Herbert reaches home straight

With eighth place in the morning's running, and 13th-fastest time overall, it was pretty much business as usual for Johnny Herbert at Jaguar Racing yesterday. But the Malay-sian Grand Prix tomorrow will be no ordinary event for the 36-year-old Briton as he draws the curtain on an unfulfilled Formula One career.

With eighth place in the morning's running, and 13th-fastest time overall, it was pretty much business as usual for Johnny Herbert at Jaguar Racing yesterday. But the Malay-sian Grand Prix tomorrow will be no ordinary event for the 36-year-old Briton as he draws the curtain on an unfulfilled Formula One career.

Before he reached that level, his career held all the speed, momentum and promise that Michael Schumacher's would three years later. Perhaps more. In his days in karting, Formula Three and Formula 3000, Herbert was The Man.

But even as Frank Williams was waiting in the wings with a Formula One contract, that promise was compromised by the ankle-shattering accident at Brands Hatch in August 1988 which threatened not just his racing, but his ability to walk. He made Formula One after all in 1989, a limping figure at Benetton who made fun of himself just to make it through the pain. He was sacked by mid-season, then rescued for the second time by the Team Lotus head, Peter Collins, and eventually made it back to Benetton alongside Schumacher in 1995. It was his most successful year, with wins in Britain and Italy, and fourth place in the championship. But he harbours few fond memories.

"Michael definitely didn't help me after I'd been close to his pace in the first two races," Herbert recalls. "He told his wife Corinne to stop talking to my wife Becky, and from the Saturday in Argentina onwards I was never included in the debriefs and never privy to the information that he had, after I'd run close to his pace."

Sauber's Beat Zehnder reveals the inaccuracy of the impression left by the 1995 season. "One time Michael tested our car at Fiorano; on the same day, in the same car, Johnny was just as quick as him, and their feedback was identical."

The affection in which he is held in the Formula One paddock was underlined last night, when Jaguar hosted a "This Is Your Life" party to say farewell. Murray Walker, naturally, figured prominently. Among other things, Herbert's audience was reminded of the time in their karting days when Bob Herbert's son was moved to throw a screwdriver at his father.

It missed, but the hole it made in the side of their caravan was covered by a strategically-placed Shell sticker.

"Johnny likes winding people up," Zehnder recalled. "In Budapest in 1997 it was his race engineer, Gil Aligeot's turn. Johnny went for a pee not long before the start, behind some advertising hoarding. He was there, chatting to a marshal. On the grid he got in the car late, and Gil was getting more and more nervous. A minute to go, and Johnny was just sitting looking vacant in the cockpit. Then the cars ahead began moving and Gil was screaming, getting ready for a heart attack. At the last moment Johnny appeared to come to life, looked at the cars and pointed at them - like he was saying 'Oh, is that where I should be going?' Gil was about ready to collapse!" Herbert finished third.

Just over a year ago he drove to the canniest of his three grand prix victories, scoring the last win in Europe in the old millennium, and the only one for Jackie Stewart's team. In Malaysia he was "best of the rest" behind the controversial Ferraris of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher, and Mika Hakkinen's McLaren.

Ironically, Sir Frank Williams has offered him the role of test driver next season, but having seen how old Lotus team-mate Alex Zanardi fared in his time in America, Herbert believes he has a lot to offer a CART ChampCar team such as Chip Ganassi's. But negotiations are going slowly. "We had a bad start to this season," he admits, "but now I think I'm racing well. And next year I still want to race. I've got more wins in me before I think of retiring altogether."

There was perhaps something symbolic as he paid tribute to Jenson Button's performances this season and offered him encouragement, for his compatriot's career is developing as his own would have without that Brands Hatch accident. "Jenson has impressed everybody, which has been very good for British motor sport," he said, "and I think that is generally good to have these young guys coming on, trying to show us old buggers how to do it."

There aren't enough class acts left in Formula One these days. Tomorrow afternoon one more will take its leave.

* McLaren have confirmed that Alexander Wurz will be their third driver next season, succeeding Olivier Panis, who will race for BAR.

Malaysian Grand Prix (Sepang) Yesterday's practice times: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1min 40.262sec (av. speed 199.026kph); 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:40.276; 3 M Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:40.498; 4 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:40.877; 5 J Trulli (It) Jordan 1:41.304; 6 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:41.493; 7 R Zonta (Bra) BAR 1:41.497; 8 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:41.593; 9 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton 1:41.679; 10 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 1:41.751; 11 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows 1:41.914; 12 J Button (GB) Williams 1:42.012; 13 J Herbert (GB) Jaguar 1:42.113; 14 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:42.141; 15 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:42.254; 16 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber 1:42.457; 17 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 1:42.649; 18 Jean Alesi (Fr) Prost 1:42.868; 19 M Salo (Fin) Sauber 1:43.284; 20 G Mazzacane (Arg) Minardi 1:43.424; 21 M Gene (Sp) Minardi 1:43.655; 22 N Heidfeld (Ger) Prost 1:43.766.

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