Berger takes final win in ‘a race I shouldn’t have done’

1997 German Grand Prix flashback

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The championship contest took a back seat at the German Grand Prix 20 years ago as one of the sport’s old hands returned to claim a final victory.

Gerhard Berger had sat out three races, during which time he had two operations on a sinus infection and also suffered the untimely loss of his father in a light aircraft accident.

So his sudden return at the peak of his form meant the tenth round of the season had a surprising and popular winner.

1997 German Grand Prix qualifying

Benetton arrived in Germany amid speculation over the future of its drivers. Berger had revealed he wouldn’t be driving for the team in 1998 while Benetton announced Giancarlo Fisichella would be one of its drivers.

“Giancarlo has been on loan to Jordan this season,” explained Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore. “We have been impressed by his performances and had no hesitation in exercising our option so he can drive for us next year.”

But would Fisichella be driving for Briatore in 1998? His future at the team was in doubt. Since winning the constructors’ championship and taking Michael Schumacher to a second title in 1995 Benetton had gone a year and a half without a race victory.

“The season hasn’t finished yet and we don’t want to make any changes in mid-season, especially not in the team’s management,” Briatore told the media. “As far as the future is concerned, I do not know, because we can only make decisions at the end of the season.”

Silverstone had pointed to an upswing in the team’s form as both cars finished on the podium. Berger’s return left his substitute Alexander Wurz without a drive, the latter having turned down an offer from Sauber, who was still fielding junior racer Norberto Fontana on a race-by-race deal in place of the injured Gianni Morbidelli.

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To the surprise of many, it was Benetton who set the pace. Berger had an obvious affinity for the Hockenheimring. He’d scored his last victory three years earlier at the track. And he was three laps away from winning the last German Grand Prix when his engine blew.

He took to the track in qualifying with the manner of a man who had every intention of avenging that lost win and proving he was still a force to be reckoned with. His first run dislodged Mika Hakkinen from the top of the times sheets with a lap of 1’42.086. After that he simply sat back as driver after driver failed to beat his time.

Williams were in trouble. The reigning champions had started every race so far from the front row and taken seven pole positions out of nine. But at the Hockenheimring, still in its dauntingly fast pre-2002 configuration, Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were plagued by understeer and never looked like contenders for the front row.

Even Michael Schumacher, with the weight of the home crowd behind him, could only get within a tenth of a second of the B197.

Berger almost seemed to be toying with his rivals. Out he came again, hanging it out through the Hockenheim chicanes, and lopped another two-tenths off his pole time. On a subsequent run he was two-tenths up again heading into the stadium, only to lock and wheel and lose time, sending him back to the pits.

By now the time was running out. Berger might have improved with one final run but he spun at the Sachskurve. Coincidentally, that served to spoil a late run by Mika Hakkinen which might have put the McLaren-Mercedes ahead. Instead he had to settle for third.

Hakkinen had been robbed of victory in the previous race at Silverstone by a late Mercedes engine failure. The team had prioritised reliability ahead of the annual Hockenheim ‘torture test’. “Since Silverstone, Mario Illien has been working really hard round the clock in fact and on Thursday at Monza we did a race distance without any problems whatsoever,” he said.

The pair were split by Fisichella, who was revelling in the power of his Peugeot. This was despite the engine still being in the same configuration used at Monaco as the French manufacturer pursued reliability gains.

Fisichella achieved his late improvement after removing the team’s distinctive new ‘hammerhead’ aerodynamic appendages from his car. It set up an enticing front row with Benetton’s outgoing driver joined by the rookie who was replacing him.

But Fisichella’s team mate was dismayed to be out-qualified at his home race. “Ralf [Schumacher] was stunned,” remembered Eddie Jordan in his autobiography. “It took the wind from his sails completely.”

The elder Schumacher was bumped down to fourth ahead of Frentzen and Jean Alesi, the second Benetton driver coming to a stop on his final run. Ralf Schumacher shared row four with David Coulthard, who had a spin.

Villeneuve tried the team’s spare car, which had originally been set up for his team mate, on his final run. It was to no avail, and he qualified ninth.

Goodyear runners occupied the entire top ten. Behind them came a trio of Bridgestone-shod cars: Jarno Trulli’s Prost, Rubens Barrichello’s Stewart and Damon Hill’s Arrows. The year-old Ferrari in Johnny Herbert’s Sauber propelled him to 14th place.

1997 German Grand Prix grid

Row 11. Gerhard Berger 1’41.873
2. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’41.896
Row 23. Mika Hakkinen 1’42.034
4. Michael Schumacher 1’42.181
Row 35. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’42.421
6. Jean Alesi 1’42.493
Row 47. Ralf Schumacher 1’42.498
8. David Coulthard 1’42.687
Row 59. Jacques Villeneuve 1’42.967
10. Eddie Irvine 1’43.209
Row 611. Jarno Trulli 1’43.226
12. Rubens Barrichello 1’43.272
Row 713. Damon Hill 1’43.361
14. Johnny Herbert 1’43.660
Row 815. Jan Magnussen 1’43.927
16. Pedro Diniz 1’44.069
Row 917. Shinji Nakano 1’44.112
18. Norberto Fontana 1’44.552
Row 1019. Mika Salo 1’45.372
20. Jos Verstappen 1’45.811
Row 1121. Tarso Marques 1’45.942
22. Ukyo Katayama 1’46.499

1997 German Grand Prix

With Benetton, Jordan and McLaren occupying the top three grid spots, the championship protagonists had a fight on their hands to add to their points tallies. And within seconds of the start their team mates were out: Frentzen and Irvine tangled at the exit of turn one.

Irvine made what he reckoned was his best start of the year so far, and swept into turn one expecting Frentzen on his outside to yield the track. He didn’t and contact left the pair with damaged tyres which, following a slow tour of the 6.8-kilometre track, caused terminal damage for both. “I had nowhere to go,” Frentzen complained. “I couldn’t go on the grass at that stage and then he ran over my front-right tyre.”

Berger won the sprint to the first corner while Fisichella held onto his second place. The gap between the pair after one lap was already 1.8 seconds, and Fisichella was keeping an eye on the progress of Schumacher, who had taken third off Hakkinen. McLaren were also down to one car by lap two, as Coulthard came to a stop after going off in the stadium section.

While Berger stretched his lead, Hill moved into the top ten by passing Herbert. Pedro Diniz in the other Arrows made a less successful attempt to get by, taking himself and the Sauber out of the race. Minardi had also lost Tarso Marques to a gearbox failure at the start, so half-a-dozen cars had dropped out by lap nine.

By lap 15 Berger held a 12-second lead over Fisichella, who still had Schumacher close behind him. But with Benetton planning to pit twice compared to their single-stopping rivals, the fight for victory was closer than it appeared. What mattered now was whether Berger could make his first stop and come out in clear air.

He didn’t quite make it. After his first visit to the pits on lap 17 he emerged in the tail of Hakkinen’s McLaren, which was now running in third place. It took him over a lap to find a way by, costing him several seconds to the new race leader.

This was – for the first time in his career – Fisichella’s Jordan. It was the first time the team had led a race for two years, and when he ran two laps longer than Schumacher before making his first pit stop his chances of winning looked promising. It later emerged Ferrari had put too little fuel in Schumacher’s car as well, but by then Fisichella’s fortunes had changed.

Meanwhile Villeneuve was having a louse afternoon. Unable to keep up with Hakkinen and Alesi ahead, he held up Trulli and Ralf Schumacher until his first pit stop. After that he began to close on Hakkinen, but when he came under attack from Trulli at the first chicane he spun into a gravel trap and retired. This was the tenth race of the year and he’d now failed to score in five of them.

Around the same time Berger arrived in the pits for his second stop. He had lost time due to Rubens Barrichello’s Stewart expiring in front of him and to his dismay he rejoined the track behind Fisichella.

“I nearly lost the race because somebody blew up their engine on the straight and it was so foggy I couldn’t see the road anymore,” he said. “I lost about four or five seconds. I said ‘now I think I lost the race’.”

But almost immediately after taking the lead Fisichella lost it again. An error at the Ostkurve chicane allowed Berger by. His blushes were spared by the FOM television director, who was too busy showing replays of Villeneuve and Barrichello retiring to catch the unfolding drama at the front of the field.

Fisichella was seemingly on course for a great second place, but with six laps to go those hopes were shattered when his left-rear tyre deflated as he approached the stadium section. He was fortunate the failure had happened so close to the pits, but as he approached the entrance the Jordan got away from him and he spun. Even then a podium finish might have been possible, but the car came to a stop shortly after he’d rejoined the track on fresh rubber.

This was a relief for Schumacher, who held on to second place after his splash-and-dash visit to the pits. Hakkinen was promoted to the podium for the first time since the season-opening race followed by Trulli and Ralf Schumacher, the latter struggling with a loose fastener on his windscreen. Alesi finished a distant sixth in the second Benetton, underlining just what an extraordinary performance this had been by his team mate.

1997 German Grand Prix result

Pos.No.DriverTeamLapsTime / gap / reason
18Gerhard BergerBenetton-Renault451hr 20’59.046
25Michael SchumacherFerrari4517.527
39Mika HakkinenMcLaren-Mercedes4524.77
414Jarno TrulliProst-Mugen-Honda4527.165
511Ralf SchumacherJordan-Peugeot4529.995
67Jean AlesiBenetton-Renault4534.717
715Shinji NakanoProst-Mugen-Honda451’19.722
81Damon HillArrows-Yamaha441 lap
917Norberto FontanaSauber-Petronas441 lap
Not classified
18Jos VerstappenTyrrell-Ford441 lap
12Giancarlo FisichellaJordan-Peugeot40Tyre
3Jacques VilleneuveWilliams-Renault33Accident
22Rubens BarrichelloStewart-Ford33Engine
19Mika SaloTyrrell-Ford33Clutch
23Jan MagnussenStewart-Ford27Engine
20Ukyo KatayamaMinardi-Hart23Out of fuel
16Johnny HerbertSauber-Petronas8Accident
2Pedro DinizArrows-Yamaha8Accident
10David CoulthardMcLaren-Mercedes1Transmission
4Heinz-Harald FrentzenWilliams-Renault1Accident
6Eddie IrvineFerrari1Accident
21Tarso MarquesMinardi-Hart0Transmission

Berger’s win proved not only to be the last of his career but Benetton’s final victory as well. They had also scored their first ever wins together, 11 years earlier in Mexico.

Even so, he later admitted having misgivings about his return. “I really shouldn’t have done this race,” he said in 2011. “I had just come out of hospital, Flavio didn’t want me in this race and tried everything to stop me.”

While Schumacher had failed to give his fans the home victory they craved, it had been a very positive weekend for him in terms of the championship. As well as extending his lead over Villeneuve by six points, the long-awaited cancellation of the season-ending Portuguese Grand Prix meant there was one fewer race for his rival to catch up.

1997 German Grand Prix championship standings

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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14 comments on “Berger takes final win in ‘a race I shouldn’t have done’”

  1. This was an epic Grand Prix dominated by Berger and Fisichella on merit. Can’t imagine a GP this year being dominated by Force India and Renault for example. In fact, a GP not dominated by Mercs or Ferrari would be nice.

    Also Hockenhiem needs to revert back to what it used to be – an incredible track, whch back then was quickly followed by the Hungoraring. It provided a great challenge to the drivers and constructors.

    1. It really is a shame we haven’t really had any surprise winners in a really long time. We’ve been close a few times (like Perez at Malaysia in 2012) but generally wins have been distributed amongst regular winners, or turned into regular winners within a year (apart from Maldonado and Raikkonen I guess). Since 2014 it’s been especially bare.

      I do kind of miss the old reliability woes and crazy races, it seems nowadays even when the top 2 teams mess up, the third is always there to collect. I’d love something like Monaco 1996, Belgium 1998, Europe 1999 or Canada 2008 to happen this season. Imagine Nico Hulkenberg or Romain Grosjean winning a race! Why does it sound so much more preposterous than it would have in 2012 or 2013?

      1. I’m afraid it’s a mixture of things:

        *Tarmac run-off – It’s essentially a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Drivers are no longer left beached or in the barrier
        *Lack of wet weather running – I seem to remember that ever since 07-08 where the began asking the drivers thoughts on whether it was safe to resume racing, wet weather racing essentially died. You cannot expect a balanced view from a title contender who’s ahead of his rival
        *Improved reliability – Penalties for part failures have forced teams to be much more measured and take less risks in their upgrades, leading to the bullet-proof reliability we have now. I guess it should be celebrated, but it’s made things feel formulaic and given much less opportunity for a mid-grid team to spring a surprise

    2. Sadly the old layout is little more than a trekking path through the forest now. I will never, ever understand why they couldn’t build the new track as a variation of the original one, much like the Nordscheife. Imagine sports cars through the old track, that could still be amazing. And F1 would always have had the chance to go back. To me if the current Hockenheim wouldn’t have come at the expense of the old one, I’d consider it a good track.
      Also agree with Nick, we need more shock races, or even shock podiums at the very least. More examples, Spa 2001, Interlagos and Hungaroring 2003, Monaco 2004, Melbourne 2005… from then on aside from Montreal 2008 I struggle to think more. Sadly from 2014 onwards, all shock wins are the non-Mercedes wins, maybe up until now.
      Ps.: Now that I think of it, Shanghai 2012 may count, after all Mercedes were pretty average back then.

    3. As33, I thought that most drivers didn’t think that Hockenheim was that much of a test of driver skill, and that it was in fact a track where car performance completely dominated driver skill.

      I recall that Brundle said it was a track that was only liked by those drivers who had a good car – if you were in the midfield or backmarker teams, then the race was a dull slog whilst other drivers just blasted past you with ease – whilst some, like Hunt, hated the track altogether, both when driving and watching races. To me, it says something that when most people talk about the track, they talk about the effects that mechanical reliability had on the races more than anything else – strip that out and I wager you’d be left with dull processional racing, much as we have had at Monza in recent years.

      1. Aren’t most circuits only won by those in the best machinery? This thread is testament to how rare that is nowadays.

  2. The statistic about Villenueve only having scored in half the races up to this point is fairly damning.
    Also, I love these retro articles!!!

    1. Makes Frentzen’s tally at this stage look even worse doesn’t it!

      I heard an interview with Jenson Button who said that Fisichella was the best driver in the world at driving a poor car. It’s hard to argue with that. Both Fisichella and Frentzen put in amazing drives in underpowered machinery, but faltered when given their chances at Renault/Williams respectively.

      1. I have never heard JB say that Ben, but thinking about it he might well be right…

  3. Awesome race, loved it. I was so gutted when Fisichella got that puncture late in the race after being up at the front for so long, he so deserved a podium for his efforts. I still struggle to believe how good the Peugeot engine was. I mean, Peugeot were pretty lacklustre in the mid 90s, then turn up at a power circuit and stick it on the front row.

  4. There are a striking number of parallels between Berger’s final 2 F1 victories:

    Both came from pole position at Hockenheim.
    Both were his team’s only victory of the season.
    Both came in a season where Michael Schumacher was battling a Williams driver in his 2nd full season in F1 for the title, with the title being decided by a controversial collision at the final race.
    In both seasons Berger’s team-mate was Jean Alesi, whose only pole position of the season came at Monza.
    Both wins were Berger’s only wins in his second spell with the team in question.

  5. I was always fascinated with why Berger was so fast on this track and never understood why. Two of his 10 career wins came there.

    It’s easy to understand why some drivers may be fast in Monaco, or fast in the rain, but why would anyone be particularly super fast on the old Hockenheim?
    Was Berger best at anticipating hard braking coming from the long straights or what?

    It would be very nice – in this series of articles – to present the racing track, when it no longer is part of the championship, or even more is, if it doesn’t exist anymore. The good ol’ Hockenheim demanded for it! :))))

    1. @damon Maybe it had to do with the car. Berger usually drove cars that had a strong engine, but were lacking in aerodynamics (the V12-powered Ferrari in 1993-1995, the Benetton-Renault in 1996-1997), so the old Hockenheimring suited those cars. I don’t know why Berger was so much faster than Alesi, though. During their time as teammates they were quite evenly matched, even though their performances varied massively from race to race. In this race Alesi undoubtedly suffered from a poor strategy (he was on the same strategy as Berger, but he was always in traffic), but that was a consequence of his poor qualifying.

  6. To be honest I always thought the races at the old Hockenheim a bore, it was just processional and very little overtaking even with such long straights. It was rather scary in the wet with the spray hanging between the trees. The final stadium section did spark some differing set up choices for those who wanted more down force but I guess you were either confident in the car or you weren’t. Remember when Tyrrell attempted to run their rear tyres at the front? Personally I prefer the new track for watching races.

    1997 was one of my favourite races there, emotionally it was a good story for Berger and it was great to see a Jordan compete at the front – I was part of their fanclub back then. Villeneuve had so many off races thinking back, he should have walked to the championship, but it made for great entertainment.

    Loving these flashbacks Keith

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