Renault has scored many wins at Hockenheim over the years, but arguably none was more popular – or indeed surprising – than that earned by Gerhard Berger for Benetton in 1997.
It was to be the last F1 victory for the Austrian driver, who retired from the sport at the end of that season.
Berger scored his first ever F1 win with Benetton in 1986, before spells at Ferrari, McLaren and then Ferrari again firmly established him as one of the major stars of the era.
In 1996 he opted to return to Benetton rather than stay at the Italian team alongside the incoming Michael Schumacher. In fact Berger and Ferrari team mate Alesi moved to Benetton together and both men were regularly on the podium.
In 1997 Berger’s season was interrupted by illness, and he missed the Canadian, French and British GPs as the team’s third driver Alex Wurz stood in. After being away for two months Berger returned to the cockpit for the German GP, a race he had won for Ferrari in 1994. Nobody expected a repeat, especially after his enforced absence, but he turned the form book upside down by taking pole position ahead of Jordan rookie Fisichella.
Although he had started as high as third in Brazil, Gerhard had been 10th or lower on four occasions in 1997, and was not usually regarded as a threat for the top spot. Meanwhile championship leader Schumacher was fourth, and his main rival Jacques Villeneuve only ninth as the grid had an unusual look to it.
Rain began to fall in the hour before the start, but it was dry when the cars formed up the grid, and Berger led the field away. Pole was one thing, but it was by no means certain that he could maintain that sort of pace in the race.
However he had no problems staying pulling out a small advantage over Fisichella and Schumacher. He made his first pit stop on lap 17, leaving Fisichella in front until he too came in on lap 24. It was obvious that the Jordan was running a one-stop strategy, whereas Gerhard had to pit again.
Later he lost valuable seconds when Jan Magnussen’s Stewart blew up in front of him, and when he came in for that second stop on lap 34, he came out just behind Fisichella.
It looked like would have an epic battle for the flag, but almost immediately the Italian made a mistake and Gerhard swept past. Later Fisichella suffered a rear puncture and spun off, retiring with oil cooler damage. Meanwhile Berger carried on unchallenged to victory, eventually crossing the line 17.5s clear of Schumacher. He also picked up fastest lap, making it a remarkable clean sweep.
For so many reasons it was an emotional win for the veteran, who would confirm a few weeks later that the European GP in Jerez would be his final race – indeed Hockenheim would prove to be his last visit to the podium.
Hockenheim was also a good boost for the Benetton team, who had not won since Schumacher left. Remarkably it would also be the last win for the team until a certain Fernando Alonso triumphed – under the Renault name – in the 2003 Hungarian GP.