When an F1 car suddenly fails — Johnny Herbert

“The first thing you know about a failure in a Formula 1 car is when you hit the barrier”

Johnny Herbert


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The Baku weekend began with a lot of talk about illegal ‘bendy wings’, further stoking the Mercedes/Red Bull rivalry – but it never amounted to much. How do you test legality when cars’ floors, front/rear wings, barge boards and such generate around 1.5 tons of downforce at 150mph and they can only test a fraction of it? People criticise the FIA, but it’s hard to police. The FIA test for a rear wing now allows a maximum deflection of 7mm at 50kg of load and there’s a new directive that will accept a 20% tolerance just for the first month of these new tests. In Baku, it ended up as a playground spat between Toto Wolff and Christian Horner. Not that interesting.

On track, the Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen duel continues to get tasty, and Sergio Pérez put in a brilliant weekend. Before the race I said it could be the wrong time for him, wondering whether Red Bull would allow him to win because of Max and the title fight. Christian said it was too early for that, but it never is when you are aiming at a title. Then as luck would have it… Damn good on Checo.

 “We used to get up to 3.5g, max. Today’s cars are over five. Incredible”

When I saw Max after the race, he said it could have been better – obviously – but it also could have been a lot worse, given what happened to Lewis. Max will still feel good about his performance, as will Lewis (apart from his ‘magic button’ brake bias mistake). When I interviewed him after qualifying he was smiling, which is rare when he’s second, because he felt they’d done a really good job to get on the front row. The way it worked out on Sunday was good – it keeps them close.

Look at them side by side and you see the maturity of Lewis, which has grown in recent years, but you see it too in Max, developing at such a young age. He had a sweary moment with me during Saturday’s interviews, but that’s his character. Like Lewis, if it doesn’t go his way, he’s grumpy – although Lewis doesn’t do the sweary bit. Max thought he was going to get pole and ended up behind his title rival. That angry face when he walked up to me was no surprise.

On the Pirelli tyre failures, I was critical. But when I spoke to Sky F1’s Anthony Davidson afterwards, he said you forget how much g and downforce these things produce. They are just so mighty. Anthony thinks even Goodyear or Michelin would struggle. You can’t blame Pirelli because they are doing all they can, plus there were failures in the past: remember Mansell’s Goodyear blowout at Adelaide in 1986? We got up to 3.5g max – now they are over five. Incredible.

In my experience, coming back from a failure is not a problem. I had wing failures during my career: one in my first test for Stewart when the car just turned left on me, without warning. I had another in a Jaguar at Hockenheim, where Jim Clark had his crash. That was more frightening because of the speed I was doing (over 200mph) and I was lucky because I hit the barrier backwards and didn’t fly. I also had a suspension failure in my very last race for Jaguar in Malaysia. The first thing you know about it is when you hit the barrier. As long as you are okay you just dust yourself off. Max and Lewis know there’s a chance it can happen and when it does they move on. Not everyone can do that, they might have a mental block around all the ‘ifs’ of what might have been. But I never thought like that, and neither do these two. We’re fortunate things are much safer now.

The duel doesn’t feel like something that is going to explode this year. Lewis is very legit, and they are both clever and understand when to back out. Lewis is also clever on the radio. You hear messages saying he’s in trouble, but is he? Often I’m not so sure. It’s the game and that’s what’s going to ramp up over the season. In a way, the radio is another weapon and Lewis uses it more than anyone. It’s all part of the process of an elite driver. And Max is not daft on that front either.

The tyre thing? We saw with Mansell the effect it can have, it’s not new. It lost Nigel a world championship. Has it lost one for Max? Lewis has experienced it, too. Remember his 2016 engine failure in Malaysia, costing him the title to Nico Rosberg – but that’s racing.

Johnny Herbert was a Formula 1 driver from 1989-2000 and a Le Mans winner in 1991. He is a regular contributor to Sky Sports F1
Follow Johnny on Twitter @johnnyherbertf1