Former grand prix driver Johnny Herbert has never lost his enthusiasm for racing – having shown this year, with a comeback in the British Touring Car Championship, that he is far from ready to hang up his helmet.
It is also why his annual charity event, the "Johnny Herbert Karting Challenge", continues to attract the great and good from motor racing – and why on Sunday it again helped raise money for worthy causes. This year it was the Harry Birrell Scholarship Trust that benefited. Herbert speaks here about his continuing commitment to motorsports as well as a few other topics of the times, like Jenson Button's move from Brawn to McLaren.
Q. So, your team finished sixth overall here. Did you have fun?
Johnny Herbert: Yeah, I enjoy it because every year it gets more and more competitive – sadly. It seems to have turned into, with all the drivers who turn up, the last big event of the year. All these teams who now come in just make it so damn competitive. Even this year it has gone up another level, because there were a lot more people complaining about the karts as well! It is good the whole thing is for charity. It is enjoyable, it is competitive but the racing is good at the same time. It is enjoyable for everybody.
Q. Can you believe how far the event has come on since you started it back in 1994?
JH: Again, the main change is that it was always good in the beginning. It was nice when David Coulthard came along, and Allan McNish, and Jenson Button, and Robbie Williams, and all the other people we have had – but the change has been in where the competitiveness has come in. But I think that is good – it is healthy, and you get that feeling that people want to come to the Johnny Herbert Karting Challenge and want to win it. So, it is nice to do the racing part of it, but also with the nice charities that it goes to.
I've always based it mainly on kids' charities. I did it originally with Sparks, then I did Sidney Kidney, because my daughter had a kidney problem when she was younger. Then the [Warwickshire and Northamptonshire] Air Ambulance was chosen because my wife's Nan had a bit of a turn and the ambulance came in, and I learned they get no government funding, so I thought, "Right, OK they have helped me, so I will help them." Then I did something with Clarence House because Peter Phillips is a patron of the Harry Birrell Scholarship Trust, so I thought I would do that one this year. Next year we will probably go back to the air ambulance charity again because I know they need it a lot.
Q. And there was a bit of sibling rivalry for you this year because your daughters were racing for the first time?
JH: That was a nice thing. It is funny with my girls because when I was racing in Formula 1, they knew I did it but there was no interest whatsoever. Now and again they would come to a grand prix, but they didn't really care at all.
Last year, my daughters were at the British GP and they had a watch at Becketts, and she said: "Blimey dad, they are so fast. Did you used to go that fast?" She was 18 then, so they had no concept of what I did, or the fame that came with it. You see F1 from the outside, and it looks like such a big event – and they never realized that. So it is only recently, as they have grown up, that they knew I was a part of it.
So it is nice that they have come, and they have gotten their friends together, and six of them came along here. They did one hour last week, and that is all they have done. The last time was probably 10 or 11 years ago when we lived in Monaco – so they did an hour, and this was their first race, at a very competitive event as well. They acclimatised very, very well. They didn't have a particularly good kart but they stuck at it, they enjoyed it and my young one got really into it as well – and didn't keep moving out of the way. It was nice seeing that competitive instinct – which must have come from the equestrian stuff they do. It was good they didn't beat me as well!
Q. How has your year been in general? You finished it with those appearances in the British Touring Car Championship.
JH: It has been OK. It was all a bit of a shame because of what happened with the Speedcar series [the Middle East-based stock car series that closed down for lack of sponsorship, -Ed.], because I did enjoy that a lot and it was a good pack of guys we had there.
Then the touring car thing came up as well. I knew I was going in at the massive deep end as I had only driven a Mini and a SEAT in terms of front-wheel-drive machinery before. I knew just coming in at the end of the season would be tough, but I enjoyed it.
The front-wheel drive is something that is completely alien to me. I had never driven anything like that competitively, in a proper built front-wheel-drive car. There was a very different style that I needed to adapt to, and then, of course, you have to get into the racing as well. I knew it was all crash, bang and wallop – but if you accept that, then it is fine. If you don't accept it then you shouldn't really go in there, to be honest. I did accept it, and it was nice to get involved in the racing, and mix it up with the championship guys quite quickly. Hopefully, if they can get it together, then we can do it next year, in a proper manner.
Q. Would you like to do a whole season?
JH: Yes, it would be nice to do a whole season. In any form of racing, to do it sporadically is hard. From Matt [Neal], to Jason [Plato] to [Fabrizio] Giovanardi, they have done this front-wheel touring car stuff for so many years now that for them, it is just sit in it, drive, and it is like going down to Tesco. For me, I am sitting in it, I am thinking I have to build up, I have to get it right, and it is an alien type of driving. I don't think I could have done it any other way, as I only did it because the opportunity arose. But to do it like I did it, and do the odd races, then I have no chance really.
You need the time to build up really. You know when Nigel Mansell did it in the past, it took a lot to get to that, and there were certain other things that went on – it takes a lot to adapt to these cars. So, we will see. I know there are a few rule changes coming, but we know financially these times are not easy. They are difficult times at the moment, and everybody from West Surrey Racing, who have won the championship, they have to go out there at this time of year and still find money for next season. There is time to find it, but we know how tough it is. We will see what happens.