Monday, 2 April 2012

1986 Mexican Grand Prix - Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez

October 12, 1986

There is an outward effervesence about Gerhard Berger which sometimes disguises the sheer steel and determination which suffuses his character. By any standards Berger's ascent to the upper reaches of the F1 community  was meteoric. He first sprang to prominence in the European Alfasud championship, finishing seventh at his first attempt, then breezed quickly through Formula Ford  and Formula Ford 2000 before making his mark in the hotly contested 1983 European Formula 3 championship. Although he did not win any of the individual races, he managed a couple of second places to finish joint seventh in the final points table, equal with Martin Brundle.

He then distinguished himself with some energetic drives in the European Touring Car championship at the wheel of a BMW 635. These performances attracted the attention of ATS F1 team boss Gunther Schmid, who duly invited him to Zandvoort for a test session. Berger attacked the task with an over-enthusiasm and confidence which, in retrospect, made even him shudder slightly years later. But he certainly made and a favourable impression and was invited to drive for the team at the wheel of a second car in two world championship rounds.

1984 Italian GP - Berger scores an impressive sixth place in the ATS D6.
On home ground in Austria Berger failed to finish, but at Monza a few weeks  later he stormed home sixth in the Italian Grand Prix. Sadly, as he had not originally been entered in the championship as a regular contestant he was not awarded the point normally given to a sixth place finisher.

Barely 25 years old, Berger's racing horizons seemed to be widening dramatically, but his racing career very nearly ended that winter in a serious road accident near his home at Worgl, not far from Innsbruck. He fractured a vertebra in his neck and spent most of the off-season recuperating. He recovered in time to join Thierry Boutsen in the Arrows-BMW line-up, however, highlighting his 1985 season with a fifth place in South Africa and sixth in Australia.

For 1986 he switched to the emergent Benetton-BMW team (formerly Toleman). The team was owned by clothing magnate Luciano Benetton and now with Benetton money and BMW power the team was well placed to demonstrate far more potential to challenge the top outfits of the day. It was with the B186 that Berger really began to mature, displaying considerable flair and expertise. He scored a brilliant third place in San Marino and then led his home grand prix commandingly at the Österreichring, only to be thwarted by battery problems. Unfortunately reliability seemed to be the Achilles heel of the B186 that season. 

1986 Season - Berger makes his mark
Round 15 in Mexico was to be the penultimate grand prix of the season, and excitement was high.  Not only was this the first Mexican grand prix since 1970, the championship battle was approaching it's climax. Nigel Mansell (Williams) was leading the driver's standings by 10 points over his team-mate Nelson Piquet (Williams), with Alain Prost (McLaren) and Ayrton Senna (Lotus) also in the hunt. The Englishman could clinch the title if he were to win or finish ahead of both Piquet and Prost. Considering the fact that Mansell was suffering from Montezuna's Revenge at the time, this seemed like a tall order.

With all of the Benetton's reliability woes Berger was not in the fight for the championship, but in Mexico he was ready to steal the limelight from the contenders. This race was all about tyre management, as the searing heat on race day morning revealed heavy tyre wear during the warm-up. Especially so, for the Goodyear runners. Berger, and Benetton however, were running on Pirelli tyres.

The four title contenders all qualified at the sharp end of the grid. Piquet won the pole position, with Senna joining him on the front row. Next was Mansell and Berger, then Riccardo Patrese (Brabham) and Prost. At the start Senna led off the line from Piquet and Berger. Mansell's Williams however remained motionless. It appeared almost as if his car was not in gear when the lights went gear. The Englishman fumbled in the cockpit and finally managed to find a gear, but by that time the bulk of the grid had swarmed past him and he found himself down in nineteenth position.

Senna and Piquet staged a thrilling duel into the first esses complex. With Senna on the inside line and Piquet outside the two braked as late as possible, but Piquet used the strength of his Honda engine to keep enough of the outside line to give him the advantage for the following left bend and the elder Brazilian assumed the lead. Berger in third, was being pressured by Prost and Stefan Johannson (Ferrrari). He was, however, able to open a gap to Prost and Johannson during the first few laps and as he began closing on the leaders Senna mounted a counter attack on Piquet.

The pace of the first laps was torrid. Piquet and Senna battling for the lead. Prost closed on Berger and used the power of his TAG Porsche engine to pass the young Austrian on the start-finish straight, and Mansell, charging now, was up to eleventh. But all this was taking it's toll on he Goodyear runners.

Mansell had to pit on lap 13 with heavily blistered tyres and by lap 22 the order became static at the front .... Piquet, Senna, Prost and Berger. Each could not close on the car in front for fear of losing grip in the corners and prematurely wear their tyres out.

Prost was the first of the leaders to pit for new tyres on lap 31, and a lap later, Piquet was in. Senna, now free of Piquet began building a gap to Berger, but there were clear signs of blistering on the left rear tyre of the Lotus. Despite this Senna put in some blindingly fast laps before pitting for tyres on lap 36, and he was able to rejoin in second position. The order now was Berger, Senna, Piquet and Prost. Mansell at this point had clawed his way up to eighth.

1986 Mexican GP - Pace and composure allowed Berger to control the race from the front.
On new tyres now, Senna set a series of fastest laps, but Berger was able to maintain a decent pace, relative to the charging Brazilian and in this way he could control the race from the front. It slowly became clear that Berger could manage the Pirellis far better than his rivals on their Goodyears and it was perhaps possible that he would try to run the race without stopping.

This strategy had its pitfalls, of course. If Berger misjudged his pace, or was pressured into going faster than the Pirellis' could manage then a pitstop late in the race would spell disaster, dropping him down the order with little time to recover. But Gerhard was doing a magnificent job. By lap 44 he had a 25 second lead and was stretching his advantage. Piquet had to pit again for tyres and Senna's pace was dropping now due to tyre degradation. The Brazilian pitted six laps later and Berger's lead grew to 35 seconds over new second place man Prost. But the Frenchman ad well had to soon pit again for tyres.

1986 Mexican GP - Berger rewards Benetton with their first Grand Prix victory.
That is really how the race played out. Berger majestically driving on in a flawless effort, while his rivals could not seem to find any solution to their tyre degradation woes. At the flag it was Berger, 27 seconds, from Prost, Senna, Piquet and Mansell. 

It was an incredibly mature and disciplined drive, and while it is clear that the Pirellis offered Berger a decisive advantage it was the Austrian who managed those tyres and fully maximized that advantage. The Benettons were not the only Pirelli runners in the field, and at the finish, the nearest rival on similar rubber was Philippe Alliot (Ligier) in sixth, a lap down.

Even before his victory in Mexico, Berger's signature was already dry on a Ferrari contract to drive for the Scuderia, alongside Michele Alboreto, in 1987. This clearly illustrated how superbly Gerhard had driven in 1986. In fact, he scored all but two of the Benetton team's points that season, an accomplishment made all the more impressive when you consider that he had less than two years of Formula One experience.

An excellent driver and a terrific personality, it was always wonderful to see Gerhard Berger win. He was the kind of driver that you could not help but cheer for. For me he was one of Grand Prix racing's most interesting and likeable characters.