Imola on April 23, 1989: The San Marino Grand Prix of Formula 1 is four laps old when Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari 640 flies off at around 290 km/h in the fast Tamburello curve and slams into the barriers. The accident car is soon on fire. And Berger owes it to the rapid intervention of the rescue services that he only suffers minor injuries.
Berger never forgot the people involved in his rescue. And so the Austrian, as head of the DTM series, used the race weekend of his championship in Imola to get in touch with the helpers of yore. At the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Berger also met Fabio Nobis, who was the senior firefighter at the track in 1989.
“I can still do well [an das Rennen] remember,” Nobis said in an interview with “Motorsport.com” Italy. “Fire is the worst thing that can happen in a race and we hadn’t seen a fire like this for so long. Luckily we were ready.”
Imola was prepared for a serious incident
According to Nobis, around 180 marshals and 30 emergency vehicles were deployed at the 1989 Grand Prix to act as first aiders in the event of an accident. “And in this race we proved exactly that, although none of us had ever faced anything like it.”
He himself, says Nobis, was present in 1978 when Ronnie Peterson had a serious accident in Monza. “That was  But it was many years ago and we didn’t think that something like this could happen again on this scale,” he says. “But: together with the FIA and the track, we had organized everything so that we had a high level of safety.”
And when Berger had an accident, it was a matter of seconds – although the true extent of the situation was not known at first, says Nobis. Because the Ferrari slid a few meters along the barrier after hitting the Tamburello wall before it came to a standstill. And only then the fire broke out, which immediately engulfed the entire vehicle.
When the accident happened, everything happened very quickly
“Our people acted immediately,” says Nobis. “We had a car about 100 meters away, which immediately drove to the scene of the accident.” 16 seconds after the Ferrari had come to a standstill, the first responder triggered his fire extinguisher. Ten seconds later, firefighters Bruno Miniati, Paolo Verdi and Gabriele Violi extinguished the fire.
“Back then, the requirement was to intervene immediately if certain things happened,” explains Nobis. “Today, on the other hand, you’re waiting for a command from the race director. If it had been like that back then, we probably wouldn’t have gotten there on time. Because in a situation like this, every lost second is fatal.”
Nobis, as head of the route fire brigade, was tasked with coordinating the rescue that day. “But in this case, my men stepped in automatically, without me having to tell them anything. And the bottom line is that 20 seconds can be a lot or a little time, depending on the case.”
“The videos that you find on the Internet are the same pictures as I had them back then. It takes excruciatingly long seconds to wait until finally the [Männer mit den] fire extinguishers are on hand, but actually they were there quickly. There was no time to think.”
Berger thanks him personally and repeatedly
That saved Berger’s life. He escaped with broken ribs and second-degree burns. And immediately after the accident, he thanked his lifesavers and, away from the media hype, sought direct contact with the helpers, always privately.
And it wasn’t just this one meeting, says Nobis: “Gerhard wanted to see the people who had saved him again. Once he invited them to Maranello. Another time to Brisighella for an event when he was already working for BMW.”
Nobis, that’s all right. “Our role is very simple: we try to do our job to the best of our ability. We are not after personal fame or headlines.”
“And with Gerhard it was special because he called us one after another to say thank you. That was the best thing for us: he contacted us directly instead of making public announcements.”
33 years after the accident, Berger and Nobis meet again. This time, however, not in private: DTM boss Berger mingled with the firefighters from Imola in the pit lane and posed for souvenir photos with the entire squad.