TeamsGeorges Berger: 1953 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
During the golden era, and in the years after World War II, grand prix racing was very much a very patriotic affair. Constructor nations had their own colors to identify themselves with the spectators. And often times, drivers would only compete in races with teams and in races that were part of their home nation.
Stirling Moss was noted for his patriotic stubbornness and would end up driving British chassis that were no match for some of the cars coming from Italy. Georges Berger wasn't as patriotic when it came to what he would drive. Being from Molenbeek Saint-Jean, near Brussels, Belgium, Berger had little to no options. And while the roots of his chariots may not have been all that Belgian yellow, the races in which he would compete would not extend too far outside the 11,787 square miles of Belgian countryside, cities, forests and hills.
Berger's first race would come in the Les Rues de Chimay sportscar race in May of 1947. He would take part in at least one race each year until 1950. Then, in 1950, Berger would take part in four Formula 2 non-championship races. His best result of these four would be the first. The race was again the Les Rues de Chimay race, but for Formula 2. In that race he would take his Jicey BWM and would finish a splendid 3rd.
A talented driver, Berger usually suffered in performance because of ailing equipment. And though talented, he was never considered one of the elite drivers. However, he certainly had the ability, if everything came together, to pull out a top three finish, even a victory.
Given the costs associated with grand prix racing, even for Formula 2, Berger wouldn't take part in any more than a couple of races a year, and under his own name. He, like so many other privateer and small teams, would have the opportunity presented to him of being able to take part in the World Championship when the governing-body decided to switch, for the interim, to Formula 2 regulations for the 1952 and 1953 seasons. While Berger had the opportunity, he knew he needed a better car. And in 1953, Berger would purchase a Gordini T15 to use.
Due to costs, and his patriotic nature, Berger wouldn't compete in a major race in 1953 until the season had well and truly gotten underway. This was because the races took place all over Europe and required a good deal of money to attend. Instead, Berger would wait until Formula 2 came to him.
And at the end of May, the first Formula 2 race to take place on Belgian soil would come. The race was a non-championship event, but it took place at a circuit in which Berger knew quite well and enjoyed. The race was the 23rd Grand Prix des Frontieres and it was held on the 6.71 mile Chimay circuit.
This had been the site of Berger's best finish of his career, his 3rd place results he had earned by in May of 1950. Although that race had taken place four years prior, Berger was still very much a threat at the track he knew right off the top of his head.
The Chimay circuit, like the small town from which it takes its name, was like the town in other ways. Despite its long and storied career, Chimay would never become as large or as important an event as some locations with a lesser history. Situated in the southwestern corner of the small nation, Chimay is just miles from France and a little further away from Luxembourg. Despite the close proximity to other nations, and its long history, Chimay had remained relatively unchanged and quaint. By 1953, Chimay had been holding its Frontieres grand prix for over twenty years, and yet, it seemed as small and as intimate as the first. And while there were other races that were obviously considered more prestigious, the Chimay circuit lacked nothing. In fact, the old Chimay circuit truly belongs in the same class as its more-famous brother, Spa-Francorchamps.
Though much more flat and featureless than Spa-Francorchamps, Chimay didn't lack one thing, and that was speed. Average speeds around the circuit in the early ‘50s would routinely exceed 95 mph and the circuit was a tremendous mixture of long high-speed straights, tight hairpin turns and incredibly fast sweeping corners that required as much bravery and skill as what Eau Rouge, Masta and Stavelot required at Spa.
Though many would consider Chimay to have been in the same class as Spa, a far more critique of the circuit would require looking outside Belgium. Instead, a far more accurate exposition would require looking at the circuits located at either end of an old Roman road. At the northern end of this old road was Chimay. At the southern end rested Reims. Both circuits were situated amidst the countryside just to the west of the towns of which they drew their names. Both were considered high-speed circuits with long straights. Both were flat and rather wide open. And both had incredibly fast corners, of which some featured blind entries and narrow exits. Each circuit had its own character, its own idiosyncrasies that made it very recognizable. For Chimay, the tight La Bouchere hairpin turn was iconic. But perhaps the most iconic portion of the circuit was the sweeping esses that passed by the small Arbrisseau chapel and continued all the way until reaching the final run down to the start/finish line just past Vidal.
This was a circuit Berger knew well. And in practice it would show. From the time World Championship started, Chimay would really begin to lose the big name teams and drivers. There usually were other events held on or around the same date which would pull the larger teams away. However, the circuit was so well known that it would still draw some incredibly talented drivers from outside Belgium. The 1953 edition would be no different. While there would be a number of Belgian drivers entered in the race, there would be at least the same number, if not more, from other nations. Surprisingly, the race would also feature a number of German entries. While this wasn't all that surprising because of geographical reasons it was surprising from a financial standpoint.
In practice for the 20 lap race, one of the foreigners entered in the race, Maurice Trintignant, would prove to be the fastest. His time around the 6.71 mile circuit would be four minutes and eleven seconds and would be faster, by four seconds, than Belgian Johnny Claes' time in a Connaught A-Type.
Berger would have to face chassis other than Connaughts and Gordini T16s. In fact, another Belgian team, Ecurie Francorchamps, would bring their Ferrari 500 to the race. Prince Bira would enter his Maserati A6GCM. Therefore, the race was not going to be an easy affair. But Berger looked to be in good shape after practice as he would manage to start the race from the fourth row in 8th place.
While Berger was going into the race hoping to overcome some of the tough competition in the field, the pole-sitter, Claes, was hoping not to repeat the events of a season ago. Claes had started on the pole in the very same race the year before but would suffer contact on the very first lap with another Belgian driver and would be out of the race. Roger Laurent, the other Belgian involved in the accident, had suffered the unkindest hit of all. He had only received his Ferrari 500 right before practice the day before and wouldn't manage to make it past one lap. Laurent was back with the Ferrari 500, but he would start, this time, from the second row.
The field would make it through the first couple of turns without incident. Claes was still in the race, as was Laurent and Berger. While the start would be clean in many ways, it wouldn't be without its troubles. Rodney Nuckey, Jacques Pollet and Georges Mulnard would all drop out of the race before having completed a single lap due to mechanical troubles of some kind or another. Attrition would continue to strike the field over the next couple of laps. In all, seven, including Prince Bira, would be out of the race after just five laps.
Though chased by Laurent in a Ferrari 500, Trintignant was putting together an impressive performance in his T16 and would lead the race. With each lap, he would increase his lead. Very soon, an American, Fred Wacker Jr. would join the top three and would do his best to try and track down the Belgian up the road in front of him. Helped by retirements, and his local, knowledge, Berger would continue to move up the running order. While he was unable to come close to matching the pace of the top three, Berger would find himself near the top five toward the later-stages of the race.
Johnny Claes was doing everything he could to stay in touch with Trintignant and Laurent. While he managed to make it through the first lap without incident, Chimay would again bite him in the rear. Pushing hard to stay in the fight, Claes would push a little too hard at one point. Chimay offered little room for error. Claes would make an error and wouldn't have enough room to save himself. Instead, with just 3 laps remaining in the race, he was out of the race. This left Trintignant free to power his way to the victory.
Over the course of the last couple of laps, Trintignant would carefully lap the circuit. He had already posted the fastest lap of the race to give himself an unassailable lead. He therefore knew he just needed to hold on. He would do so. He would cross with more than a minute advantage over Roger Laurent in 2nd place. Fred Wacker Jr. would make it two Gordini T16s in the top three as he would finish in 3rd place two and a half minutes behind Trintignant.
Georges Berger would look impressive in his first major race of the season. He would take the aged T15 chassis and would finish two laps down in 5th place. His 5th place finish would make it three Gordini chassis inside the top five at the finish.
Berger had used his local knowledge and senses to provide himself with a very good start to the 1953 season. Heading into his next, and final, race of the 1953 season, Berger would need every ounce of talent, sense and experience he had as his next race would, for the first time, enter him into the realm of the World Championship.
The 24th of May had been the last race in which Georges Berger had taken part in a major grand prix. Just about one month later, Berger would find himself in one of the biggest races of his life. It was his first-ever World Championship race. Besides being a World Championship race, it was also a race at one of the most demanding and technically challenging circuits in the world. The race was the Belgian Grand Prix, which was held at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit situated in the heart of the Ardennes forest.
Born about nearly equidistant from Chimay and Spa-Francorchamps, Berger had experience with both of Belgium's great circuits. Drawing a line from his home near Brussels to the south the similar circuits of Chimay and Reims lined up. Drawing a similar straight line to the southeast would lineup Spa-Francorchamps and its nearest relative, the Nordschleife at the Nurburgring.
Originally conceived in 1920, Spa would host its first grand prix race in 1925. Almost immediately, the 8.77 mile beast would gain popularity with drivers for its high average speeds. Speeds along the public roads between Spa, Malmedy and Stavelot were routinely much higher than most all of the circuits used before and after World War II. However, with the addition of circuits like Reims, Monza and the Nurburgring, Spa had some company in the speed department. What made Spa so popular, and yet incredibly dangerous and scary was the simple fact it combined the high-speed nature with the elevation changes and blind corners that were so synonymous and dangerous with the Nurburgring. And in the predictable unpredictable weather, Spa became something else entirely. The circuit tested the will with its screams for high speeds, but the wet surface, was ready to take any opportunity and make it truly threatening.
The year before, Alberto Ascari had had a little trouble in the rain but would recover nicely to dominate the rest of the field. Heading into what was the fourth round of the World Championship, the weather promised to be sunny, hot and dry. Of course in the Ardennes, a promise was more akin to a stab in the dark.
Sure enough, the weather over the course of the weekend was hot and dry. In the heat, no one was hotter than Juan Manuel Fangio. Maserati had debuted its new A6SSG 'Interim' model at the Dutch Grand Prix a couple of weeks earlier. The Zandvoort circuit prohibited the true ability of the Maserati to be demonstrated. However, at Spa, the car's ability would become very evident.
Continual refinement of the Maserati engine meant the A6SSG produced as much as 195 bhp. And around the 8.77 miles of ultra-high speed circuit, the power increase separated the Maseratis from the rest of the pack, including the all-conquering Ferrari 500 of Scuderia Ferrari and other teams. With this kind of power, Juan Manuel Fangio would go on to take the pole with a lap time of four minutes and thirty seconds. This time would end up being two seconds clear of Alberto Ascari who would start the race from the middle of the front row in 2nd place. The time would also be two seconds faster than Fangio's Maserati teammate and fellow countryman Jose Froilan Gonzalez.
Being an amateur driver in an aged chassis, Berger was certainly at a disadvantage heading into practice. On a circuit that requires constant efforts of courage and bravery, and a certain feel that really only professional drivers have, Berger's expectations had to be firmly fixed upon his own personal best times and goals and not on the pace of the elite drivers certainly to be a fair bit up the road. Therefore, it was not all that surprising that one of the only gentleman drivers in the field would end up qualifying dead-last for the race with a time almost one and a half minutes slower than Fangio's pole effort.
The hot weather would continue into race day. This would put a lot of strain on the drivers and the cars. And in the case of aged equipment and gentleman drivers with a smaller operating envelope, like Berger, the race was going to be a real test. At least Berger would fare better than Arthur Legat.
As the race got underway, Arthur Legat's transmission would fail him leaving him to leave the race without having completed a single lap. In the oppressive heat, Berger would push himself and his T15 to the limit.
While Berger was straining to keep up at the very end of the field, Juan Manuel Fangio would prepare to put on a show. Right at the very start, he would wave Gonzalez through to lead the race, of which Gonzalez would happily take and would go on to promptly set the fastest lap time of the race on the 2nd lap of the race. He would again match the time on the 3rd, 9th and 11th laps.
Throughout the first couple of laps, Berger would push himself to the point in which he felt safe. In the case of his Gordini T15, even Berger's comfort level would be too much in the heat of the day and after just 3 laps the engine would let go thereby bringing to an end Georges Berger's first experience in a World Championship race.
Gonzalez's incredible pace would end up allowing the Argentinean to pull out a lead of about a minute over his fellow countryman and 1951 World Champion. However, in the heat, such a pace was truly destructive. Berger and Behra would have their engines expire on them. Therefore, Gonzalez would need to be careful. But, immediately after having tied his fastest lap time for the fourth time his engine would also expire. This would hand the lead to Fangio, who enjoyed a lead almost as large as what Gonzalez had over himself.
Although Fangio was well known for his ability to stay cool in oppressively hot conditions, his Maserati A6SSG was something else altogether. And just two laps after Gonzalez's demise, Fangio would also find his engine expire in the heat. Yet again, the fastest would be proven not to be the automatic winner. And although Farina's Ferrari would also suffer from an engine failure, Ascari would take over the lead of the race and would disappear for the remainder of the race.
Ascari would drive a fast but smart race. His Ferrari 500 seemed supercooled as it would go on to cross the line well over a minute ahead of Luigi Villoresi to take what would be its tenth-straight World Championship victory. Luigi Villoresi would make it a Scuderia Ferrari one-two. And despite all of the talk and rumors about Maserati unseating Ferrari's dominance because of its sheer power advantage, Onofre Marimon would bring one of the Officine Alfieri Maserati A6SSGs sheepishly across the line one lap down in 3rd place.
Georges Berger's World Championship lasted as long as an ice cream cone would have in the same conditionsi. He would thoroughly experience the class of car and driver that were coming to dominate the World Championship and that were necessary to be truly last in the series. Like Formula 2, the era of the gentleman driver in the World Championship was quickly waning. Though outclassed, Berger would be yet another that would use his talent to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the organizers to take his small place in World Championship history.
In 1954, evolutions of the Formula 2 cars would live on for just a little while longer in the new Formula One World Championship. And though he was obviously outclassed by the elite teams and drivers of the day, even Georges Berger would live on into the 1954 season. And though very patriotic, Berger would end up his career in the World Championship by throwing his patriotism out the window.