Former Grand Prix driver Éric Bernard – who only drove for teams whose names began with the letter ‘L’ – is celebrating his 48th birthday today!
The Frenchman completed a total of 45 World Championship starts for the Larrousse, Ligier and Lotus teams between 1989 and 1994, with a best finish of third at the high-attrition German Grand Prix in his final season with Ligier.
Hailing from the south of France, Bernard was inspired to pursue motorsport after watching his hero Alain Prost’s success in the field. Bernard started karting in 1976, and in the following seven years he had picked up four French titles.
He attended the Paul Ricard based Winfield Racing School in 1983, and was one of the finalists at the Volant Elf competition that autumn, beating the likes of Jean Alesi and Bertrand Gachot to win a fully-sponsored drive in Formula Renault for 1984.
He finished sixth in the championship in his debut season, but won the title the following year and moved to French Formula 3 in 1986 with the Winfield works team. Taking fifth in his first season, he was a race-winner the following year and this time finished runner-up to Alesi in the championship.
After impressive showings in Formula 3000, he was drafted into the Larrousse F1 squad at the 1989 French Grand Prix, replacing Yannick Dalmas who was afflicted with a bout of Legionnaires Disease. Running as high as fifth at one point, he looked on course for an impressive seventh on debut (coincidentally, at the same race where his old mate Alesi took fourth in his first F1 outing with Tyrrell) until his engine failed with just three laps to go. He stood in at the next round at Silverstone, before returning to F3000 with the DAMS squad.
His efforts saw him rewarded with a full-time drive with the team in 1990, where he took his first championship point by finishing sixth at Monaco, and picking up a brilliant fourth at the British Grand Prix.
He stayed on with the team for the 1991 season, but the outfit was in dire straits, losing sponsors and its Lamborghini engine supply in addition to being stripped of its 1990 points for failing to declare that it hadn’t actually built its chassis for that season (Lola had done the honours).
Reliability was woeful, and the team’s cars saw the chequered flag just twice all season, picking up a point on each occasion – Bernard’s occurred with a run to sixth at the Mexican Grand Prix. As the season wore on, he progressively slipped further down the field, failing to qualify for the Italian Grand Prix. A practice huge accident at 130R corner for the Japanese Grand Prix broke Bernard’s leg, and when complications set in, he was ruled out for the 1992 season.
Once recovered, he signed on with Ligier as the team’s test driver, and his loyalty was eventually repaid with a promotion to the race team for the 1994 season alongside Olivier Panis. Like was the case in 1991 with Larrousse, this time it was Ligier who was in the financial mire and forced to run with an updated version of its 1993 chassis that masked the potential of its Renault V10 engine.
Largely outpaced by Panis, he and his compatriot peaked with lucky podium finishes in Germany, having managed to survive the 14-car first-corner shunt without damage. By the European Grand Prix, Bernard was shuffled across to Lotus – which was also mired in debts – and replaced at the very next outing by Mika Salo. It would be his final F1 fling.
Linked with a return to Larrousse for 1995, the team folded during the off-season, and Bernard moved to sports cars where he enjoyed success in GT and ALMS racing.
Today he serves – along with his old F1 team-mate Panis as part of the management pairing looking after Marussia F1 rookie Charles Pic – Bernard is the young driver’s godfather.
[Images via ASAG, Enter F1, F1-Facts, Flickr, Flickriver, SPEEDTV]