Herbert warms to idea of global expansion in sports car series

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The Independent Online

Elton John needed to be on top of his game this weekend. Another British visitor to the Bayside was a hard act to follow.

Before the sometime Watford chairman, resplendent in a pink suit, had the AmericanAirlines Arena reverberating to his souped-up repertoire on Saturday, Johnny Herbert put on his own spectacular show around a 1.15-mile street circuit so tight and claustrophobic it made Monaco look almost rural.

Herbert, like John, occupied centre stage for more than two hours, but his performance had the added ingredients of suspense and unrehearsed drama as he guided the Audi R8, entered by Florida's Team Champion, to victory in the American Le Mans Series race.

He encountered a flash fire during the pit stop, when he took over from his partner, J J Lehto. Extinguisher spray was directed at his visor, and he then had to contend with the burning discomfort of fuel seeping through the leg of his race suit, a loose belt and a dislodged radio earpiece. The race had already developed into a duel with the rival Audi team, Joest, but concerns about fuel consumption and the inherent risks of lapping 35 other cars heightened the tension.

The climax was played out against a backdrop of dark skies and streaks of lightning. Rain swept down Biscayne Boulevard as Herbert crossed the line 40 seconds clear of the championship leaders, Germany's Marco Werner and Frank Biela. The result keeps the all-Audi contest for the championship alive going into the final round, at Road Atlantic, in three weeks, but perhaps also serves to enhance the prospects of those intent on re-establishing sports car racing on a global basis.

Herbert won the Le Mans 24-hour race with Mazda in 1991, when the World Sports Car Championship was in its last throes. Many manufacturers had lost faith in endurance racing as a means of marketing their products and some turned to other forms of motor sport - Formula One, for instance.

Now there appears to be fresh enthusiasm for sports cars, and Herbert endorses the cause. "You saw here how exciting sports car racing can be," he said. "It has always had a following, but for more than a decade now there hasn't been a proper world championship.

Sports cars have been pushed to the margins by single-seater racing, and the main event here was the Champ Cars race. But sports cars are defying competitive and economic forces, and a renaissance of sorts is possible in the coming years. This series pegs its identity to the French 24-hour race. A four-round Euro Series, at some of the most revered venues - Silverstone, Monza, Spa and the Nürburgring - is scheduled for next year. The hope is that it will encourage manufacturers to return and restore sports car competition worldwide.

Audi dominated here, as they dominated Le Mans itself for three years until they reined in their factory commitment and effectively permitted Bentley to accomplish their mission last June. The expected retreat of the British marque will leave Audi in command again next summer, regardless of whether they race a new car.

At the age of 39, Herbert has a vested interest in the prosperity of sports cars. He parted company with Formula One three years ago, and efforts to prolong his single-seater career on this side of the Atlantic were to no avail. There is again talk of a Champ Cars drive, but he is not holding his breath.

Herbert, who drove the Bentley that finished second at this year's Le Mans, said: "There are murmurings about Champ Cars and I should hear a bit more about that in the next few days, but then there was all sorts of talk when I left Formula One. I wanted to do IRL [Indy Racing League] because I'd always had the ambition to compete in, and win, the Indianapolis 500. But that's not realistic anymore. I had a go and it didn't work out.

"Sports cars is realistic and I do enjoy it now, which I never expected I would... There could well be a future for a world championship, and this could be a stepping stone.

"The only problem is the lack of manufacturers. There are still plenty of privateers, but it needs more manufacturers than just Audi and it needs the prototypes. These are the cars that have the down-force, the cars the public want to see. You need depth of competition.

"Bentley have achieved exactly what they wanted and don't really have the money now, so why should they go on and risk spoiling it all? Sports cars will always have the fan base, but the last really good era was the late Eighties and early Nineties, when you had Jaguar, Mercedes, Mazda and Peugeot. Hopefully, things will really move again next year and start to attract those manufacturers back.

"I'm still young inside so I don't see why I shouldn't compete well into my forties. You can't drive modern Formula One cars at that age, but sports cars are a different matter. If it becomes a bore and a grind, then I'll have had enough. But as long as I enjoy the racing and I am competitive, I'll carry on. There's definitely another Le Mans win in me. I've been second for the last two years, so it's about time I won it again.''

The irony is that although Herbert took on the lion's share of the driving on Saturday, only Lehto can deny Werner and Biela the championship. Herbert competed for Bentley, rather than Audi, in an earlier race, finishing third, a place behind Lehto, so he has three points fewer than the Finn.

As Lehto savoured this victory into a bleary Sunday morning, he said: "Johnny keeps reminding me he won three grands prix but I tell him that whatever happens at the last race, I will finish the season ahead of him!"