrari (softened by a considerable salary), sandwiching a spell at the mighty McLaren-Honda partnered with Ayrton Senna, bookended by taking wins for Benetton eleven years apart.
And let’s not forget, Berger had some incredible luck, both good and bad. His F1 career nearly ended before it began in 1984 due to a car crash in Salzburg that he survived, thanks to both not wearing his seatbelt and being found by surgeons specialising in back injuries. A fiery accident in 1989 at the now infamous Tambarello corner in San Marino left him with burns to his hands that would require taping every time he raced.
Why is he my favourite? Simply for the relationship he had with Senna during their time together. Tales of practical jokes that sound crazy now, let alone in the 1990s, warmed me to the Austrian even more. He was a hard charging racer with a heart of gold, and the addition of a wicked sense of humour. Especially when it came to practical jokes.
Here’s some of the tales the two, plus others, got up to during their time together at McLaren, and in the years after. This is taken directly from Berger’s Wikipedia page, of all places;
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 was virtually indestructible. Berger opened the door of the helicopter and threw the briefcase out, to Senna’s disbelief. Berger asserted innocently that he only sought to test the hypothesis.
In an Australian hotel room Berger filled Senna’s bed with animals. Senna understandably infuriated, confronted Berger, who replied, “Did you find the snake?”
This incident prompted retaliation by Senna, who then proceeded to put a strong-smelling French cheese in the air conditioning unit of Berger’s room.
On another occasion, Senna and Brazilian compatriot Maurício Gugelmin decided to fill Berger’s shoes with shaving foam on a fast train ride to a dinner in Japan. The Austrian was forced to attend the dinner wearing a tuxedo with running shoes.
A further incident followed 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 Berger’s prank resulted in officials holding the Brazilian for 24 hours.
As a response to this gag, Senna superglued all of Berger’s credit cards together.
Every great story has its supporting characters. Whichever side you took during the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, one of the strongest was Gerhard Berger.