Racer's return to recovery road

The Johnny Herbert interview: Le Mans winner drives back to healing ground before embarking on the Indy 500 special
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The Independent Online

Johnny Herbert has his Le Mans trophy in the cabinet and the list in his head. First, he wrote at the top of a piece of paper as a starry-eyed 10-year-old, win Formula One grand prix, second win Le Mans, third win Indy 500. Two ticks down, one to go, though if Herbert drove his Audi sportscar to the chequered flag in mid-afternoon next Sunday to record his second triumph in the 24-hour race, few would begrudge the ever-chipper Londoner an additional ornament to his career.

Herbert's initial success at Le Mans has largely been forgotten, not least because he has only driven the race once since, yet the guerrilla nature of his victory exactly 10 years ago was typical of the man. Pincered by the giant works teams of Jaguar and Mercedes, the diminutive green-and-orange Mazda driven by Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler seemed sure to be outmuscled and outpaced. But with the Big Cats proving too heavy and the silver Mercs unreliable, the lightweight Mazda cruised to its win with Herbert driving the last two-hour stint suffering from a combination of fatigue and food poisoning.

Herbert collapsed into the arms of his father, Bob, when he got out of the car and had to miss the post-race celebrations, which was not true to his cavalier style. Wherever there was laughter in the Formula One paddock, Herbert, you could be sure, was close at hand.

Herbert's recall of those closing moments is sketchy now. "We had a good atmosphere in the team. We had all raced together before and the car was great to drive. It came down to a sprint in the end and it was damned hot. I was feeling fine in the car and then I got to the pits, sprang out to start the celebrations and felt a bit light-headed. Maybe I had jumped out a bit too quick or something. I had to go and have a lie-down."

What he has not forgotten is the pivotal part the victory at Le Mans played in his long recovery from his horrific accident at Brands Hatch at the tail-end of the 1988 season, which shattered his legs and severed the tendons in his feet. The whispers were already out that the newest hotshot would never be the same again and, by Herbert's own admission, they were right, physically at least. He rarely raced without pain thereafter. But to drive a demanding race like Le Mans ­ and to be at the wheel for the finale ­ proved that enough of the young tyro's spirit had survived the impact. "I had a lot to prove to myself and everyone else that day," he recalls. "I needed to show that I could do a long, long race and that my feet were in good shape. There were a lot of people thinking I wasn't going to be back."

It is hard to remember now, because he was a card-holding member of Formula One's midfield, that the name of Johnny Herbert was once spoken in those hushed, serious, tones reserved for the truly special talent. He was the Michael Schumacher of the mid-Eighties, his progression to the very pinnacle of his sport a matter of timing, not debate. I remember visiting Herbert in Bromley Hospital soon after his crash. His move into Formula One with Lotus had already been signed and sealed, which was cruel, but he was his usual chirpy self, utterly devoid of self-pity, full of laughter and, quite obviously, hurting like hell. His future, he said, was not in doubt, just put on hold for a year. Those who predicted a changed man were proved right, but not quite in the way they had anticipated.

"I was known before the accident as an arrogant driver, too cocky by half," he says. "But the only way to get over the injury was to be optimistic, to keep saying, 'It'll be better tomorrow, it'll be better tomorrow'. It was better that way than going, 'Woe is me' and damning my bad luck. That helped me out. When I was with Lotus and the car kept breaking down on me, I'd get out and always have a smile on my face. People would say, 'What's he got to laugh about?' But that's the way I looked at it then. Before, my career had been going very much along the same path as Michael Schumacher's and I was all bound up in the whole thing. The crash changed me. It made me enjoy life to the full."

His dreams of becoming world champion might have disintegrated, but not his natural instinct for having fun at the wheel of a motor car, any motor car, or his determination to push as far as his reshaped expectations would allow. Three victories from 160 starts is the ratio of a journeyman, but there was always a team willing to pay for his services: Benetton (twice), Tyrrell, Lotus, Ligier, Sauber, Stewart and Jaguar.

"At Monaco a couple of weekends ago, I was thinking how lucky I was to have spent 10 years as a grand prix driver. I had some fun times with Mika Hakkinen, with Alex Zanardi, had some interesting times with Michael [Schumacher] at Benetton and I won three grands prix, all of them special in their own way. Silverstone because it was my home grand prix, Monza because of the history of the place, and at the Nürburgring because it was Stewart's first win."

Herbert's most notable asset, the one which made him so employable, was his consistency. He tried his hardest every race, every practice, which provided the boffins with a priceless technical template, and his equable temperament made him a popular figure in everyone's back yard. The backstabbing culture of Formula One served only to highlight Herbert's upfront honesty, though the whispering gallery got to him in the end, of course. His final year at Jaguar, dogged by rumours of his imminent dismissal, was shot through with disillusion. Soon after another horrible weekend at Monaco, Herbert decided to retire.

"It just wasn't enjoyable any more, so it wasn't worth it," he recalls. "I still miss driving the car, particularly qualifying at Monaco. It was the best ever when you got it all right together, which I never did. What I don't miss is all the demands on your time and all the politics.

"At Jaguar, everyone was too busy protecting their own backs because they couldn't do the job properly, and they were quite prepared to muck up your life in doing that. It was not a comfortable place to be."

The ChampCar series in the States seemed the next natural staging post, but a deal with the Zakspeed team fell through and Herbert was left with a blank diary and little time to fill it until Tom Walkinshaw rang asking if he would like to help Arrows with their testing. "I thought, 'Why not?' It will keep my hand in, I'll be driving a good car and having some fun."

It has not all been fun this season. The death of Michele Alboreto in April was a stark reminder that Formula One does not have a monopoly on danger.

When his Audi R8 works car flipped over at the Lausitzring in Germany while on routine testing duty for Le Mans, the Italian was, like Herbert, simply searching for the next challenge. Alboreto's car was similar to the one Herbert will race next weekend, which made the process of rationalisation more acute, and no less difficult.

"I knew Michele from racing against him in Formula One," says Herbert. "He was a lovely man, down to earth, very unItalian. He'd gone through his grand prix career safely and then was killed by a freak accident. I've been to a few funerals down the years, Roland [Ratzenberger], who was a good friend, and Ayrton and Jeff Krosnoff in the States. His car got caught in the wire fence round the track and broke in two."

At the next test session, the engineers talked Herbert and the other Audi drivers through the problem. Alboreto's car had suffered a slow puncture in a rear tyre, which fatally altered the balance of the chassis. "It can happen. You just can't afford to think about that," says Herbert. Not, at least, until that Indy 500 has been won and the final tick added to the little boy's list.