With a home in Monaco, former grand prix winner Johnny Herbert could spend his days downing cocktails and lounging on yacht decks; he's certainly got the tanned face and sun-bleached hair for it. But the 45-year-old's insatiable passion for motor racing will today see him return home for an induction into the bruising world of British touring cars.
If Formula One is the high-speed rollercoaster of motorsport's theme park, then the BTCC is a bumper-car ride. It's not what Herbert calls "pure racing" – when the fastest driver wins – but a high contact, low downforce bunfight. So what is the three-times F1 winner doing hitting the track in a Honda Civic when he could be relaxing with Monte Carlo's other retirees?
"I'd go brain dead," he says. "I think as a human being you need to be involved in something you enjoy; not just sitting back and doing nothing. I know my racing career is coming to an end but at this present time it's not the end. I'm still enjoying it, I still want to win. The BTCC would be the first series I've taken on and not won. So from that point of view, why not?"
No one could accuse Herbert of taking it easy: since his final grand prix for Jaguar in 2000 he's added three second places to his earlier Le Mans 24 hours victory; become a champion in the Middle East's short-lived Speedcar series; returned to F1 as sporting director of the now defunct Midland F1; and helped launch a bid to put the new Litespeed name on the 2010 grand prix grid. Yet strangely, touring cars wasn't on his seemingly endless to-do list.
"I've had a bad taste in my mouth driving front-wheel drive cars before so I never really looked at it; it's a very different driving style [to rear-wheel drive]," he says. "I've been spoilt most of my career, I got to F1 and that's the ultimate vehicle. But my racing brain process has slowed and it's more suited to touring cars now. I was always way too aggressive – with F1 and sportscars you can be – but with these cars you have to be a bit more polite."
Being courteous towards his new Honda is one thing, but Herbert will have to be ruthless with his competitors. He will also have to get his head around a drop of some 500bhp and he has had just a day and a half's testing with his new Team Dynamics squad, who are a former title-winning outfit.
Other F1 greats such as Jim Clark, Stirling Moss and Nigel Mansell tried their hand at the BTCC and Herbert isn't cocky about his chances. "I've noticed there seems to be a bit more contact going on," he jokes. "I was never very good at that in karting – I tried it a few times but I always came off worse. It does not matter if it's an F1 car or BTCC, I always like getting to the limit. I'll be racing against a lot of touring car drivers who are damn good so I have to really work at it."
The biggest challenge he faces is not the bumper crunching, however, but an emotional first return to Brands Hatch's grand prix loop in October. Here, in 1998, his career almost ended with an horrific accident. Competing in Formula 3000, the last step before F1, his car was pushed into the barrier by a rival, swiping off its nose. It then helplessly spun into the opposite barrier at high speed, smashing Herbert's exposed feet. Incredibly, he began a grand prix less than seven months later but the incident plagued his career.
"The goal I'd had since I was 10 years old was to win the world championship and I'm sure I would have done without the accident," he says. "My first race after the crash was the grand prix in Rio and I had to learn in a short space of time to drive in a completely different way – because of my feet I could not brake in the same way.
"I'll have good and bad memories when I go back to Brands. The bad memories I do not think about – that's life. It would be nice to have a race win... I should have had one back then."
Today's debut comes at a happier hunting ground, Silverstone, where he won the British Grand Prix in 1995. But even that moment – which he describes as the best of his career – was tainted by the accident. "For the last 12 laps I was screaming in the car when I was braking," says Herbert, who was struggling to brake with his left, more damaged foot in order to give the right a rest. "The toes got sliced at the top and there's a lot of callous – it was that part that was hurting," he says. "When I got out of the car I could not tell anyone because I would have been chucked out of the sport!"
Almost 15 years on, Herbert says he is "going back to his roots" with the BTCC's regional circuits and close proximity to the public, including mandatory autograph sessions. "The fans that came to watch me when I started my career are the same type of people coming to the BTCC," he says, "big motorsport enthusiasts who will travel hundreds of miles to a race."
It sounds like they have plenty in common with the championship's new recruit.Reuse content