Last week we reported about Sebastian Vettel’s visit to the Red Bull Ring ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix, where he and Austrian racing legend Gerhard Berger took turns in the cockpits of two very special grand prix cars – the Red Bull RB8 that Seb drove to five wins and his third world title, and the Ferrari F1 87-88C that Berger took to victory at the 1988 Italian Grand Prix.
The conversation that followed gave a fascinating insight into how drivers from two very different eras of Formula One view the eras each raced in and the machinery at their disposal, including some tips for Seb from Gerhard should the younger driver ever feel like recreating a lap of the daunting old Österreichring, home of Austria’s race from 1970 to 1987, and the progenitor of today’s Red Bull Ring.
The day started out with Gerhard Berger taking Sebastian Vettel up to the western edge of the original circuit to show the four-time champ how racing used to be done in Austria.
“I have to show you, if you see it you won’t believe that we used to race Formula 1 here,” said the former Ferrari and McLaren driver. “You go uphill here, at full speed, then there is a chicane, the Hella S, then behind that the Flatschach curve, almost fully uphill to the right, with no run-off zone, and then came the best – the never-ending, slightly downhill Schönberg straight with its bumps.”
“At the old Österreichring you used to drive a millimetre away from the crash barriers, at 220 mph. We didn’t think anything of it. Today you’d say ‘could that really be the case?’ More than once practice was interrupted because an animal was somewhere on the circuit, a cow or a deer.”
“Today [the track] has been superbly done – it has been made safe but it’s maintained its own character and gained the new facilities and the great grandstands that you need for an Austrian GP.”
“You enjoyed racing there right [at the Österreichring]?” asked Seb.
“Spielberg and Hockenheim had a special place in my heart,” admitted Berger.
“Quick circuits like Spa, Monza or Suzuka always suited me. The home grand prix was always special though. In 1986 I had a lead of half a lap here and I was already privately celebrating. Unfortunately a part that cost one schilling broke.”
“That was in the Benetton wasn’t it?” asked Seb, referring to the Benetton B186 with which Berger later won the Mexican Grand Prix.
“Yeah, with the 1000-horsepower BMW turbo,” said Berger. “It was brutal. I never wanted that but when you drive them – such as the 1988 Ferrari here – it’s great: the turbo, the manual transmission, the pure driving.”
That was the cue for the pair to try out the Ferrari and the RB8. Berger slotted himself into the narrow cockpit of the Ferrari and waited for the fire-up, conducted by three of the mechanics who looked after him back in his Benetton days. It wasn’t clear before the run whether the 10-time GP winner would still be able to drive the car, due to an old skiing injury which might have prevented him using the manual gearbox.
There were no problems, however, and Berger was soon guiding the car, designed by Gustav Brunner and developed by John Barnard, out onto the track. Seb quickly followed in the RB8. They then swapped machinery.
“Strange, the shoulders are out in the open air,” said Seb of the Ferrari during a quick return to the pit lane. “For the first time I can see the mountains from the track! The legs go downwards instead of upwards [as] with cars nowadays. This is so pure, so direct! Because of the lack of downforce you don’t get the curve speeds but damn it, it has enough power. It’s a lot of fun. Awesome!”
Berger had some words of advice: “If it slides, then it slides very softly. You notice that it is a mechanical car and is not aerodynamic. In the quick curves I didn’t try anything much as I had too much respect. It is just like old school car driving – you need to blip the throttle precisely and shift gears cleanly.”
Following their runs in each other’s car the racers got down to comparing notes, agreeing that the biggest difference is in the braking.
“In the Ferrari you can really just shuffle right along,” said Sebastian, while the modern carbon brake felt “like a stone” for Gerhard.
“Full respect for how well the Ferrari goes over bumps and how the engine pushes. How much power did you have then? 650 horsepower?” asked Sebastian.
“There would have been a little bit more,” smiled Berger, reflecting on the laps turned at the circuit. “Racing in Austria was always something special.”
“I am already pleased,” admitted Seb. “It’s great to be here again.”(Red Bull)