Imola 1989 – Saving Gerhard

Berger’s charred helmet – Photo with thanks to Gerhard Berger

If the life you have created
Has buried you with luxuries out-dated
And you ask what is the purpose
Too weak to claw your way up to the surface

Grant Lee Buffalo, It’s The  Life (1994)

There was something in the air during the spring of 1989. The Ides of March appeared to have been carried over a month to April.

A smattering of frustrated students had first entered Tiananmen Square in protest for more reforms in China; unimpressed UK citizens were introduced to the Poll Tax, ironically launched on 1st April 1989, triggering uproar and ultimately contributing to the end of Thatcherism the following year.

Even now the ripples of that spring reach the shore of today’s headlines. On the 15th April, 96 Liverpool football fans went to watch an FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield and never came back. The wretched and shameful ramifications of the Hillsborough disaster still emerge.

Set to the soundtrack of The Stone Roses era defining debut album, which was released that spring, these decade characterising events were playing out in a final dramatic year of the 80s.

As the F1 circus arrived at Imola for the second round of the ‘89 season, an abstract landscape for the 1990s was about to be ploughed, elicited by a horrific accident that befell Gerhard Berger and one that was witnessed live by millions of horrified television viewers.

The accident

Race day dawned bright and warm; a light breeze blew brittle dandelion wisps around the scenic municipal park in Imola. The Tifosi, bloated on the false miracle of Mansell’s astonishing Rio success four weeks earlier, had packed the place out. Heady atmosphere crackled.

24 hours earlier Berger had hustled his Ferrari 640 to 5th place on the starting grid behind Riccardo Patrese’s Williams Renault. Ahead lays Mansell in 3rd with the two McLaren Honda’s of Prost and Senna on the front row.

In qualifying Berger had looked ragged. His top spot from the wet Friday practice meant nothing when Saturday dawned dry and he started 5th on the grid. He had squeezed everything from his Ferrari 640 that Saturday, riding the kerbs at Acque Minerale and the final Variante Bassa chicanes, finding some time there despite the front wing taking a battering. He would do the same in the race to try and get by Patrese and then hunt down his team mate, hustling his car through ‘the Bassa’ to have a chance of a slipstream in to Tosa. He didn’t get that far.

“I actually don’t remember anything about the race up until the accident,” says Berger. “It is funny how the brain works because I remember every single detail of the accident and impact itself but nothing before. I tried steering…nothing, then I tried braking….nothing. I just said shit….now I brace for impact and just pray.”

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After the force of the shock Berger instantly found himself in the second phase of a nightmarish scenario. With the monocoque broken on the right hand side where the radiator had come through the chassis, his exposed flailing arms and upper torso were showered with litres of AGIP fuel. Then momentary silence and the briefest of pauses. Somewhere between the viaducts of his mind, consciousness was lost. Then came the inferno.

“The next thing I remember is a lot of big pain everywhere and Sid (Watkins) sat on my shoulders trying to get a tube in to my mouth,” recalls Berger. “I was struggling because that is just a normal reflex when you have been unconscious for a few minutes. I don’t remember those moments too well but I do recall trying to understand where I was and what was going on. I can recall the pain and also the smell of fuel which was very strong.”

Already at the accident scene was the primary rapid response vehicle of the medical team headed by Dr Sid Watkins and Dr Domenico Salcito. Salcito was the first to introduce the “Fast Medical Car” concept in Italy, in order get on the crash scene quicker than in an ambulance.

Their car, driven by former sports car driver Mario Casoni, who finished 3rd in the 1972 Le Mans 24 Hours in a Porsche 908, had full priority and authority to enter the circuit during the race, this included above and beyond the Race Director, Roland Bruynseraede.

“We could enter the track at any time if we deemed it necessary, we answered to no one if the circumstances were such,” confirmed Salcito. “We just used the radio to warn everybody about our intervention, and they had to react.”

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The quick actions of Salcito, Watkins and Dr. Baccarini allied to rapid response ensured they were at the scene 35 seconds after the fire was extinguished. The fight to treat Berger then became literal.

“Gerhard remained unconscious for around three minutes, and then he entered a state of psychomotor agitation,” says Salcito. “He was moving so much that we couldn’t remove his helmet, and in the end Dr. Watkins had to sit on him in order to allow us to set his head free. Then we brought him to the Medical Centre with the Ambulance, and we used some sedation to calm him”.

Meanwhile the red flag had flown. Doctors Watkins and Salcito left Berger at the medical centre with remarkably light injuries; second-degree burns to his hands (from where the inside seam of his gloves had melted) a bruised collar bone and a cracked rib. Outside there was chaos as media and Ferrari team members, among them a concerned Mansell, sought news of the Austrian’s condition.

Amid the cauldron was a man alone. Under almost intolerable stress Ferrari team principal, Cesare Fiorio had been the toast of the Tifosi at Rio three weeks before. Now he faced the unimaginable pressure of having to withdraw a Ferrari on home turf. Such was the lack of knowledge as to why Berger had ploughed off the road at a corner where driver error was highly unlikely and now an impossible decision had to be made.

The Pressure: Fiorio’s story

As the number 28 Ferrari 640 had burst in to flames at Tamburello, Cesare Fiorio momentarily stared at the tiny Longines monitor on the pit wall focusing on the unimaginable. He then turned away before wrenching his shades off and trying to quantify at first which of his two cars had crashed.

“On the human side the accident was the toughest moment of the day, but in the following minutes I found myself in the most difficult situation of my career,” remembers 74-year-old Fiorio today. “Obviously the race was red-flagged, the restart set for 20 or so minutes later. The first ten minutes passed quickly while I tried to get some information about Gerhard’s condition. Finally I got into the circuit’s Medical Centre and I saw him there: he was ok, just some light burns on his hands. Now the race was starting in 10 minutes and there was a serious decision to be made.”

“A driving mistake is still possible, that was the case when Piquet had crashed there two years earlier,” says Fiorio. “Still, a technical failure was one of the most probable causes. I had to decide what to do with Mansell’s car, and it wasn’t that easy looking at the full picture.

The first assumption had to be that something had broken on the Ferrari 640. Derek Warwick, a few cars behind Berger at the time of the shunt initially thought that the suspension had failed but no one knew for sure. The TV cameras only caught one angle of the car leaving the circuit and that only focused on the rear. A driving mistake was highly unlikely but…….

“Nigel had won the first race of the season in Brazil, and that meant that he arrived in Imola as the championship leader, in front of our home crowd,” continued Fiorio. “Our cars had performed strongly in qualifying, expectations were high, and so you can imagine that withdrawing the car from the race wasn’t going to be easy. Add the fact that I had arrived at Ferrari just two months earlier and you have to agree that I was in a very difficult position.

“First thing I did was speak to John Barnard, asking him if he had any reason to believe that the crash was caused by a technical failure, and if there was any chance that it could happen again. Unluckily, he didn’t really have an answer. He told me that yes, that could have been the case, but that an in-depth analysis of the wreckage was the only way to be sure. He planned to do that on Monday in Maranello, but as you can understand that was too late for me.”

Minute after minute the restart of the race approached and for Fiorio the tension tested even his enormous experience and poise. In the pit-lane he met Piero Lardi Ferrari, Enzo’s illegitimate son and the company’s vice-president. Fiorio asked Ferrari what he would have done if he was in Fiorio’s shoes: “’You’re the boss, it’s up to you’, that’s what he said,” smiles Fiorio. I answered ‘Thanks for that Piero’.

“At that moment I had this serene realisation that I was completely alone at the helm of Ferrari. Don’t get me wrong, I already knew from Ferrari that I had full authority and control on any department of the racing team. Still, at that moment the loneliness really stood out like never before.”

Looking furiously through data at Fiorio’s insistence was Berger’s engineer, Giorgio Ascanelli. Having joined the race team as race engineer for the Austrian at the previous year’s emotional Italian Grand Prix, the young and relatively inexperienced Ascanelli was now at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

“I remember that there was shock everywhere but still you have to remain as professional as you can be, “remembers Ascanelli. “I was with Cesare on the pit wall when the accident happened and we just could not believe what we were seeing. Then it was a case of trying to find anything from the data we had to see if it could have a common issue for Mansell’s car. With so little time it was almost impossible, telemetry in 1989 was still quite basic.”

While Fiorio adjusted his mind to an almost unprecedented series of events, Mansell was on the grid, sitting behind the wheel, staring straight ahead, ready to go.

“In such a situation you never want to speak to the driver, his view will always be biased. Starting the race is the only thing he’ll be interested in,” recalls Fiorio. “I made my move and said to Nigel. ‘You are going to start the race, but before the end of lap 1 you slow down, raise your hand and crawl back into the pits, pretending there’s some issue with the car’. ‘No way’ was the first answer I got, but I immediately made my point clear, the decision had been made.

As Fiorio walked away from the remaining Ferrari, Mansell muttered something and tempers became frayed. As ever, Mansell did things ‘his way’ and the Tifosi’s new hero pushed on.

“Instead of coming in at the end of the first lap, Nigel took his time and did it after 23 laps, pulling off and retiring the car. We told the press that there was a gearbox issue and our race was over,” confirms Fiorio.

The release valve had dissipated some intense energy and tension in the Ferrari pit. The moment of truth came at Maranello on Monday morning when Fiorio, Barnard and the engineers inspected the destroyed 640.

“Can you imagine what would have happened if the post-accident analysis had shown that the car wasn’t to blame?” ponders Fiorio. “I’ll tell you that under the pressure from all of Italy it wasn’t too far from committing suicide!”

Berger’s aggressive driving (over the kerbs) certainly contributed to the accident. Barnard found out that the accident’s primary cause was some design weakness in the front wing that the Maranello quality inspectors had not picked up.  Ironically two weeks later in practice at Monaco Mansell suffered a similar failure at Massenet. Barnard decided to make further changes to prevent the failure from happening again.

The ‘Lions of Imola’ speak!

“We’re no heroes”. Paolo Verdi and Bruno Miniati nod while Gabriele Vivoli, the first man to arrive at the crash scene and the one who played the major role in putting out the fire, makes his point. “We were just doing our job, and any other CEA volunteer would have been able, equipped and prepared to carry it out as efficiently as we did”.

The Lions of Imola! Miniati, Verdi and Vivoli. Photo by Filippo Zanier
The Lions of Imola! Miniati, Verdi and Vivoli. Photo by Filippo Zanier

As much as CEA’s records prove that this is true, it was they who ran from their post to the Tamburello corner on that day, and in so doing they saved Gerhard Berger’s life.

Today the trio still lives in Borgo San Lorenzo, a little town 25 miles north of Florence, in the backyard of one of Italy’s most beautiful racetracks, Mugello. Of the three, only 65-year-old Verdi still works with Squadra Corse, CEA’s quick intervention team. At 70 Miniati has just reached the age limit for active service while Vivoli, the youngest of the trio, at 60, decided to stop in 1994.

“The force of the impact is the most striking memory for me” recalls Miniati. Verdi immediately provides backup to the shuddering memory. “As the car went off I was mostly disappointed as it was so obviously a Ferrari. But as soon as it disintegrated against the wall it didn’t matter anymore, it was just a person inside a car needing our help, and needing it fast.”

“At that time it was already some years that the three of us had been working together, and at Imola our standard post was 3C, just after Tamburello,” remembers Vivoli.  “We had a consolidated intervention strategy not to get in each other’s way. Being the stronger guy, Miniati was in charge of the ‘carrellone’, the big trolley carrying a 100-litre extinguisher equipped with a 25-meter long hose. Paolo and I, we were younger and quicker and so our brief was to run towards the car with portable extinguishers. That was our usual plan, and that’s exactly what we did the day Berger crashed.”

The distance between the site of the crash and gate 3C was later measured at 87 metres, but despite this considerable distance Vivoli started emptying his extinguisher on the fire just 14 seconds after the Ferrari had come to a halt. Verdi arrived a few seconds later.

“I doubt Carl Lewis would have been able to pull that off,” laughs Verdi today. “It is not a bad time considering we were carrying an eight-kilo extinguisher and that our protective gear impaired our movement.

“The real reason why we got there so quickly,” Verdi continues, “was because we started moving way before the car caught fire, right after it crashed into the wall. Given the severity of the impact and the fact that it happened on lap three, with a full fuel tank, we knew that flames were a very likely outcome.”

Being the first to arrive at the crash site, Vivoli faced a scene from hell: “Flames were so high that tifosi who had climbed on top of the advertising board to see the race felt the urge to jump into the Santerno river, meters below. The car was completely engulfed in flames, to the point that I couldn’t see which way it was facing. I stepped into the fire spraying my extinguisher, and as flames started to fade I could see Berger’s position. I clearly remember seeing heat bubbles forming on his helmet”.

As his duty was to manage the larger extinguisher, Miniati saw the events unfold from a different perspective: “I saw Gabriele and Paolo run towards the car while it was still spinning, then it stopped and in no time it was on fire. As it was too far away to be reached with the 25-meter hose I had available, I grabbed another hand extinguisher and I started running too. Once the fire was out the extrication team arrived in the Medical Car and dragged Berger out of the chassis really quickly. That was important too because even after the fire, the temperature inside the wreckage was still extremely high, enough to slowly ‘cook’ the driver.”

Miniati's bravery medal from Imola 89 presented to LoF - Photo by Filippo Zanier
Miniati’s bravery medal from Imola 89 presented to LoF – Photo by Filippo Zanier

“What’s quite amazing.” says Vivoli, “is that three extinguishers alone were enough to put out a 190-litre fire. That wasn’t sheer luck, trust me. CEA had asked for a supply of actual F1 fuel in order to test different chemicals and that definitely made the difference, we had the best possible gear to take on that fire. Still, I believe that luck helped us a little too: extensive damage to the fuel tank meant that the vast majority of the fuel had spilled out, removing the risk of an explosion. Furthermore, even when you’re prepared as we were a valve can fail, a handle can break or you can stumble, we’ve seen that happen. A lot can go wrong, but it didn’t”. 

Vivoli feels that if none of them were hurt that day, it was thanks to CEA’s attention to their crews’ safety: “I jumped into the fire and I emerged without a single scratch. We were equipped with latest-generation fireproof suits, and they worked well”.

That hadn’t always been the case. In the early days, for example at the time of Ronnie Peterson’s fire in Monza, CEA men used to wear what they had at home. Usually it was jeans and leather boots!

Despite wearing the best protection in the business, Vivoli risked putting himself into trouble. His wingman, Verdi confirms: “In the heat of the action he forgot to lower his helmet visor, hence being even more exposed to smoke and fumes. After putting out the fire his face was pitch black”.

“That’s true, I inhaled even more of that stuff than Berger did.  And there’s one more thing I remember clearly, as if it had just happened,” says an emotional Vivoli. “When everything was over a woman from the public who was carrying a child kindly offered me a carton of milk, saying that drinking it was the best thing to do after breathing in god knows what. I did, and it felt so good.”

“We were given a medal from Imola’s municipality and one from the Italian Automobile Club, the latter in Bologna,” says Verdi. “The ceremony actually took place at the city stadium just before a football match, Bologna vs Inter Milan. We entered the pitch together with the players, it was quite an emotional moment, especially for Gabriele as he’s a huge Inter fanatic”.

The trio also met Berger several times, even getting to have lunch with him at the Cavallino restaurant in Maranello. But the memory they cherish most was when just the three of them were invited to Austria for a TV special.

“When our duties at the TV studio were over we had dinner with some of the Berger family, and it was a fun evening,” recalls Vivoli. “Gerhard presented us with some gifts and got us all very drunk!”

The Butterfly Effect of Imola 89

If’s, but’s and maybe’s abound in F1 folklore but in the case of Imola 1989 there is a genuine rationale for believing that Berger’s accident kick started a chain reaction that shaped F1 for the early part of the following decade and possibly even beyond.

The accident occurred on the 4th lap of the race; at the time of the red flag Senna led Prost from pole position. A big lock-up of his brakes going in to Tosa saw the briefest of opportunities open for Prost, but the professor declined a move.

The re-start was very different. Senna got bogged down ever so slightly and Prost was immediately through and in to the lead. As Prost chose his optimum line in to Tosa, Senna dived for the inside, and even moved over to get a decent trajectory around the tight lefthander. Surprised, Prost was forced to widen his line to avoid contact. Thus was broken a pre-event agreement, ironically that whoever led in to the first corner should hold station for the opening lap.

Rattled and fuming, Prost’s race unravelled as quickly as his respect for Senna’s word. An un-characteristic spin at Bassa ensured that he finished the race forty seconds adrift of Senna. Prost stepped from his MP4/5, spoke briefly with Ron Dennis and then left the circuit, forsaking the post-race press conference.

From there on Prost and Senna barely spoke and the Frenchman realised he had to leave the team that he had spent 60% of his career with and won two titles for. He instructed his advisors to test the waters at Maranello and at Monaco on the Friday ‘rest day’, the first of a series of tentative approaches was made. By the French Grand Prix six weeks later he announced he was out of Woking and then on Friday 25th August at Spa the inevitable three-year deal with Ferrari was signed.

Could Prost and Senna have co-existed for another season at McLaren, even if the Berger incident had not taken place? Probably not. The seismic shifting of two tectonic F1 heavyweights was always going to happen. Indeed it had almost taken place at the Portuguese Grand Prix the previous year when Senna almost had his nemesis in the pit wall at approaching 200mph.

For Berger, a necessary change was made in his driving and outlook on what being a racing driver now meant as he thought more long-term about his professional future, one that would see him take Prost’s place at McLaren-Honda for 1990.

“I think Gerhard was a different driver for sure after the accident,” suggests Ascanelli. “He was not really much slower or less committed but just in a more level and balanced way. He thought more about what he was doing and how he could minimise unnecessary risk. I think it helped him in some ways but took away some edge in other areas.”

 “I got a big wake-up call from my accident at Imola and realised that I could do myself some serious damage,” admits Berger. “From Imola onwards I was a different driver for sure. Not slower or less competitive, just different. I knew where the boundaries and limits were and I knew I had to respect them more. The risk-factor became more visible for me as a driver after Imola, that is for sure and I listened to the warning it gave me.

“There is a big difference when you have an accident when you make a mistake, get out and think ‘well, I screwed up’. But it is totally different to be in a car where you are on edge a little thinking something might break. It was like this for me in 1993 with the active Ferrari. It was like you see in America with the cowboys on those crazy bulls getting flipped around. Fucking crazy!”

As with most earthquakes, there are aftershocks. Five years after Imola 89, as Berger rounded Tamburello on lap two of the re-started San Marino Grand Prix, he saw the wavering shadows of Imola rise once again. After avoiding the wreckage of Senna’s leading Williams, Berger glanced in his mirrors. Speaking today he recalls one of his immediate memories that intertwined the two events.

“You know, Ayrton and I were at Imola sometime later in 1989 after my accident. We went to look at Tamburello because we both had concerns about the closeness of the wall. We went behind it and looked to see how it could be moved back but there is a river there and we just said, ‘Oh well never mind, nothing to be done here.’ How stupid we didn’t think about a chicane or another corner before it…..how stupid!”

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