TeamsGeorges Berger: 1954 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
In the waning days of September and of the First World War, in the area of Molenbeek, Saint-Jean near the heart of Brussels, Belgium a young man would be born. And after the interruption of a Second World War, the Belgian would start his brief racing career that would include sports car racing and a brief appearance in the Formula One World Championship.
Born in 1918, Berger's life, like many others in Europe, would be marked by two world wars. This would cause many to delay following their passions and their desires. Therefore, it wouldn't be until Berger was nearly in his 20 before he would take to motor racing. Even then, Berger's presence at races would be quite sporadic at the very least. But from 1953 on through about 1955, Berger would be his most active.
Throughout the 1952 and 1953 season, Equipe Gordini had been one of the larger factory efforts in the World Championship. During the 1952 season, it would, for a short period of time during the season, provide the stiffest competition to Scuderia Ferrari. However, their debut of the new T16 chassis would be met with consistent reliability problems. This would lead drivers, such as Robert Manzon, to totally abandon the team very early on during the 1953 season. This would leave the factory effort without a steady and consistent lineup of drivers though its still had such drivers as Jean Behra and Paul Frere.
Equipe Gordini would often times bring a number of chassis to a race. This would enable Berger, in 1954, to make another appearance in the World Championship. And while he would make an appearance here and there for the Equipe Gordini factory effort, he would also make appearances in races driving under his own name.
The first race of the 1954 season for Berger would be with the Equipe Gordini factory effort and it would be in France. On the 9th of May, Berger would be in Bordeaux preparing for the Bordeaux Grand Prix, a race that lasted 123 laps, or, nearly 188 miles.
Bordeaux was and is known around the world as the capital of the wine industry. The city and its surrounding region draw in visitors from the world over. And during the early 1950s, Berger would be one of the foreigners. Although he had been born near Brussels, Belgium, Berger would be more likely seen in races in France than anywhere else on the European mainland and he would be in Bordeaux preparing to drive for Equipe Gordini.
Capital of the Aquitaine region, Bordeaux was settled by the Celtic tribe, the Bituriges Vivisci, around 300 BC. The city would then come under Roman rule just before the birth of Christ. From then on, Bordeaux would find itself either in the middle, or the object of, constant warfare and upheaval. The city would be plundered after the defeat of Duke Eudes at the Battle of the River Garonne.
Then, after the 12th century, the city regained a place of prominence when Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England. English presence in Bordeaux would be a regular part of life as the Edward, the Black Prince, established the city as a capital after the Battle of Castillon.
The city's place in the middle of the warfare would continue throughout the ages including the city becoming a major base for German U-boats during the Second World War. The base, which was the headquarters for the 12th U-boat Flotilla, which would take part in the Battle of the Atlantic along with some Italian U-boats also anchored at Bordeaux.
Fittingly, the grand prix circuit upon which Berger and a number of international drivers would compete would include a portion of the street circuit wrapping around the Place des Quinconces. The Place des Quiconces is a large city square that features some truly exquisite statues, pillars and sculptures all meant to remind its French citizens of its peoples' abilities and what is truly possible.
Coming into the race, Berger's hopes for a possible good result would certainly depend a lot upon the competition. Berger would have to face a couple of entries from Scuderia Ferrari driven by the Argentinean Jose Froilan Gonzalez and a Frenchman Maurice Trintignant. Besides Scuderia Ferrari, there would also be a Maserati 250Fs entered in the race driven by Stirling Moss.
Facing such talent, it would be expected Berger would not start the race from the best position possible, and this would be the case. Maurice Trintignant would prove to be the fastest in practice setting a lap time of one minute and twenty-one seconds around the 1.53 mile circuit. He would have the pole but would have some potent company on the front row with him. Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Trintignant's Ferrari teammate, would start the race from 2nd place on the grid after being just three-tenths of a second slower than Trintignant. The final position on the three-wide front row would go to Jean Behra. His fastest lap in practice would be eight-tenths of a second slower and would lead to a 3rd place starting position.
Georges Berger would find himself with a great challenge ahead after the results from practice. Berger's best lap in practice would be a lap time of one minute and twenty-nine seconds. Actually, he would end up being just a tenth faster than a one minute and thirty second lap. Being eight seconds slower than Trintignant's pole effort, Berger would start the race from the fifth, and last, row of the grid.
The day of the race would be wet. This would separate the good from the great drivers. And at the start of the race, it would be Moss leading the way with Jean Behra and Elie Bayol battling with him. Gonzalez would get off the line a little slow but would be right there with Moss and the others. Trintignant, the pole-sitter, would be somewhat left behind as the spray kicked up off the wheels of the four at the front. Further back, Berger would work his way through the traffic trying to keep under control in the wet conditions.
Even though the race was but a few laps old, trouble started to visit a number of the competitors. Peter Whitehead would be out of the race after just 4 laps because of engine failure. Five laps later, Louis Rosier would be out, also because of engine failure. Rosier's failure would help Berger to move up the running order. Of course, starting from the last row of the grid meant just about every early retirement of any other driver would help Berger.
Berger's forward movement would continue as Harry Schell would burn out his clutch after 16 laps. Prince Bira would retire with a problem with his Maserati's oil system after 44 laps. However, one of the biggest shake-ups in the race would come after 34 laps when Jean Behra's gearbox failed. Not only would this further move Berger up the order, but it would help to change the complexion of the race on a whole.
Moss began to fade. Elie Bayol had already begun to slip backward from the front of the field. This opened the door back up to the Scuderia Ferrari team. Gonzalez would soon find himself up at the front of the field pretty much lapping the circuit all by himself. Robert Manzon, driving a Ferrari 625 for Equipe Rosier, would fight his way past Trintignant and would be in 2nd place. Berger would be well back of Gonzalez. In fact, with about 20 laps remaining in the race, Berger had already come to be lapped by Gonzalez about seven times. However, he was still running steadily and had managed to use the attrition to move up the running order.
Gonzalez would be on cruise control after already setting the fastest lap of the race. He knew he was in control and would carry on to the victory completing the 123 laps in three hours, five minutes and fifty-five seconds. At an average speed of more than 60 mph, Gonzalez would enjoy more than a forty-five second advantage over Manzon who would cross the line to finish 2nd. Manzon would have nearly twenty seconds in hand over Trintignant, the race's pole-sitter, who would finish in 3rd place. And although he would end up 13 laps down, Georges Berger would complete the race and would finish in the 7th position.
While by no means one of the front-runners, Berger's season had started off well. He had made it through the rain to finish in the top ten. This would be a good result and a great opportunity to build some momentum before the Belgian's next race.
Georges Berger's next race, at least in Formula One grand prix racing, wouldn't be for another two months after his 7th place result at Bordeaux. However, his next race would be the most important one of the season for Berger. Although he had been born just outside of Brussels, Belgium and the Belgian Grand Prix, the third round of the World Championship, would take place toward the end of June, Berger would not take part in that race. Instead, he would wait until the fourth round of the Formula One World Championship, which in 1954 would be the French Grand Prix. The French Grand Prix, which would take place on the 4th of July, would take place at the familiar Reims Circuit.
The 1953 French Grand Prix had been an absolute classic. Many spectators had come the following year hoping for more of the same. However, there would be very little that would be the same for the 1954 edition of the race.
Georges Berger would come to the race driving the same Gordini T16 chassis he had used at the Bordeaux Grand Prix. However, he would not enter the race as a driver for Equipe Gordini. Instead, he would enter the race under his own name.
Berger would be facing off against no less than seven Maserati 250Fs. Scuderia Ferrari would come to the race with three cars and it could have been four had it not been for Giuseppe Farina being injured. However, the most noise coming into the race would be generated by Mercedes-Benz and their return to grand prix racing.
Juan Manuel Fangio had driven for the Maserati factory through the first couple of rounds of the World Championship and enjoyed two-straight victories. However, he would arrive at Reims with Mercedes-Benz driving their sleek new W196. Mercedes-Benz would come with three W196s and were certain to pose the greatest threat to everybody in the field. It would be shades of the old silver arrows too as the pre-war ace Hans Herrmann would be at the wheel of the third W196 entered by the team.
Reims would end up being the perfect site for Mercedes-Benz to make its debut of the W196. The long straights would allow the sleek design to really push the capable top speeds of the car. The new configuration of the circuit really played to the strengths of the car's design.
The 1953 edition of the French Grand Prix would see the World Championship compete on a new 5.15 mile configuration that would feature fast, sweeping bends like Annie Bousquet and Hovette. It would also include a much longer Route Nationale 31 straight, made so, because of the sweeping bends that eventually came to a tight hairpin turn known as Muizon. 1954 would see the circuit changed, but only very slightly. The Thillois hairpin would now feature a much more rounded corner instead of a sharp, tight hairpin. This would be the only change to the circuit.
Situated in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, Reims would have a prominent place throughout history. Not only would it serve as a site for the crowning of kings, but it would also serve as a site for surrender as in the case when General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of Germany in May of 1945.
But not all of Reim's places in history have to do with warfare. Reims would host the first international aviation meet and would host such early aviation pioneers as Glenn Curtiss, Louis Bleriot and Louis Paulhan. It would be fitting then, after World War II, that Reims would become the site of France's grand prix as part of the newly formed World Championship.
In practice, the speed of the new Mercedes-Benz chassis would be impressive. Juan Manuel Fangio would end up setting the fastest lap time with a pace of two minutes and twenty-nine seconds around the 5.15 mile circuit. One second would be the difference between Fangio and his teammate Karl Kling starting from the 2nd place position. Alberto Ascari, who was no longer with Ferrari after a falling out with Enzo Ferrari, would end up occupying the final position on the front row after recording a lap time just one-tenth of a second slower than Kling in a Maserati 250F.
Berger would barely be able to see the front row from where he started the 61 lap race. The best Berger could do would only end up earning him a 20th place starting position. This placed him on the ninth row of a ten row grid.
Heading into the race, the crowd expected another spirited battle. The weather would feature a mixture of sun and clouds but the conditions would certainly be prime for a battle between Fangio and Ascari.
As the field roared away with the big streamlined cars leading the way, the expected battle between Fangio and Ascari would be short-lived as Ascari's race would come to an end after just one lap due to transmission ailments. This would leave the two Mercedes-Benz out front with nobody to battle except themselves.
Fangio and Kling would pull away from the rest of the field. Mike Hawthorn, the surprise winner the year before, would be left to kind of lead the rest of the field while battling with Onofre Marimon. Berger would be mired down in the pack and would be just concerned with staying out of trouble. However, while he would stay out of trouble, his car would give him all the trouble he needed.
Hawthorn and Marimon continued a spirited duel but after just 9 laps, Hawthorn's engine would let go taking the defending champion out of the race. Perhaps unnoticed because of Hawthorn's retirement would be Berger's exit from the race. Valve problems would force the Belgian out of the race on the very same lap. Berger had decided not to enter his home grand prix believing perhaps be would have greater fortune at the French round. It would have greater fortune, just not enough. When Berger retired from the French Grand Prix after 9 laps he had managed to complete 10 more miles than that which he had at the Belgian Grand Prix the season before.
All of the major players from the incredible 1953 race were falling to the wayside. Jose Froilan Gonzalez, who had streaked ahead at the start of the race the previous year, would last just 13 laps before his engine would let go. Onofre Marimon's race would last until lap 28 when his engine would also expire. All of the attrition meant that just Luigi Villoresi remained from the top six of a year ago, and he certainly was not in the running this time around.
There was one from the 1953 race that was still running. In fact, he was absolutely dominating everyone except his teammate. Juan Manuel Fangio was the runner-up in 1953, but it certainly appeared he wasn't going to play second-fiddle to anybody.
After Hans Herrmann retired from the race, there really was nobody left capable of touching the pace of Fangio and Kling. The two were all alone. In fact, before the race would finish, 3rd place and on down through those still running would be at least a lap down.
Having more than a lap in hand over Robert Manzon, who had virtually just taken over 3rd place after everybody else retired, Fangio and Kling had an opportunity for a Le Mans-style photo-op finish. The two would line up abreast coming down the front straight. As they began to come up the rise to the finish, Fangio remained ahead of Kling by literally nothing more than a nose. The two Mercedes-Benz W196s would cross the line to complete a dominating one-two finish. All throughout the nearly two hours and forty-three minutes of racing the two ran nose-to-tail. Fangio would end up taking the victory over Kling by only a tenth of a second. The only other actual battle left after fifteen retired from the race would be the battle for 3rd place. Although both were more than a lap down, Manzon and Prince Bira would be locked in a duel that would go right down to the very end. And in the end, Manzon would manage to hold on over Bira by just a second.
The French Grand Prix had been another disappointing attempt at the World Championship for Berger. After battling and completing 168 miles at the Bordeaux Grand Prix, Berger's World Championship experience in 1954 would come to an end after just a little more than 46 miles. In total, over the course of two World Championship races, Berger had only managed to complete close to 75 miles out of a possible 630. Frustration over such stats would cause Berger to, more-conscientiously, begin to look to other forms of racing besides single-seater grand prix cars.
Although it was certain that Berger was going to move on to other forms of motor racing, he would still take part in another grand prix race before the end of the 1954 season. His final race of the 1954 season would actually come the following week after the bitterly disappointing French Grand Prix. On the 11th of July, Georges Berger would be in Rouen preparing to take part in what was to be the 4th Grand Prix de Rouen-les-Essarts.
The Grand Prix de Rouen-les-Essarts would be, in essence, a do-over of the French Grand Prix for Berger. Rouen-les-Essarts had been the site of the French Grand Prix for the 1952 season and it certainly fit his Gordini T16 much more neatly than did Reims. Where Reims was all about power, Rouen-les-Essarts was all about handling and acceleration.
Situated near the banks of the Seine River, Grand-Couronne and the Foret du Rouvray provide a scenic and picturesque setting for a grand prix road course. Recognized as one of Europe's finest when it came into existence, the Rouen-les-Essarts was essentially a public road course. Utilizing public roads running in the heavily-wooded hills surrounding the Seine, the Rouen-les-Essarts Circuit was certainly unlike Reims. In no way flat, the circuit rose and fell with the rolling hills and provided memorable places from which to view the action. Watching cars sweeping their way on down to the famous Nouveau Monde hairpin, the circuit then began a steep ascent through the sharp left-hander at Sanson and on to Gresil. Measuring 3.17 miles the Rouen-les-Essarts circuit was a favorite of drivers, teams and spectators alike. It provided a feel of the old grand prix, as well as, a feel of the modern. This is why Rouen-les-Essarts would be considered as one of the classic grand prix venues.
Coming into the race, Berger would have an advantage that he didn't have at Reims for the French Grand Prix. For the 95 lap, 301 mile, race, Berger would be back driving for Equipe Gordini. Therefore, he would have the factory effort helping his cause. And he would need it too.
Equipe Gordini would come to the race with four cars. Equipe Rosier would come with two cars. However, Berger's and Equipe Gordini's greatest competition would come from the three Scuderia Ferrari's entered in the field and that were to be driven by Maurice Trintignant, Mike Hawthorn and Jose Froilan Gonzalez. One entrant missing from the race was Roberto Mieres. Mieres' absence from the race wouldn't be any fault of his own. His transporter would end up crashing on the way to the race. Unfortunately, the car would be destroyed in the accident. This meant there would be fifteen cars at the race.
Berger had seen this act before. In practice, Maurice Trintignant would prove to be fastest and would take the pole with a lap time of two minutes and nine seconds. Eight-tenths of a second would be the difference between Trintignant's and Behra's time in his Gordini T16. The final position on the front row would end up going to Mike Hawthorn and his Ferrari. Hawthorn's best time would end up being a second and a half off of Trintignant's pace in practice.
Once again, Berger would be starting a race from the wrong end of the starting grid. In practice, Berger's best effort would come to be two minutes and twenty-three seconds. At over thirteen and a half seconds slower, Berger would start the race from 12th on the grid, which meant he started the race from the fifth row of the grid.
Alan Brown would not start the race. This meant 14 cars would take to the circuit for 95 laps. There would be trouble right at the start of the race when Jean Behra and Mike Hawthorn would be disqualified for receiving push starts after the two drivers ran into trouble. This flurry of events would allow Trintignant to escape with the lead.
Jose Froilan Gonzalez would do his best to track down his teammate but his race would come to an end after just 16 laps when his engine let go in the Ferrari 553. Andre Pilette was about the last of those that qualified in the first couple of rows but his race would come to an end with transmission problems.
All of the problems suffered by the front-runners allowed Trintignant to absolutely disappear with the lead of the race. It would also allow Berger to come up the running order after having started 12th.
Robert Manzon and Louis Rosier would both fade as the race wore on. Roy Salvadori had started the race from 9th place and was finding himself in 3rd place but was a few laps down. The closest to Trintignant would be Prince Bira. Bira had started the race from 8th place but would find himself in 2nd place after all of the attrition. While this was certainly incredible for Bira, there would be little hope of anything more as Trintignant would have him by a lap.
Amazingly, Berger would come up from starting 12th to find himself in 4th place behind Salvadori. If this was to be his last single-seater grand prix race, he certainly looked to be on course to go out in style.
Trintignant would have an incredibly dominant style throughout the 95 lap race. He would set the fastest lap of the race and would complete the victory by finishing the race with an average speed of over 82 mph. Prince Bira would come through to finish the race in 2nd place, albeit a lap down. Five laps would be the difference between Trintignant and Salvadori that would finish in 3rd.
Berger would put together an impressive performance in his final race. While he may not have been able to complete more than a few miles of either of his World Championship races, he would fight hard to finish on the same lap with Salvadori in 4th place. It was a very good way to go out. It certainly would be a highlight for Berger, and it would have been a highlight for a number of drivers for their careers.
Georges Berger would step away from single-seater grand prix racing after the Rouen Grand Prix. Very little would be seen or heard of from Berger throughout the remainder of the 1954 season. He had taken part in some sports car races the season before. However, he would not take part in any sports car races throughout the remainder of the '54 season.
About the only reminder there would be of Berger throughout the remainder of the season would be rather innocuous. The same chassis in which Berger had used in the three races he had taken part would continue to be used throughout the remainder of the season. That would be about it.
Berger would not appear in the upper levels of racing until 1956 when he focused almost entirely on sports car racing. Although he would compete in sports car racing throughout the rest of the 1950s, he would never really achieve any kind of consistent success. Then, Berger would seem to find his stride in sports car races.
It would start in 1960 when he would partner with Willy Mairesse to win the Tour de France Automobile in a Ferrari 250GT. This would be Berger's first victory of any note. But it would get better. Berger and Mairesse would partner for the Tour de France Automobile the following year (1961) and would win again. All of a sudden, a man that was, at best, a top ten driver at any other point in a season just seemed to be unbeatable when taking part in the Tour de France. What's more, Berger wasn't done. Again at the wheel of a Ferrari 250GT, Berger would partner with Lucien Bianchi and would again be victorious. It seemed certain that Berger had hit his stride. What is absolutely amazing to think about is the fact that at no point in his extensive career had Berger ever really achieved anything of note except the 4th at the Grand Prix de Rouen-les-Essarts. And yet, in the Tour de France Autmobile, he would become a dominant force. The Ferrari 250GT would become well remembered for its numerous class victories. And Georges Berger would have a large part in providing three of them.
Then, in 1967, while driving a Porsche 911 in the Marathon de la Route at the Nurburgring, he would crash and would be killed in the accident. He would pass away at the age of just 48.
Although his racing career would span every bit of twenty years, Berger's presence in the Formula One World Championship would be very brief. He would end up being like a number of drivers during the time period that would have the unique honor of having taken part in some World Championship races and be listed amongst select company.