Motor racing: Herbert proves he's a grown-up boy racer

David Tremayne finds the miles are broadening an engaging smile
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SMALL BITS of grass finally seem to have stopped working their way out of Johnny Herbert's mangled feet, and as he prepares to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his Formula One debut in Brazil, Britain's most underrated racer is delighted that this time he will be able to walk unaided to his car.

In Rio in 1989, less than seven months after a massive Formula 3000 accident at Brands Hatch left him with both feet smashed, simply getting to his Benetton was agony. The team's publicity machine made things worse when they decided that it could do without any images of a driver shuffling on sticks, and instructed him to discard them. But that day a man who could not actually walk finished a brilliant fourth, in one of the sport's most uplifting tales.

"Rio was easy. It wasn't such a hard slog," Herbert remembers now. "The problems began at Imola and Monaco, when I discovered I couldn't generate sufficient power to brake hard enough." His career began to slide. By July he was sacked.

It is ironic that an accident which would have embittered most brought about a positive sea change in Herbert. In his early days he was just a painfully shy blond-haired kid, a refugee from the Brady Bunch. Interviewing him was a nightmare, like trying to pull wisdom teeth armed only with a pair of tweezers. He could be forgiven, because he had star potential.

"The accident changed all that," he says now with the trademark smirk that makes women want to mother him. But there is nothing remotely funny about the underlying story. It was not just the physiotherapy that was excruciating as he struggled to recover the use of his horribly damaged feet. "I used to lie awake at night and convince myself that one day the constant pain would go."

His close friend, Perry McCarthy, a fellow Formula Three driver, recalls it more vividly. "John would come round while he was recovering," he said. "After a while you'd realise he was just sitting, white-faced, on the sofa. He'd be in massive pain, but he'd never say anything." Herbert quickly realised that humour was the way out. "I did it to get over the pain, and because I knew that I couldn't afford to let my true feelings show." One of his party pieces is to demonstrate that, while his feet will articulate slightly if he points his toes up or down, there is no lateral movement. The surgeons worked miracles, but there was only so much they could do with the raw material fate had not left spread across the grass verge at Brands Hatch.

It is also ironic that many take Herbert's easy-going nature as a sign that he lacks commitment. "Sometimes there's too much `sunny boy', people take that the wrong way," the former champion Keke Rosberg once observed astutely. Mika Hakkinen's manager recognised what Herbert achieved when the two drivers were team-mates at Lotus, and wanted to represent him as well. Johnny demurred. Hakkinen later escaped the ailing Lotus and went on to McLaren and a world title, Johnny's career foundered.

Herbert knows that another serious accident could leave him permanently disabled. Yet his reaction to a recent testing shunt provides graphic insight into the mind of the race driver. His Stewart-Ford hit a wall in Barcelona at 190 mph when its rear wing collapsed. Aided immensely by modern safety engineering, he stepped out with nothing worse than a bruised knee. It would not, he said, affect him psychologically. Even as he dusted himself down from the wreckage, an ashen-faced Damon Hill had told listeners that it was the biggest Formula One shunt he'd ever witnessed.

Only recently he was back at the Buckmore Park kart circuit in Kent, where so much of his early experience came. While christening a new track extension, he threw a kart around again like a kid with a new toy and not a care in the world.

Herbert's Australian GP was over before it ever began, an embarrassing engine fire killing his Stewart-Ford as it sat on the grid. But the team have made a big step forward this year. Fast again recently in Spanish tests, they have the potential to spring a surprise in Brazil next weekend. McLaren will match reliability to their awesome speed, but an upbeat Herbert firmly believes that Stewart can vie with Ferrari, Williams and Jordan for the honours in McLaren's wake.

Ten years ago, finishing fourth in Rio saved his F1 career. A similar result next weekend will once again mark him out as a man to watch.