Johnny Herbert: 'The guy who started the trend to use karting for training was Schumacher'

Preparing for the Formula 1 season is about getting fit, staying sharp, and getting the psychological edge on your team-mate, writes Johnny Herbert

Johnny Herbert

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We’re nearly there as the teams make final preparations ahead of the new season. For the drivers, karting during the winter has become a popular way to keep fit, stay sharp and yet also switch off from the intensity of Formula 1. I see Daniel Ricciardo has been in Italy running a gear-shifter, which are brutal to drive, and Jenson Button was out with Alex Albon in the United States.

I used to do it a little bit too, as did Ayrton Senna. But the guy who kick-started the trend to use karting for training was Michael Schumacher, whose father had a circuit in Kerpen. He was the first one to keep karting high on the agenda. Fitness is one thing, but it keeps the brain popping and in tune. The similarities to what you are doing in an F1 car are amazingly close – and it’s more fun than you’ll have in a gym.

Even I’m at it. I bought myself a kart recently and by the time you read this I’ll have been for sessions at Shenington and Whilton Mill – which is a daft place to go because it’s a rib-breaker! The buzz is still there, even at my age, and it puts a smile on your face. You go there with no intention of being competitive, until you get in the damn thing… I’ve bought a Rotax Max. I’m too old for shifters, which would beat the hell out of me! I run it myself, turn up with a trailer and put it on its stand. The only problem is my neck. My head falls off!

“For George, it’s a mental game he hasn’t been through before”

At this time of year you always keep an eye on your team-mate. I remember at the 1995 Benetton launch with Michael he was like Bruce Lee: always stretching at any given moment. I noticed that and started doing it too, which bugged him… Then we did our first test in Jerez, where he did three days and I did one. I took my bike and in the lunch break I’d go for a ride around the track. After the first day he’d sent his plane back to get his bike! The competition had already started.

For Michael it was always about getting himself in front of his team-mate and controlling the situation. At the launch I told the British press this was my opportunity to get a world championship. The very next day in the German press he said, “If Johnny thinks this is his chance for a world championship he’s got another thing coming.” And he was right! But he had Flavio Briatore in his corner…

It’s much easier if you are the number one because you feel the team is around you. I got that at Sauber after I left Benetton. With Michael I knew it was going to be difficult, of course. I had a psychologist through the season and my wife came to more races than usual. This year, George Russell is in the same boat in many respects as he goes to the big team. Yes, he has proven himself in that performance for Mercedes in Bahrain in 2020, but now he’s up against Lewis Hamilton, who will be refreshed and motivated after what happened in Abu Dhabi. After that lovely time maturing at Williams, this is the real deal for George. Is he capable? Absolutely. But it’s a mental game he hasn’t been through before.Motivation is a big plus, as Ayrton Senna used to show. He’d take his winter break in Brazil and come back refreshed, even missing the first tests to fully break away. Lewis is similar in this regard, but it’s a very different approach to Michael’s, who simply couldn’t get away from it. He had to be in the thick of it 24/7, 365 days of the year. He had to be the most important ingredient for success to come his way. Lewis needs more freedom to get that re-boot, while Max Verstappen also seems to have that ability to get away and switch off.

When you get back and drive a new car for the first time you know what you’ve got pretty much instantly. You know what you had before and you have expectations of what you need: a balance, traction at the back, rotation in the car – and no understeer. Within that first lap or two you can tell whether this thing is hooked up, as Jenson Button experienced in the Brawn in 2009. For me it was always about the front end. It had to respond to my input. If you feel a bit of understeer on those first two laps, even after the tyres warm up, it never goes away. You can tune it, but if you have push on those first laps you know you’ve got a problem, because it means it’s built-in.

As they head to Bahrain, drivers will know what they’ve got beneath them. Now it’s nearly time to find out what everyone else has, too.