Profile – Allen Berg

Not all rejects are poor drivers, and not all poor drivers are rejects. For once, we will discuss a driver whose luck was neither with him nor against him, just as his talent was neither world-beating nor lacking. Allen Berg, one of the surprisingly few Formula 1 drivers to originate from Canada, remains well-known in racing circles both for his exploits in the 1980s, as well as his current standing as a driver coach at the Laguna Seca circuit. He never succeeded in Formula 1, but made a successful career for himself in the rather unlikely environment of Mexican national formulae.

Nationality Canadian
Date of Birth August 1st, 1961
Teams Osella (1986)
Races Entered 9
Races Started 9
Best Result 12th (Germany 1986)

Early Years

“Someone once told me that there is statistically a greater chance for a Canadian to become prime minister than to become a Formula One driver.”

Allen grew up, as is often the case, in a racing family. His father was a drag racer in the 1950s, and the family attended races in Allen’s younger days – the first being the 1968 Canadian Grand Prix, where they watched home heroes Al Pease and Bill Brack qualify on the back row before DNSing and retiring 20% into the race respectively. Our hero was born in Vancouver on the west coast of Canada, but spent most of his adult life living in Calgary further east.

He started his own karting career in 1978, when he was 16. This was financed, in an agreement with his father, 50% from his own income earned as a paperboy, which took him ten months in total to come to fruition. Once racing, he was a quick success on the local and regional scene: one year as Alberta Junior Champion, and then the following as Senior Champion.

“We made it through the first year on five tyres. I don’t recall rain tyres ever being available.”

Allen’s sole interest was in formula cars, and in 1980, while still karting, he made his debut in single-seaters in the Canadian Formula Ford series. Among his opponents were the young and green Scott Goodyear and Chip Ganassi. From here, experience was the key, so while coming runner-up to Goodyear in the 1981 championship, Berg partook in the wider North American Formula Ford championship, in which he placed third overall.

With success at least at the national level, he progressed further south to Formula Atlantic, being crowned rookie of the year in 1982. Following this, he was invited by personal contacts down under to Australia, and over the 1982-3 Australian summer, drove in the Winter Pacific Series, better known as the Tasman Series. Although the level of competition was minuscule compared to the halcyon days of Hill, Clark, and Brabham in the mid-1960s, Berg still won a much-coveted title to ring in the new year. On the way to doing so, he won the blue-riband Lady Wigram Trophy, a race won by just about every Anglosphere racing star of two decades prior. The most dramatic moment of the season was likely Berg’s win at Calder by a whopping 58 seconds, stripped when he was given a one-minute penalty for an improper start.

It was for these achievements in Australia and New Zealand that Allen was talent-spotted by no less than Neil Trundle, the mechanic who with Ron Dennis turned around McLaren to the machine of its heyday era. For his efforts, Berg was offered a seat in the fateful British Formula 3 championship that year at Trundle’s team.

1983-1984: In Esteemed Company

1983’s British F3 season has, in the years following its instance, gone down as a vintage for the series. It was characterised by the year-long rivalry between the young Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle, two drivers now household names in the racing business. Allen came into this series at perhaps its highest level of competition, with a very limited amount of money, and with only a few short years of single-seater racing behind him.

Neil Trundle had set up his eponymous team around Berg for the new season – a debut for both of them. After a rocky few first rounds, the Canadian took  podiums at Silverstone, Oulton Park and even took a maximum haul of points at the second Silverstone round under a technicality. It was a season marked by many things, not least by loneliness for Berg, who had given up everything and moved to England on a wing and a prayer.

“I could understand that [Ayrton] was having a hard time, as I was in that situation myself. In between races you actually have very little to do. You are in an apartment and there you are alone. You do this because you want to focus on what you came to Europe for, to get to Formula 1 … I did not beat them very often, but was on the podium several times with them. The significance of this did not strike home until much later in my life.”

He ended the season fifth place overall, and an appearance at the Macau Grand Prix also netted him fifth. It was good enough to warrant a promotion to Martin Brundle’s now former team, Eddie Jordan Racing, the following year. 

One thing Berg consistently lacked, as rejects often do, was money. However, Jordan got Berg onto a suitable sponsorship programme, and now the Canadian had access to all of Martin Brundle’s setup specifications from the previous year. Berg’s confidence was lifted when he realised that “Eddie Jordan could make money out of a hat.”

With money problems out of the way, Allen’s prospects swiftly rose and he was able to focus on driving with a crack team behind him. He took home a hefty haul of points in 1984, finishing runner-up overall to an almost-reject, one Johnny Dumfries. What is quite impressive itself in its rarity was Allen’s inability to win! Eight seconds and three thirds over 17 races was incredible going, but it did not stop Dumfries from running away with the title. Berg was voted Canadian Driver of the Year for his consolation prize, and sadly it was back to Canada from here that he went. In those days, British F3 was one of the main routes to F1, and a champion there was almost assured a drive at the top series. Berg’s lack of experience on the European circuits went against him, as did his general frequency of race starts at his still young age.

1985: Canada and Mexico – finding money

As Berg now set his sights on a Formula 1 drive, the effort was to find a personal organisational team, and with it, a stable income of money. Back in his native Calgary, his new full-time job was in calling sponsors and agents, instead of racing. It was gruelling, and was varied only by the occasional stint down in Mexico. At the Formula K championship, Berg was at least able to match his skills against Mexico’s national best, and won three races that year for his efforts. Having offers for drives in North America also helped get Allen noticed, and when he was able to sign a deal with the Swiss energy company Landis & Gyr, he suddenly had enough cash on him to return to Europe and buy his way into Formula 1.

1986: Osella

Allen’s new manager Michel Koenig was the man of the moment. Koenig brought the Canadian back to England and had him follow the F1 circus for much of the 1986 season, as various opportunities came and went. Patience on the sidelines was rewarded, as it often is, due to tragic circumstances, this time involving Marc Surer’s crash at the Hessen Rally that year. Surer’s co-driver was dead and the Swiss driver himself was seriously injured, and it meant that Arrows’ replacement driver Christian Danner was promoted into the place from Osella, where he had been performing temporarily.

Koenig was able to negotiate with Enzo Osella to have Berg take Danner’s place at the team until the end of the season. The money was all ready and available, so all it took was Berg to sign the contract for the remaining ten races starting from Detroit. In Allen’s own words:

“I was with the team throughout the Canadian GP and we signed the deal on top of a fuel drum in the old F1 garages on Monday morning following the race, taking a copy of Christian’s old contract and essentially filling my name over top of his …

“I found myself with the smallest team with the least powerful engines, no testing and antiquated chassis technology … My first race was the US GP on the downtown streets of Detroit with walls everywhere … The 1200-lb Osella had about 950hp in qualifying and about 850 during the race, and the big guys were in cars with 1,200 or 1,500hp. Acceleration was unbelievable; the car had the ability to spin the rear tires in 5th gear at 200 km/h … Braking performance was mind boggling, with huge wings on the front and back, just lifting off the throttle would equate to a full panic stop in a road car … I remember Ken Tyrrell saying to me in the pit lane before the first practice, ‘The best thing you can do for yourself this weekend is keep it on the island’.”

Allen Berg on his debut weekend for Osella.

With a $25,000 Canadian dollar down-payment, Allen kept his Osella between the walls, and qualified it 25th on the grid, 10.3 seconds off of former rival Senna’s pole time. On Sunday, he overtook the Minardi of Andrea de Cesaris, before an electrical fault took him out of the race a third of the way in. At the next round, the French Grand Prix, his turbo blew early on after a last-row lockout in which his teammate Piercarlo Ghinzani was almost two seconds faster in qualifying. At Brands Hatch, he unfortunately slammed directly into the pile-up ahead of him at the start, taking himself out while also writing off his chassis.

Berg (far left) got caught up in the turn 1 pile-up at the British Grand Prix, and it had long-term consequences for the rest of his season.

This crash had long-term consequences, because it meant for Osella that their running was heavily reduced on Saturdays, limited to only a few laps at opportune moments. Coupled with the fact that Berg was visiting these tracks for the first time, the reader can perhaps sympathise with his poor pace. In Allen’s fourth race at the Hockenheimring, he and Ghinzani were both close to 15 seconds off Keke Rosberg’s poletime. His finish four-laps down in 12th would end up being his strongest race weekend in hindsight, while in Hungary and Austria these slow Saturdays were followed by early-race failures.

“I would lose 8-10 pounds during a race and would typically finish the event with blisters on my hands and feet. I remember at the Austrian GP in the Bosch Curve I had to shift from 4th to 5th in the middle of the turn, it took all of my strength to keep the wheel turned while I shifted gears.”

Allen had luckily done a few testing sessions with Arrows and Tyrrell early on in 1986, but experience in the car was simply something he was going to have to learn. In the nine races he did with Osella, Berg’s central issue as a Canadian in an Italian team was the heavy culture shock. He struggled to communicate except with a choice selection of English-speaking engineers, and with Enzo himself they shared an equally broken Spanish. With no common language, tempers often flared and it was a group effort to get the cars to each race weekend.

And of course, money remained an issue. $230,000 Canadian dollars was the final sum to get Allen through to the end of the year. Ironically to help him, Enzo replaced Berg with Alex Caffi for Monza, and the Italian’s money covered much of the hole remaining in Berg’s wallet. It was not a source of conflict, however, and pragmatism won out between all parties.

“I would fly to Canada immediately after a Grand Prix, make phone calls, knock on doors and give presentations, then fly back for the next race, sometimes with the money, many times without … The amount I needed to bring to the team in sponsorship for the season was actually less than a Formula 3 budget, but even this amount was very difficult to find and it was an enormous effort to meet my commitments.”

At the final three races, poor qualifying was followed by dismal finishes a great number of laps down. At Portugal he was a rare 27th on the starting grid, and his final race at Adelaide left him unclassified and 21 laps down on the winner.

1987-1991: Learning a Trade

The Canadian brewery business Labatt had developed into Allen’s central backer over the course of 1986, and together with Michel Koenig, the group lobbied for Berg’s follow-up season.

“At the end of my first year, I was in discussions with five different teams to race for them in F1 the following season, contingent on sponsorship, of course. The fact that there were five teams that had an interest in me — well, that was pretty good. Osella, of course, Minardi, Arrows, Tyrrell, Brabham — they were all interested … Williams was the one Labatt was negotiating with for me to drive for them, but when the Canadian GP was dropped from the 1987 calendar, that’s when the whole bottom fell out. Without a home race, Labatt didn’t have the motivation to sponsor a Canadian. And that was that.”

This simple tale has an ironic twist: Labatt’s conflict to control hosting rights at the Montreal circuit with rival brewery Molson was what caused the demise of the grand prix that year. Their inability to work out an agreement in time lost them a place on the calendar, and lost the only Canadian F1 driver at the time a drive. 

As 1987 started without him, Allen began talks for 1988. Larrousse were willing to hire the Canadian for a hefty fee, but the trade-off did not appeal to Berg. Shuttling between Europe and his native North America, Berg got drives in various sportscar series, such as the World Sportscar Championship at Silverstone.

Berg driving at the 1990 24 Hours of Le Mans. For the half-decade or so after F1, he jumped around various sportscar series trying to find his footing and a long-term future somewhere.

Allen also changed his team around. He developed a relationship with Fred Rodgers, who had been Eddie Jordan’s lawyer, who helped place Berg in various series from Trans-Am, IMSA, to Japanese prototypes between 1987 and 1990, with wildly varying results. Most importantly, the desire was there to place Berg in the World Sportscar Championship for good starting in 1991, but an accident falling from the Canadian’s motorbike broke his hand. The place, which went to Perry McCarthy, gave Rodgers the leverage to put the Englishman in an Andrea Moda from 1992. In hindsight, perhaps a blessing in disguise for Allen. WSC places began to dry up, and Berg took the alternative route in driving in DTM.

DTM was a turning point for Allen in his career. He was turning 30 now, living in England, and racing in Germany. Having flirted with various disciplines for some years, he was now coming to terms with how difficult it would be for him to install himself in any series. He had heavily underestimated the struggle he met in DTM, and came to appreciate how good a specialised driver can be in just about any series. Without a huge deal of success behind him, he decided to make a serious life choice and move back to North America for good.

1992-2001: Life First and Everything Else Second

From the mid-1980s, Allen had made contacts in Mexico, and when he returned to his native Canada it appeared to him as the logical choice to move further south. His primary interest had always been in formula cars, and Mexico was a country with two heavily funded and dedicated leagues of open-wheel series. From the beginning of 1992 he moved to Mexico and took part in the national F2 series.

Success came quickly, with Berg recalling their ease to drive as “essentially Formula Atlantic cars”. A few sportscar events complemented his calendar, but for the first time in some years it seemed Berg was finally in a comfort zone of driving. For the next few years he racked up some wins, but made it implicitly clear that there was the occasional backroom deal that would prop up the local boys with a little “home advantage” over the likes of himself.

“I continued to receive offers to race there each year, so I naturally just stayed there.”

It wasn’t Formula 1, but Berg was a surefire winner in most of the series he could afford to participate in.

In 1994, after a few too many decisions went the other way, Allen decided to change scene from F2 to F3. A small difference, perhaps, but to a series the Canadian viewed as being the closest possible to traditional European racing. F2 was becoming more stratified, and while his results in F3 weren’t strong to begin with, he found time to actually enjoy his 30s. He met his future wife, learned the language, and took some time off for a change. He even brushed shoulders for a time with a young Juan Pablo Montoya while driving in prototypes.

“Racing in Mexico is completely different than any other place I have raced. As in just about everything down there, they enjoy life first and everything else is a second priority.”

His results towards the end of the decade fluctuated, and after his strong performance in 1998 he got the attention of Dick Simon Racing, who had the intention of putting Berg into their IRL car in 1999. Most of the paperwork was ready, and Berg’s hefty salary from Mexican sponsorship meant that, for once, money was not an issue on the Canadian’s side. Ironically, even with the money, it was now timing that was the issue, and Berg was dropped from the plan by pure circumstance. The chosen driver Stéphan Grégoire finished 15th overall that season.

Instead of returning to F3, Allen switched disciplines to Indy Lights Panamerica, a short-lived series that he used to start his new passion project of being a team owner and manager, as well as a driver. Middling results came for Allen Berg Racing in their maiden year, but experience won the day when in 2001 our hero took the championship at the spritely age of 40.

2001 would prove to be Berg’s last season of racing. Eight podiums, including five wins, from nine races was rounded off by the Canadian’s announcement of his retirement during the finale’s victory ceremony. After a decade in North America, he was becoming more enamoured with managing and less so with driving. Some bad blood had built up in Mexico especially, where sponsors who had barely, if at all, paid up to him, were still using his name for corporate endeavours. Logistics had been especially difficult running a team out of the country, and Berg took his new retirement as an opportunity to start afresh.

2002-present: Ownership and Tutoring

“I wanted to concentrate on team management and the commercial side. This has its challenges, you have to learn to motivate and lead. As a driver, life was very simple and you have to be very centred and selfish to be successful. Running a racing team is a complex business where you must address commercial, political, sporting, management and personnel issues, as well as watching the bottom line and trying to win races with ALL of your drivers. It is very fulfilling.”

His first flirtation with racing management was in Toyota Atlantic, a North American ladder series run with formula rules. His new Scuadra Fortia ran for two seasons, with a fourth place their best result at the last round of 2002. 2003 was a struggle, and the team finished last in the standings. Berg has cited increased operational costs around all American series as barring his dreamed-about move toward a series like CART. 

Closing his own team, he still followed some series in a managerial capacity through the mid-2000s, coaching drivers in Formula Renault with the Transnet Racing Team, while attempts to revive Scuadria Fortia in Fran Am were in vain.

While he flitted about between Calgary and California, Allen set up Allen Berg Racing Schools (ABRS) in 2007, which was intended to be a revival of ambitions for his own racing team. With driver coaching not showing any prospects, our protagonist had taken some well-needed retirement time to start a family with his wife Erika, and the enforced layoff his team received from the Great Recession made the Berg family consider what they wanted to do.

The couple had a son, Alexander, who is now a young driver with ABRS. The couple moved out of Calgary to the sunnier and more profitable Laguna Seca Circuit in 2016, where Allen has carved out a niche for himself as a trainer and runner of the school out of the circuit itself. Generally, Allen has wanted his own son to experience the joy he himself did when karting with his own father. Since then, the Berg family now run ABRS permanently out of Laguna Seca, and that appears to be it for Allen Berg as he enters his sixties.

Looking Back

It is refreshing as a writer of these profiles not to end them, for once, with the protagonist of our story presently face-down in a ditch somewhere (presumably). While much of his career seems like it took place in boardroom meetings and sponsorship fundraisers, Allen has given countless interviews on his rather fun life as a racing driver – he is well-spoken and without grudges towards his rivals past and present. He has nothing but positive things to say about others like Ayrton Senna, even if he is pragmatic about the difference in talent of drivers past and present.

“[Ayrton] could really read a track from A to Z. Something the current drivers can only do through the data system. It used to be different, then we used pen and paper to write exactly what speed we had in the corner … Today everything can be read from a screen. I do think that technology has made things easier for the drivers today … Ayrton seemed to have his own computer on board in his brain … When I train young drivers, the first thing they do is check the data when they get out of the car. Drivers are much better prepared today. Their engineers have more knowledge and the technology is much further. This makes it look like the drivers are performing much better today, but they have certain tools in their hands that we didn’t have before. That’s the big difference.”

His rather limited and short experience in the early 1980s was still elevated by his obvious skill, so much so that he brushed soldiers with some of the best raw talent of the era. And again, in spite of the politics and the experience, Berg seems to have come out of the other side happy and squeaky clean. Considering the reject stories of past and present, that alone might be among his greatest achievements.

Allen (F-C) poses with his son (F-L) Alex and members of the ABRS team.