Berger's back to take bull by the horns 16 Mar 2006
The 2006 season sees the return to the Formula One paddock of one of its favourite sons: Gerhard Berger. The veteran driver is back as co-owner and team principal of Squadra Toro Rosso, having traded a stake in his family shipping business for co-ownership of the team. Having previously left Formula One management after a stint with BMW during their Williams era, it seems the Austrian just can't stay away from the sport - but will he be able to enjoy anything like the success he achieved as a driver?
Berger, now 46, competed in 210 Grands Prix between 1984 and 1997, with stints at teams including Ferrari and McLaren. He recorded ten victories and made the podium 48 times. During his years in the cockpit, Berger seemed determined to live up to his reputation as a hell raiser and practical joker at every opportunity. During one of his notorious spats with friend and team mate Ayrton Senna, he went so far as to throw his rival's brand new carbonfibre briefcase from a helicopter to disprove the Brazilian's claim that it was indestructible.
But a keen intelligence always lurked behind the wild exterior, and after leaving the sport as a driver, Berger proved himself adept at managing the family haulage business that he inherited from his father. Many were surprised when he opted to return to the sport as competitions director for BMW and their Formula One involvement, but he brought a cool head to the task and won respect up and down the paddock for the way he managed the often delicate relationship between Williams and the teams then engine supplier. In 2004 he left the role, as he put it, to spend more time with his family.
Yet barely two seasons later, Berger is back - and with a serious personal stake in one of the newest teams on the grid. Born from the remains of Minardi and being run as a Red Bull junior team, Toro Rosso demonstrated surprisingly competitive pace in Bahrain - although rivals have already started complaining about the performance delivered by the teams rev-limited Cosworth V10s.
Both Berger and Toro Rosso will be all too aware that the involvement of former drivers in team management has not always been a recipe for success. Some have managed it. Jackie Stewart is a recent example, the team that once bore his name winning the 1999 European Grand Prix with Johnny Herbert, and finishing strongly in that years constructors' championship. After being bought by Ford, Stewarts team was re-branded as Jaguar - and still survives as Toro Rosso's partner Red Bull team.
At the other end of the scale, some former drivers have made catastrophically bad team leaders, with Alain Prost - four times a Formula One champion behind the wheel - arguably close to the top of the list. Despite considerable investment, the team that bore his name and which he controlled never managed to get on the pace and eventually collapsed.
But the early signs are promising that Toro Rosso should do well under Berger's management. His time with BMW gave him plenty of experience of the inner workings of the paddock, while Toro Rosso's close ties with the increasingly successful Red Bull team are set to grow closer in the future, when expected changes to the regulations will allow for more technology crossover.
And Berger has also proved that he still has an eye for driver talent. Both Vitantonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed are marked out as potential future stars - and under his tutelage they're in the best possible place to learn about what it takes to become a true Formula One great.