Allen Berg harboured an unwavering desire to compete in the highest level of motorsport, and became the first Canadian driver to make it to Formula 1 since Gilles Villeneuve.
After great success in the North American junior categories, he ventured over the Atlantic to the UK, and was signed up by Eddie Jordan into the British F3 championship, where he competed admirably against the likes of Ayrton Senna, Martin Brundle and Johnny Dumfries, taking the runners-up position in the championship to Dumfries in 1984.
A mid-season drive with Osella became his in 1986, but it was an enormously difficult introduction to F1 – the cars were miles off the pace, the team was under-resourced and gave Berg absolutely no testing. He was on a hiding to nothing. In 9 starts for the team, his best finish was 12th at the German GP. The cancellation of the 1987 Canadian GP resulted in his sponsorship opportunities evaporating before his eyes, and his F1 dream ground to a halt barely after it had started.
After several seasons of sports cars, Allen moved to the DTM for the 1991 season. Sponsorship opportunities again dried up, and then, of all places, Mexico came knocking with big Marlboro sponsorship and a competitive Formula 2 series in which he could make his mark once and for all. Allen took the F2 title in 1993 and was never ranked outside the top-three in the championship during his time in the series. He switched to the Mexican F3 series in 1995, and again achieved multiple wins.
Allen ventured into the role of driver-owner when he set up his own team in the Formula de las Americas championship, and took an emotional title in 2001, his last season of racing.
He then formed and ran the Scuadra Fortia team in the Toyota Atlantic series for two seasons.
Allen now runs the Allen Berg Racing Schools throughout western Canada, which provides driver instruction and coaching to all clients – amateur and aspiring professionals – who wish to experience the thrill of open-wheeler driving. His driving school offers state-of-the-art cars and equipment, and ranks among the best driving schools worldwide.
Allen graciously accepted an interview request, and over a one-hour conversation he provided a superbly detailed insight into the highs and lows of his motorsport career, in addition to his frank assessment on the current state of F1. I had a wonderful time interviewing Allen, and I offer my sincerest thanks to him for his time and support with this interview.
|Full Name:||Allen Berg|
|Born:||1 August 1961, Vancouver (CAN)|
|First GP:||1986 United States Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||1986 Australian Grand Prix|
|Wins:||0||Best Finish:||12th||Best Qualifying:||25th|
|1981||Canadian Formula Ford Championship, 2nd overall|
|North American Formula Ford Championship, 3rd overall|
|1982||North American Formula Atlantic Winter Pacific Series, 1st overall|
|1983||International Formula Pacific Tasman Championship, Ralt Ford, 1st overall|
|Lady Wigram Trophy, Ralt RT3 Ford, 1st overall|
|British F3 Championship, Trundle/Jordan Ralt RT3, 1 win, 5th overall|
|1984||British F3 Championship, Eddie Jordan Racing Ralt RT3, 2nd overall|
|1985||Mexican Formula K Championship, 3 wins, 2nd overall|
|1986||Formula 1, Osella Alfa Romeo FA1F / FA1G / FA1H, 9 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1990||24 Hours of Le Mans, RLR Porsche 962C, 11th overall with J. Watson & B. Giacomelli|
|1991||DTM, Tauber Motorsport BMW M3, 25th overall|
|1992||Mexican Formula 2 Championship, Marlboro Team Lola, 2nd overall|
|1993||Mexican Formula 2 Championship, Marlboro Team Lola, 1st overall|
|1994||Mexican Formula 2 Championship, Marlboro Team Lola, 2nd overall|
|1995||Mexican Formula 3 Championship, Montana Team, 3rd overall|
|2001||Mexican Indy Lights Championship, Berg-Guerrero Lola, 1st overall|
How did you come to be involved in motorsport?
I used to watch the F1 races on TV whenever I could, but in those days it was broadcast pretty sporadically. My father was a racing fan and used to take me to some different events locally to be able to watch them. When I had the chance to start karting at the age of 15, one thing led to another, I took it more seriously and became more dedicated. A lot of things turned my way, and I’ve ended up being able to make a living out of it for many years.
Did you always harbour ambitions to make it to F1, when many aspiring North American racers would have progressed to the local open-wheelers series, such as IndyCars?
There are many more challenges for a North American trying to break into the European racing scene. The culture, track knowledge, a lot of different things. The competition is higher in Europe and for me, my goal had always been Formula 1. The IndyCar scene back in those days was predominantly on oval circuits, and the level of technology wasn’t really there. They were using 4-year-old Offenhauser engines and so forth, that didn’t interest me. I was only interested in Formula 1, and to get there, you had to look at the career path that a driver needs to take, and that means you needed to be doing some of the mid-level formulae in Europe to be able to cut your teeth, get noticed, and get into F1. It was obvious to me that if I wanted to go to F1, I had to go to Europe.
Growing up, did you have any motorsport idols?
Gilles Villeneuve, of course, I think is Canada’s greatest racing driver ever. I had the chance to meet him one time, and it was incredibly inspiring and humbling. I was in awe meeting my hero. I met him in 1982 at the Long Beach Grand Prix, I was driving in the Formula Atlantic Series in one of the support races. I met him and Alain Prost at the same time, I walked into the garage and somebody introduced me to him. I was so shy, I couldn’t say anything!
You had success in the junior series, winning ‘Rookie of the Year’ honours in the 1982 Formula Atlantic championship. You then you headed to Australia to compete in the Formula Pacific Tasman Championship, winning the Lady Wigram Trophy and the title. Did the racing culture differ between North America and over here?
It was very competitive, there was much more depth and a great following of motorsport compared with North America. It was a fantastic experience for me to be welcomed to New Zealand and run with a New Zealand team at all of these great circuits. I came across to Australia to race at Calder Park, and I remember winning the race by 59 seconds but I was penalised for creeping on the start line because my clutch was slipping!
When I returned to Australia for the 1986 Australian GP in Adelaide it was amazing, because of all the Grand Prix venues, the crowd was by far the most enthusiastic than any of the other Grand Prix venues where I competed.
You ventured to the UK and into the 1983 British F3 championship, landing a ride with Eddie Jordan’s team for the 1984 season. How did you land the drive with EJ, and what was he like in his early days as a team boss?
I landed on his team because the sponsor I was with at another team [Neil Trundle Racing] wasn’t that keen on the results we were achieving. An opening occurred at Jordan and it was a quick transition to his team. I was able to learn a great deal running at Jordan, they were a very professional operation. Eddie was very involved in the team and my driving, and he was crucial in obtaining the sponsorship that we needed. After my first season in F3, I had been sponsored by Grand Prix International Magazine, who typically sponsored different drivers each year. Their sponsorship shifted to a new driver, and it was very difficult to find the sponsorship to continue, and Eddie was instrumental in helping us find the sponsorship to continue in 1984. The team did a tremendous job to make us competitive.
You had two successful years in the British F3 championship, competing (and occasionally triumphing) against luminaries such as Ayrton Senna, Martin Brundle and Johnny Dumfries. How difficult was the competition with these drivers?
We always ran pretty close, but Senna, for the most part, dominated. The top-five would essentially be running similar times, but Senna would just be a little bit quicker. I learned a lot about his driving, which if I’d applied what I saw on the track to my driving in F3, it would have helped me a lot!
At Eddie’s team I had a team-mate in Martin Brundle. He was on the level of Ayrton Senna, in terms of competitiveness, and he was a great benchmark to me to determine where I was at as a driver.
I finished second in the 1984 championship behind Johnny Dumfries. Our Toyota engines were not quite as powerful as the Volkswagen in the back of Dumfries’ car, and we were very restricted in terms of the budget in which to operate. It was always very close, but in Formula 1 it’s a completely different story of course!
You landed a Formula 1 drive in 1986 with Osella. How did you manage to get your foot in the F1 door, so to speak?
I happened to run into one of my F3 sponsors in Toronto, and he quickly became my manager. Even though I was competing in other series, he always knew what was going on F1 because he was the publisher of Grand Prix International Magazine, which was the bible of F1 – distributed around Europe and published in 5 different languages. It was a great magazine, always very positive about F1 and it was always very well accepted by the F1 fraternity.
Your debut occurred at the following weekend’s Detroit GP. Were you offered any advice from any notable pitlane figures?
As I was walking down the pitlane early in the weekend, I bumped into Ken Tyrrell. I’d known Ken for a long time and held talks with him about potentially driving alongside Brundle, but we never got the sponsorship together to be able to do it.
I dearly wanted to be there as I highly admired Ken. Anyway, I was walking down the pitlane, and he said to me, “Allen, the best thing you can do for yourself this weekend is to keep it on the island.”
It was literally a case of stepping straight into the Osella, which had about 850BHP, it was turbocharged, with zero practice, and I was straight out onto a walled circuit with no room for error. It was a daunting task at first, but I got the hang of it. I did very well, and actually ran with my team-mate [Piercarlo Ghinzani] – your team-mate is of course, your best benchmark.
Equipped with an Alfa Romeo turbo engine married to an older chassis and a cockpit that I’ve read was much too big for you, how was the car to drive? It must have been difficult to make an impression in a back-of-the grid car…
It was a three-year-old chassis, with four-year-old engines, and with the progress of F1, you can imagine how that would be competitively. Ghinzani’s chassis was a current-year chassis, and the engines were, on some occasions, similar, but there were a couple of occasions when the team needed to woo a sponsor that they’d put something extra special into his car.
There were times when I was driving very much under instruction by the team to bring the car home undamaged. While an amount of sponsorship was required to sign me on, I honestly thought that becoming a F1 driver would give me the credibility and profile to secure more sponsors out of Canada, but it was still a very difficult prospect about halfway through my tenure with Osella. I had established a fair amount of debt, and they told me to drive under contract: Osella had an agreement with FISA and FOCA to enter all of the Grands Prix and they were limited with the number of driver changes they could make. At the Italian GP, I was temporarily replaced with Alex Caffi because he had a sponsor – it was a one-off deal – but then they put me in the back of the car and allowed me to complete the season because I was doing a good job. Ultimately, we were able to find Labatt and secure them as a sponsor, and we ran the rest of the season and finished on very good terms.
Most of the teams had an understanding of what I was dealing with, and the inner core – what I like to refer to as the engineers and drivers and the team managers up and down the pitlane – had an understanding of the challenges that I faced were aware of that. They would pay attention, I think the Formula 1 fraternity pays closer attention to what’s happening in its inner circle that what they do with other series.
I was respected for the job I was able to do, and at the end of the series, I had about half a dozen opportunities to compete in F1 the following year.
They understood that with the limitations of zero testing, sometimes only being able to do half a dozen practice laps before qualifying, there was little I could do. But with what I had to deal with at the time, it was enough to attract the attention of other teams.
A lot of people forget – when drivers are limited so much in terms of their performance and are running around at the back of the pack – even the driver who run there are extremely talented. That gets lost from time to time, and when I hear some of the commentators making remarks about drivers or teams at the back of the pack – having been there and lived through that – I can tell you that these drivers and teams work harder than the other teams because of their limited resources and that they have to take more risks. Criticism of these guys is unwarranted and unfair, because they’re giving it everything they can.
How did you find the team to work with? What was your relationship like with Enzo Osella and your team-mate, Piercarlo Ghinzani?
It was very good with Piercarlo, because he spoke English. With Enzo, he didn’t speak English; he only spoke Italian and Spanish. I couldn’t speak Italian, and we would communicate in my pidgin Spanish. The funny story is that the engineer I worked with spoke Italian and English, and during driver debriefs it would be Enzo, my engineer and I. Sometimes, Enzo would ask me a question in Spanish, and I would do my best to answer him in Spanish, but then the engineer couldn’t understand. So then the engineer and I would talk in English, and then Enzo couldn’t understand! Nonetheless, we had a very good relationship.
Would your F1 career have continued beyond 1986 had there been a Canadian GP on the calendar in 1987?
The next year, there were changes in the regulations where teams had to pay Goodyear for their tyres. Osella wanted to have me back, but they needed sponsorship.
What had happened in Canada was that Labatt was the long-term sponsor of the Canadian GP, however [rival brewery] Molson had signed an agreement with the circuit to be able to operate the Grand Prix. Labatt had the deal with FOCA to host the event, but because of the conflict stemming from these two separate agreements, the race was cancelled.
Labatt – who were in the midst of negotiating with about three midfield teams for me – then dropped out and there was no interest on their part to continue in Formula 1 because there was no Canadian GP in 1987.
You ventured to the DTM and competed in a Tic-Tac-sponsored Tauber BMW in 1991, then an extremely competitive series. How was it to compete in that series, particularly in tin-tops?
That was a great time. I went over to do other business at Hockenheim and I saw the DTM cars running there. I thought it was great. It was like Formula 1 in terms of the level of technology and the level of talent.
The fellow that I was working with at the time was able to open some doors for me and we were able to join a privateer team for about three-quarters of the season. It was a great experience.
There was a disparity in the equipment due to the privateer teams not having the same level of technology as the factory outfits, we were essentially a customer team. Against the other privateer teams, we beat them, generally. We were also competitive against some of the other factory outfits. It was a really good experience to do that, I gained a lot of respect for touring car drivers, who are extremely good specialists in their own regard.
A switch to the Mexican racing scene might seem like an odd career move to an outsider. But it was a perfect marriage for you and you achieved great success over the years. What attracted you to race in Mexico?
There was an economic slowdown happening in Germany at the time, and the actual DTM field dropped by about 50% at the end of the season. The Tauber team was having troubles securing sponsorship, and they weren’t able to offer me a contract. I was invited by the Marlboro Team to come to Mexico and have a look at things down there. The racing was very popular. All of the teams were sponsored by brand names, airlines, breweries, cigarette companies and the like. All of these corporations were heavily involved, in sponsorship and promotion. They made me a very attractive offer to come down and race there, and it was hard to say no. It was great opportunity and I planned to be there for just a couple of seasons, but I ended up staying there for quite awhile, meeting my wife there too.
You later made the transition from driver to team owner. Many ex-drivers do not necessarily make the best team owners; what are your tips for success as a team boss?
Firstly, start with a big bag of dough and be prepared to end up with a very small bag of dough! When we were running in Mexico, I’d run with a number of different teams and sponsors, and was able to see first-hand where things could be done well that weren’t. When I had the opportunity to get involved as an owner, we were able to field a team of four drivers and I was surprised at the level of competitiveness we were able to achieve by doing the right preparation on the cars. I treated myself as the last priority of the drivers in the line-up, but I was still able to do well, I think, because my approach to it changed as the owner due to being concerned about the costs involve3d if I damaged one of our cars. I was conscious of when to take risks, and when to avoid them. It was my best season, winning 5 of the 9 nine races. In my last race, I started fifth, and won the race, clinching the team and driver’s championship, and retired on the podium. I vowed never to race a car again.
As I was going through this, there was a lot of pressure running the team, coaching the drivers and trying to race as a driver. I might have continued racing longer, but there was so many things to keep an eye on and I decided that I would rather pursue team management and decided to retire if I won the championship. For me, there is more to life than driving a race car.
We moved to the Toyota Atlantic championship, and found it cost much more to run the operation. The regulations were much more open, and the top teams benefited from having the resources to go testing. We ran very respectably in our first season, and we made a major effort to sign a big sponsor for the following season, and they elected to go to NASCAR instead.
During that time, it was right after 9/11, and the economy contracted, and in turn the series did as well. We went from fielding grids of 30 cars to just 14 in a matter of months, and it was time to leave.
You now run your own racing school in Canada. What inspired this business venture?
I came back Calgary and did some contract work over a couple of years. I wanted to get involved somehow in motorsport, and try to be involved in something that was not involved as heavily as something like a racing team. A racing school was a logical choice, there is a racetrack in Calgary within the city limits that didn’t have a racing team. I had an idea about how to run and promote this, and with the level and range of cars available to us, we were able to put something together that the bigger schools were not able to do. Our operation fields carbonfibre race cars that have a data acquisition on them.
The big schools over here – such as Skip Barber and Bob Bondurant – haven’t been able to do that, and only recently, Jim Russell’s school was able to do this. No other school in North America offers what we do.
We’re very good at working with the students so they understand their limitations and that of their cars.
What would you say were your best and worst moments of your motorsport career?
The best moments were when the car finished. That was always an outstanding feeling, particularly making it to the finish at Hockenheim, and that was an amazing moment for me. Another great moment was finishing Le Mans, which was an incredible opportunity for me. Winning the championship in my last race was probably the pinnacle of my motorsport career.
The worst moment for me would be when I found out that the Canadian GP wasn’t going to be continuing for the 1987 season. I also remember a big accident at Brands Hatch during Saturday practice, and the car suddenly snapped into a spin approaching Druids, and I clobbered the wall. That was my first incident in F1, and it was heartbreaking for me, because I had progressed well and I was actually quicker than Piercarlo Ghinzani. On the Sunday, both of our cars were involved in the accident that ended Jacques Laffite’s F1 career. Although the damage was minor, it set us back on our heels for the rest of the year, and we had to drive out the rest of the season very cautiously.
The birth of my son three years ago was also special. He’s my biggest trophy!
What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?
It’s probably the same as many drivers, who like circuits with elevation changes a mix of fast and slow corners. Spa is right up there. Monte Carlo as well, it was fantastic in a Formula 3 car. Macau was extremely challenging with its combination of very slow and very fast corners. In North America, circuits like Sears Point and Mosport would be among my favourites.
What is your opinion on the current state of F1?
It’s hard to determine if the latest regulation changes regarding the refuelling ban will make the racing better or worse. When I raced, we ran with a full tank of fuel. It will make the pit stops more interesting with the timeframe of the stops being much shorter, and it could put overtaking more in the hands of the drivers than in the strategists.
With the manufacturers falling by the wayside, I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. It actually puts the sport back in the hands of the privateers, which is how F1 started and in my view, the way it should be. The manufacturers in any series become involved for commercial or technical development or whatever reason. While they’re able to invest resources behind it on a much greater level than a privateer, and often the privateer teams can’t compete with them and they fall by the wayside because they can’t attract the sponsorship. The grid starts falling apart because of that, and the manufacturer lands up running in a small-grid series that they dominate. When the manufacturer then pulls out because of an economic slowdown or because they’ve achieved their objectives, the cycle is complete. The manufacturers are always the first rats to desert a sinking ship, and that’s what has happened in F1. I think it’s far better that these new teams are coming on board.
Michael Schumacher’s return to F1 has been one of the biggest stories of the off-season. What is your take on all of this?
I think that he’s running with the best team with the most powerful engine allied to the man [Ross Brawn] whom he won all of his championships with. I think he’s putting himself in the best position possible – granted, the Brawn wasn’t as competitive at the end of the season as it was at the start – but it was there or thereabouts. I think his return is outstanding for Formula 1, great for the Mercedes GP team, but I question why he’s doing it. He certainly doesn’t need to do it for the money – he’s not being paid anywhere near what he earned at Ferrari. Maybe he’s doing it because he feels some kind of obligation towards Mercedes because they helped build his career?
Maybe he has the desire to come back and drive a race car? For that reason, I think it’s extremely selfish. He has a family now, and his kids are no doubt going to miss their Dad every time he climbs on a plane to go to another race, unless he’s bringing them with him. F1 is an extremely dangerous business, and he’s putting himself at risk once again by doing this. He’s putting a target on the back of his helmet, with all of these drivers (such as Lewis Hamilton) who’ve always wanted to have a fair shot at him, and he’s putting himself right back into that situation. I hope he does well, and I think it’s great for the sport. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think it’s the right thing for him and I think it’s pretty selfish for him to do something like that.
Images via Allen Berg Racing Schools, Corbis Images, F1 Rejects