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.Q. Talking about F1, you are synonymously linked with Lotus, and the name is coming back to grand prix racing next year. Do you have any special feelings about that?
JH: I think it is great that we have got a name like that back again. The big name that we have got is Ferrari – because the racing names are the McLarens and Williams. They are still there, and still doing very, very well.
But it is nice that there is a marque that is historically British, and has had a lot of success. It is still one of the most successful F1 teams. OK, it is now owned by Proton, but at the end of the day it is a good thing that they are back.
It is going to be very, very hard for the new teams because they have come under the £40 million [$66m] cap, because obviously that cap was not capped in the end and the big teams will still spend the big money. But it does prove, like Force India, that if you do certain things, then you can actually be very competitive – surprisingly competitive, to be honest, as they probably shocked everybody by how competitive they were. But it does prove it is possible.
It is not easy though. It took Force India a long time from the successful Jordan days, with the same nucleus of people at the end of the day, to get back to that. Of course, they know racing, but F1 is a very different animal from F3, or GP2 or anything else for that matter.
It is going to be tough, and equally so for Lotus. It has a great name and that great name can possibly help them get the sponsorship they need, but they have to start well. They are all aware of that and they are all aware that it is going to be tough for them, but it will be nice for Lotus to be able to come back. Mike [Gascoyne] is a very experienced guy, but we will have to see what he has produced at the end of the day.
Q. Are you going to be involved in the team?
JH: No. I was originally (with Litespeed in the summer) but I took a step back and looked at it, and thought I wasn't sure. So I will watch from a distance.
Q. Two consecutive British World Champions now – it is a pretty sensational time for British racing fans, isn't it?
JH: Definitely so. It is a shame because for Jenson, I think he had a cracking year but there was a little bit of criticism out there that the second part of the year wasn't very strong and it wasn't like when he was dominant at the beginning. But, to be perfectly honest, the others didn't move forward. Red Bull probably peaked too late, and that was probably the quickest car overall, but it took so long to get the thing sorted properly for whatever reason.
Then Ferrari had a little bit of resurgence, then that petered out a little bit – and then McLaren, which probably had the best year I've ever seen in a way. They came from a few seconds off at that preseason Barcelona test, to win races. I've never seen a team come back from the back of the grid during a season to win. Teams come back and perhaps get some points, and mix it up in the lower end of the points – but never ever to win. So it was amazing that McLaren and Lewis were able to work together to be able to produce what they did. For me, that was the best season they have ever done in a lot of regards.
All that mix of people getting it right in certain places – the McLaren only working at certain tracks, the Red Bull coming in strong, then strangely enough having that little bit of a weak spell when you expected them to dominate from Silverstone onward, was nice to see. But I think that made it harder for Brawn because there was so much going on. And we hadn't seen for many years so many teams fighting for wins. Normally it is just a straight head to head, but it wasn't this time. It kept changing, and they kept level for some reason – and Jenson did everything he needed to do.
He had a Schumacher style of coming to the pit stops, being told to push, and he pushed and went much quicker. He showed the Michael speed that we used to see at the right time, with Ross [Brawn] knowing how Michael did it, and he did respond to the call. He had those six races under his belt at the start of the year, then everything started to change with everyone else having their peaks. He stuck there, it didn't go quite to plan, but at the end of the day he did exactly what he needed to do.
It was nothing to do with Brawn, it was nothing to do with Jenson. The failures came from McLaren not getting it right, Red Bull Racing not getting it right early enough and Ferrari having a bad year at the same time. They are the ones that lost it. Brawn did the job in very difficult circumstances because they didn't have a team in December. Even from that point of view, everyone else had an easier time. Red Bull, who ended up being the strongest over the year, they are the ones who should have won because they had everything easy.
I know people say that Brawn already had the car designed and it was all there, but all those difficult times of not knowing what the hell was happening, and all the stress that goes with it, did not make it easier. The first any of us saw that, of the stress of the changeover and the pressures of the season, was from Ross on the pit wall in Brazil [when he cried]. You never see Ross like that, so there was a lot of stress involved and that was the release.
Q. Were you surprised then that Jenson decided to move to McLaren?
JH: You can look at it a few ways. You can say, "Why move?" because obviously Brawn was effectively Jenson's team as he has just won the World Championship. But Mercedes has just come along and I don't know the situation – he knows it much better than we do about what development work has gone on during the season as to what he needs, and they need, to have a chance of winning it next year.
With McLaren, you can always look and say that they are one of those teams that are going to work at it. They are going to learn from what they did this year. They are on the up, they have a very good chance and the connection between McLaren, Lewis and the engineers is very strong as it is 14-years old.
And that is the tough thing for Jenson. McLaren will give both drivers equal cars for sure. But it's just those little mental things that can make a difference. Lewis is in his team, and I know the team is going to try as hard as it can, but these little things can be quite sensitive sometimes to a driver.
Fernando Alonso at McLaren provides the perfect example. He went there as a double World Champion, thinking he was the best driver out there and that he was going to win it easily. And, of course, he didn't.
The positive for Jenson will be that his championship is out of the way. The pressure is off. He has done what he needed to do. He can go out there, and try and defend it in a much less stressful way. He has had the stress of trying to win a championship and not knowing if he is going to win it, or everything that is going with it. That has gone now – he has won it, he has done it, and now he can actually go out there and enjoy it.
Hopefully, early in the season – perhaps in testing – the way he is going to get that team working around him, that nucleus of his engineer and his crew, is to go out there and take it to Lewis. It is well within him to do it. The speed we know is there but he has to go out there and almost prove a point again. It is quite funny how that situation comes about – where he has to go in there and prove himself again as a World Champion. It is going to be a very tough thing for all of them – Lewis, Jenson and McLaren. But it will be a good season.
Q. In 1995 you went into Benetton against the guy who was the incumbent – Michael Schumacher – and the big star. If you had to give Jenson one piece of advice from your lessons of that time, what would it be?
JH: Well, I never had a problem with Michael, and I don't think Jenson will have a problem with Lewis. My problem was always with Flavio because it was Flavio who always said yes to Michael. I don't think Jenson is going to have that problem.
The biggest thing I would say to Jenson is to just settle as quick you can – and make the biggest effort now to integrate with all the people, and all the personnel. Now is key to getting those relationships early and positive.
If you get them early and positive, it is something you will feel can help take you forward. That energy will bounce back off everyone – but when I was there with Flavio, it bounced and then ricocheted – and then always missed me! That is F1. That is what it is like.
It is never easy – and it is not going to be easy for Lewis either. He has got the World Champion coming in, and he is going to want to beat him – and equally so the other way around. Jenson has to get those relationships sorted early – that is key.