Interview: Johnny Herbert

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Thinking positive

Now that the anguish of Brands Hatch last August has subsided, and months of physiotherapy are successfully behind him, Britain’s most promising Formula One newcomer is carrying on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened …

“You have to work for every clay. You I can’t relax. Work for them all”.

Frank Nayler has been a clay pigeon shooting instructor for a long time. If you are lucky enough to benefit from his guidance, you let him speak. You listen and you try to learn.

Trying to pick up each clay is damned hard work as far as pure concentration is concerned. I hit 26 out of my 50, and felt pleased. Johnny Herbert, meanwhile, was pottering around on a four-wheel buggy. It was his first public outing for some time, his first proper day trying to put weight on his left ankle. He looked gaunt, his sunken cheeks topped by the sort of black-ringed eyes boxers usually sport the day after a big fight. He hadn’t shot in a long while, but took 36 from his half-century.

If it wasn’t for his obvious mobility problem and the changed shape of his face, you’d scarcely get any clue what he’d been through in the preceding three months. Unless you happened to catch his expression in repose. Then you knew just how much the effort cost him.

That was just before Christmas. Some of the medical profession had written off altogether his chances of ever racing again after his shunt at the Brands Hatch International Formula 3000 race on August 21. There had even been talk of amputating his feet in the immediate aftermath. Typically, Herbert grins at that gruesome recollection. “Doctors always tend to panic, don’t they?” he asks with the expression that earned him the nickname The Imp from other members of the close-knit British Formula Three ratpack.

Johnny remembers other things about his accident, too. He remains adamant it wasn’t his fault, but won’t be drawn to reveal his private feelings on the matter, beyond admitting that he felt a bump and seemed to be heading for the left-hand barrier for an awful long time before his Reynard splintered into it.

“I thought I’d lost my legs. That was my immediate feeling when the car finally came to rest. I couldn’t see them. That’s why the photos showed me holding my head in my hands. I wasn’t in pain then, but I just didn’t want to look.

“The first marshal on the scene rushed over and knelt down by the cockpit. He kept telling me over and again that I was alright. Everything was going to be okay. Then he walked to the front of the car and took a look and was immediately sick”.

In St Mary’s Hospital they began to assess the damage, as surgeons probed painstakingly through the shattered bones that had been his feet. The right foot was in fragments, hanging literally by a thread. The talus is the worst foot bone to break. In Herbert’s left foot it hadn’t just been fractured, but literally pulled in two.

Incredibly, though, the news was brighter than the pall of gloom which had spread over Brands suggested. When Didier Pironi crashed his Ferrari at Hockenheim in 1982, he suffered similar injuries to Johnny’s, but there were also others to the lower sections of his legs. It was the latter that would prevent him regaining full mobility, and that would force him to turn his hand to Powerboat racing instead of returning to cars.

For three days the pain was non-existent as Johnny was drugged. After that it became a daily phenomenon. Just something else to be endured. To begin with things were bearable. “I had plenty of visitors, plenty of things to read; mainly motor racing books and magazines. It got me through the first month! I had a load of computer games, too, and I became a telly addict! I know all about Neighbours, Flying Doctors, all the soaps. And Rainbow. You know, the one with Zippy in it …”

By that pre-Christmas shoot he had confounded many, not only by regaining his mobility — albeit on a limited basis — but also by getting back behind the wheel of a road car and then a racing car again. Only days after the accident, entrant Eddie Jordan had confided that a pre-1989 comeback was part of the schedule. Some who were privy to that were openly sceptical, worried that it was forcing the pace.

Herbert had been one of those charmed drivers up to his accident, one for whom things seem to happen in racing. A brilliant Formula Ford Festival winner in 1985 and comfortable British Formula Three Champion in 1987, his talent has always been obvious at each stage of his career, and with each move up the ladder has come some form of mentor willing and able to help him. Not for him the nail-chewing chase for sponsorship, the endless days of worrying whether that career-hingeing deal really was going to come off. In karting and Formula Ford it was Mike Thompson, who still has a managing interest in his career. In F3 and F3000 it was Eddie Jordan, ditto. In Formula One it is Peter Collins.

On top of that, Johnny has never been the type to worry unduly. He thinks about things a lot more than he lets on, but he’s never been a worrier. And he knew full well that he was putting the greatest pressure on himself.

Just as he was beginning to reach the critical period for any convalescent, pondering just what the future held, came the good news. The far-sighted Collins had gone against all motor racing predictions. Far from abandoning the hapless cripple with a sigh of relief-tinged remorse, as did others who had begun to express belated interest in him, he kept the faith, and succeeded where he had failed the previous year by persuading Luciano Benetton that Herbert was the right man. If he made a full recovery, JH was going F1 in 1989.

The shattered right ankle healed quickly. Sooner than expected he was moving around, first in a wheelchair, then on crutches. Then Benetton footed the bill for treatment at Tony Mathis’ Feldkirch clinic in Austria, and the physiotherapy — and further pain — began.

Doctors in the UK had predicted it could start by December at the earliest. Instead, in October he started a regime that called for regular therapy, acupuncture, an hour’s daily gym work, swimming and even work on a static exercise bike.

Even now, he has little more than an inch of movement in the left ankle. The right is slightly misshapen where the bones have healed, and still bears the surgeons’ scars. But at least it moves sufficiently to allow him to operate the throttle and brake pedals.

The left, however, is still almost solid. The whole time you talk to him, Herbert is gently massaging it, the movement now an almost unconscious routine. He laughs when clutch pedals are mentioned, and says he uses them “where needed”. The inference is that he uses them as little as possible.

He’d driven a kart and a road car for a couple of days when he finally got back into a proper racing car again in December. By then he’d spent hours in a spare B188 tub working the pedals, changing gears, getting his rebuilt limbs used to performing the functions they once did so automatically.

On December 14 Benetton took a B188 to local Enstone airfield, and the rehabilitation of Johnny Herbert moved up another gear. Freed of crutches and wheelchairs, he was like a fish put back in the sea after months in a tank. Within minutes, engineer John Gentry was grinning as his charge sped up and down, shifting through the gearbox as crisply as if he were driving on August 20. Just for fun, he indulged in some slides as he performed 180deg turns at each end of the runway. A couple of times he even spun it on the straight just for the hell of it.

The following day, the acid test successfully passed, they transferred to Silverstone. It was foggy, and cold enough to prevent the tyres reaching their optimum temperature. In the conditions nobody was going to approach the British Grand Prix qualifying times of 1min 12.737sec and 1min 12.960sec for Sandro Nannini and Thierry Boutsen, but Collins reckoned a 1min 16sec would be good.

Herbert warmed up in the 22s, before dipping into the I7s, but when he came in after that batch of laps, he was shaking his head, as if in exasperation and resignation. “I can’t go any faster,” he told an aghast Collins, but just as that awful fact was registering with the man who’d stuck his neck out so far, Herbert grinned and went out again. His next flying laps were within two-tenths of one another, with a best of 1min 14.6sec … It would have put him 18th on the GP grid.

Since that triumphant day, Herbert has tested at Ricard, Rio and Jerez, concentrating not on lap times, but purely on putting miles on his healing feet and ankles.

To date, his longest spell at the wheel is 30 laps from his first Silverstone run. At Ricard, his left ankle proved painful after prolonged running on the Wednesday, and he sat things out on Thursday before getting back into the car for the Friday. In Rio it was more his arms that suffered when he was running on full tanks, but that isn’t a worry.

“The worst point,” he readily confesses, “was when Tony began making me work on my left ankle. It was almost rock-hard and I’d got used to that. And I’d got rid of the pain I had at first with my right foot. Now it started all over again with the other one.”

The first time he put pressure on it was only in mid-December. Now it is gradually easing up, and a wound the doctors deliberately allowed to stay open is finally healing up after a period in which bits of metal and grass would occasionally come to the surface.

Mathis predicts a full recovery in time, even though nobody is fooling himself that the road is going to be anything but a long one. Martin Brundle, for example, admits that 1988 was the first season in which he didn’t feel some pain in the legs he injured at Dallas in 1984.

Since December Herbert has recovered steadily in other areas. Prior to his accident he weighed 101/2 stone. When he began walking again he was down to 91/2 Now he is beginning to put that weight back on again, and in Jerez last week he looked healthier than for many months as his cheeks have begun to lose that hollow look.

In the pits on a wet Thursday he was clowning around, walking without a stick, and he still jokes the way he always used to. At one stage in his F3 days, getting a serious response to any question was like trying to get anything but excuses from his beaten rivals, and even now the flippancy is never far from the surface despite all that has happened. Those who saw him struggling up the steps of the L’Incontro restaurant at the recent launch of the Uniden Benetton Formula Driver Scholarship (which will provide an F3 drive for selected drivers deemed to have F1 potential) could appreciate just how much of a struggle he will have at every Grand Prix, even before he gets into the Benetton for first free practice, but he refuses to let the prospect daunt him.

“Getting on and off a plane won’t be a problem, I’ll walk,” he quips cheerfully. “And swollen feet won’t be a problem on long flights.” His look suggests you’re crazy for questioning such things in the first place, as if that sort of comfort has low priority in his 1989 list of things to achieve.

But does he feel he now has less chance of impressing this year than if all had gone to plan, or will his injuries have little influence in the cockpit?

He admits that he knows full well the likely outcome of another shunt — “That’d be it for my feet, wouldn’t it?” — but the comment comes with a dismissive shrug. He never was one to be negative.

“Okay, getting to and from the car is going to be difficult, although I’m doing okay on that. I can also get in and out okay, and I’m alright when driving because my left ankle is getting exercised. It’s when that exercise has stopped that it begins to hurt. But it’ll be okay.”

And his immediate ambition for the year? You know the answer before it comes, and the accident hasn’t changed it. “I want to win something.” It’s a totally realistic comment as far as he’s concerned.

When other drivers are relaxing at home in between races, he will still have that dull throb in his left ankle to remind him of his last battle, but he is well aware of the faith Benetton and Collins have riding with him. He also knows that, like Jackie Stewart in 1965 with BRM, or Nigel Mansell with Lotus in 1980, be is one of the few Britons in recent history to graduate to F1 with truly competitive team. And Johnny Herbert never was one to waste opportunities.DJT

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