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Gerhard Berger on racing's future: "Fans want to see a car that's a challenge"

It is 30 years since Gerhard Berger was a team-mate in Formula 1 to Ayrton Senna at McLaren and today the Austrian is very active in motorsport as the boss of the DTM. The series has undergone a huge transformation this year, with a change of regulations to GT3. Berger is also overseeing an ambitious programme to create a 1,000 horsepower electric DTM car as one possible avenue for the future.

For this edition of #ThinkingForward, we spoke to the 10-time grand prix winner about his vision for the DTM and what he thinks of the direction of Formula 1.

We start with F1, which is now run by Berger’s former colleague from his Ferrari days, Stefano Domenicali.

“I like Formula 1. It's highly competitive still. But sometimes I see it lost its way a little bit,” says Berger, who highlights the spectacular cars of the 1980s as the benchmark for what F1 should be about.  

As for the stewardship of the series, “Chase [Carey, former F1 CEO] had never really seen Formula 1 before he entered his role. And as an American, it's very difficult to understand the real philosophy and the real things behind our sport. As much as I appreciate him as a manager, it's still not the right choice, because you need somebody understanding this business, who has spent time in this business and being capable then to do what Bernie did for many years.

“So I think Stefano is a much better choice in this way.  But we all know also this specialty that Bernie had, this killing instinct, this way of dealing with different issues. And we have to see if Stefano could follow in a similar way, but I think he has definitely been the right choice for Liberty. And I think he is going to be very good for the sport.”

Gerhard Berger, McLaren

Gerhard Berger, McLaren

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Where Domenicali is plotting the course for F1, Berger is doing the same for the DTM, a series that was rocked by manufacturer departures under the old regulations and needed a hard refresh. For 2021 it will run to GT3 regulations, but Berger insists that the DTM still stands for the same values.

“The DNA of DTM will not change at all, what is changing is the technical regulation,” he says. “Maybe the cars look even better as a GT3 car because it really looks like a Mercedes, a BMW, an Audi, which was missing before. And then the big thing for many years was we should have more brands, manufacturers on our platform. We were dealing always with two or three manufacturers and it was simply not good enough for the fans and for the participants.

“The cars look more spectacular. The fans are going to see car concepts as they know from the road; middle engine, front-engine, rear engine. And the only downside we have to deal with is the Balance Of Performance, but I'm quite sure that we’re going to manage it in a very transparent and good way. And the rest, it's all the same: the same sprint format, the same TV, the same race tracks.

“DTM is not related to a technical regulation. DTM stands for professional race drivers sitting in the cars. So you have the highest level of drivers, you have the best teams. We have a sprint format, so we don't change drivers; most of the other GT series have mixed up drivers, maybe one professional and one who pays.”

Gerhard Berger, ITR Chairman

Gerhard Berger, ITR Chairman

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

One of the biggest challenges any series CEO faces today is to decide what the powertrain of the future will be. F1 and WRC are doubling down on hybrid internal combustion engines and sustainable fuels, many other series are going electric.

“Nobody yet knows where the final drive train technology is going to end up even on a road car,” says Berger. “We have some very clear messages from the politicians, but I am surprised about this big step. We decided to see if we can put together a fully electric racing product, that could be interesting for the fans, but in parallel, we are still holding on to the combustion engine, with biofuels or synthetic fuel and hybrid.”

It is a big decision.  Berger is very clear that the fans need to be the ones to decide how they want the series they love to be powered, but he is equally clear what the starting point is.

“When you go away from the sport, then then you lose. Because you need to be a sport that shows people, drivers, stars, who can manage situations differently than normal human beings. And I think this needs to be the driving force, all the other things come after.

Gerhard Berger, Ferrari 412T2

Gerhard Berger, Ferrari 412T2

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“As a driver, I don't care where the power comes from; is it coming from an electric drivetrain from hydrogen or from a combustion engine? It doesn't matter. What I would like to have as a driver, it's 1,000 horsepower or more, to be challenged. What the fans would like to see is a car that is a challenge, because otherwise, you're not a star.

“What came out was our test car at Hockenheim with 1,200 horsepower four-wheel drive, unbelievably fast and spectacular. So now we're going to build out from this demo car, a prototype car, with this very similar technology, as we showed it already but with a different look. And we hope that then when we bring it in parallel, we are just going to give the fans the choice. And then we will see how the world develops. If you are not putting the fan into the centre it will not work.”

As for the longer-term future, Berger is optimistic that motorsport will have even greater relevance as the car industry undergoes its greatest upheaval in a century.

“I think it’s going to be interesting in the next five years, very much also what the road car industry is going to find as a final solution. Because at the end of the day, there must be a connection between road cars and race cars. And I think maybe once this is clear, then it's going to be again a big possibility for motorsport to be the test bench for these new road car technologies.”

Gerhard Berger, ITR Chairman with Rene Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg

Gerhard Berger, ITR Chairman with Rene Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg

Photo by: ITR eV

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