In the hot seat -- Johnny Herbert

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Johnny Herbert reckons Michael Schumacher has a sense of humour and Formula Ford is rubbish. He’s not through with racing and wants a stab at NASCAR

Have you ever spoken to Gregor FoItek since that fateful day at Brands Hatch in 1988? — Paul Wood, Sittingbourne

Never. I only ever remember seeing him again once after that, at Rio de Janeiro for the grand prix a couple of years later. I heard that his father, Karl, was going around saying that it wasn’t Gregor’s fault.

Do you think that you came back to racing in the Benetton too soon after your Brands accident? — Leonard Serri,  Basildon, Essex.

The way I look at it now is that if I hadn’t made it to Rio I wouldn’t have had an F1 career; no one would have touched me. Benetton offered me the chance to go away for six months of rehabilitation and then come back. But I said to myself, ‘I have to do this thing now and do the best job I can.’ Flavio Briatore was just coming on the scene and started to put pressure on me. During testing at Rio in the winter he and Luciano Benetton sat me down and asked if I could do a race distance. They were putting pressure on me and I know for a fact that Emanuele Pirro was sitting in Rome airport with his bags packed. I told them I could do it and they fuelled me up. When I came in, a couple of laps short because I was running out of fuel, there was no one in the pit. They’d all gone to lunch! Clearly I made the right decision. They said I would come back in the middle of the season — after they’d dropped me — but that never happened. It was important to get out there. Everyone could see that I wasn’t in a fit state to do F1. I  could barely walk but I finished fourth. People remember that.

When you went to race Formula 3000 in Japan, did you ever think you’d get back to F1?  —  Lawrence Whittier, Staines

That was my own form of rehab. I always believed that I could make it back to F1 and I have to thank Peter (Collins) for giving me that chance at Lotus in 1991.

How important in your British Formula 3 Championship triumph was the Spiess/Volkswagen engine? — Don Lufkin, Stourbrldge

It definitely had more torque than the Toyotas and Alfas, but it did run out of puff by comparison. It was part of a very good package we had at Eddie Jordan Racing that year.

How galling was it not to make it onto the podium after winning the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours with Mazda? — Harrisson Sanger, Seattle, USA

And I’ve still never stood on the top step – I’ve had three seconds since!  Perhaps that’s why, all these years on, I look back and think it would have been nice to get up there and savour the moment. I know what it’s like to look down at a sea of people, just not after I’ve won. At least I can say I’ve won Le Mans, otherwise I would be more upset about being in the medical centre when I should have been on the podium.

How gutted was Rubens Barrichello when you took Stewart’s only grand prix win at the Nürburgrlng In 1999? — Geoff Prince, Wolverhampton

He was disappointed, but not bitter. I know Rubens was happy for me because I hadn’t had the best of seasons. Yeah, he was OK … I think.

You came up in Formula Ford 1600 with a classic crop – Damon Hill, Mark Blundell, Bertrand Gachot, Paulo Carcasci and, occasionally, Eddie Irvine. Who did you think was most likely to make it to Formula One? — Marc Christie, Putney, London

I always thought Bertrand and Mark were the ones who would go all the way. They were the real stars of that Formula Ford era, not me. I was only there or thereabouts.  OK, I won the Festival, but I would say that everything started to come good for me in F3 and things began to change around a little bit.

Is it true that you didn’t like Formula Ford as a category?  — Robin Middleton, Newbury

That is true. The first one I drove was a Royale, an RP26 I think. It wasn’t what I expected a racing car to be – it was heavy and clumsy. The Spartan and the Van Diemen I drove weren’t much better – the RF84 was a pig anyway – and it wasn’t until I started driving the Quest that I began to enjoy it a bit. The Quest was closer to what I was used to in karting. The shorter wheelbase made it more sensitive and it turned in much quicker. It was just a bit racier to drive.

The Quest Formula Ford 2000 car – your thoughts please! — lain Clark, Ewell

It was really just a stretched FF1600 with wings. The rear wing was off a Ralt RT3 and I don’t know where the things on the front came from. Mike Thompson had designed the basics of the Quest, but he wasn’t an aerodynamicist. It was basically an aerodynamic brick, which is why I was absolutely nowhere with that car.

What was Michael Schumacher like as a bloke during your year at Benetton in 1995? — Norman Fletcher, North London

He actually has a very good sense of humour, which the public doesn’t get to see. He’s very selfish: that’s why he’s been so successful, and I don’t have a problem with that. As a bloke?  No problems at all.

What happened when you destroyed the first Bentley Speed 8 during testing at Jerez early in ’03?  — Chas Godfrey, Little Lelghs, Essex

We had a little problem with the pedals:  you would brake and pick up the throttle at the same time. I’d mentioned it and so had Tom (Kristensen). On that particular lap I tried to come off the power and my foot got stuck behind the brake pedal and, worse, it was still on the throttle. I went straight on at Turn 2 and into the tyres. It was a big impact and I was lucky to get away with it, although I did my back in.

What went wrong when you tried to qualify for the Indy 500 in 2002? — Brett E Remmington, San Diego, USA

The year before I’d tested at Kentucky and went quicker than the (IRL) pole there. Then we went to Dallas and I was something like third quickest. I was meant to race there, but the event was cancelled because of September 11. Then everything went quiet over the winter before I got the offer from the Duesenberg Brothers, who did a deal to run with the Beck Motorsports team. Everything was going well as we were coming up to Indy. I didn’t go there thinking, ‘I’m an ex-F1 driver, I’m going to be on the front row’; I was sensible about it. I was doing 224-225mph laps, would put on new tyres and do 227. I thought that was OK, because the top guys were doing 229s. Then it started to go wrong. We’d stick on the fresh rubber and do a 223mph lap. To this day I don’t understand why. For whatever reason Beck decided not to make a qualifying attempt on Pole Day, which gave me a problem. Bump Day clashed with the Sears Point American Le Mans Series race where I was meant to be driving the Champion Audi. I phoned the boss, Dave Maraj, and told him this was what I always wanted to do and his reply was, ‘I need you here.’ So I caught the next flight to California.

Do you think you will race full time again, and if so what’s the next step for you? — Erik Close, Cheavley

I do hope so. I still really enjoy driving and am presently putting a few things together. I would love to have a go at something different: I really want to do NASCAR. I’m working for the Midland F1 team as sporting director at the moment, but I’ve made it clear to them that driving remains my priority.