As the Venturi-Larrousse team announces its plans, Robin Herd reflects on his rationale in F1 fourth time around
“I think it’s pretty normal with most sportsmen. I’m not saying I’m a top sportsman but certainly a lot of tennis players and golfers will tell you that losing is a much stronger emotion than winning.” says Robin Herd. “It’s the thrill of the chase. Stevenson said. ‘It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. Winning is an anti-climax and it is an embarrassment. But losing really burns and that’s what drives on most sportsmen.”
Talk of tennis players with the evergreen Herd inevitably sparks a mental note of his resemblance to Jimmy Connors. Like the American, the man who designed Bruce McLaren’s first F1 cars, before starting March in 1969 with Max Mosley, is also a true survivor. He is no stranger to winning, even in F1, but despite the Seventies successes of Jackie Stewart, Vittorio Brambilla and Ronnie Peterson, the pickings were lean when compared to what March achieved in virtually every other formula. That very success, paradoxically enough, finally became a turn-off.
“In America between 1981 and ’86, I averaged six flights a week and 26 transatlantic flights a year. I got knackered. We got to a point where we had five Indy 500s in a row and 22 of the last 24 CART races, nine successive Japanese championships, the first three European F3000 Championships, the Daytona 24 Hours. Going into the last flight in Miami we were going over Iceland or Greenland – I always mix the two up and I just knew it was all over. There was nowhere to go but down. I’d bought a bottle of scotch at the Duty Free and drank most of it, and when I got to Miami Airport I met that rare being, a customs official with a sense of humour. He stopped me and said I’d have to pay duty on myself!.
“I can’t intellectually believe in Fate, but looking back pragmatically it’s quite difficult to say that Fate doesn’t play a hand. When I got through customs there was Cesare Gariboldi saying he knew this Japanese guy who wanted to run Ivan in Formula One in 1987, and that we’d got to go to Japan. Well, I was virtually totally inebriated at the time and the last thing I wanted to do was think of going to Japan, but once we’d done the race we set off for Tokyo. Poor old Akagi had probably heard that I was coming because he’d had a major heart attack, and we arrived to find him in intensive care, but anyway, that was the start of Formula One again.
“So we set out to do Formula One in a different fashion with Leyton House March – I wouldn’t necessarily say a better fashion – but a more enjoyable fashion than perhaps was traditionally carried out. And we had two fabulous years, with Ian Phillips, Tim Holloway, Adrian Newey, Cesare, Ivan and Mauricio. It was a pity it went slightly sour towards the end with machinations and manipulations…”
In three of the last four races in 1988 Capelli was ahead of Senna or Prost in the normally aspirated March 881, against the might of the turbocharged McLarens, and the team seemed on its way. Along the pit lane it was regarded as the happiest, the most popular. Nobody who witnessed Capelli’s moment in the lead in Suzuka will ever forget it, even if the recovering Senna did quickly depose him as the 881 cut out. It was a team that was going places, that seemed to know what it was doing. Somewhere along the line it lost its direction. As part of his deal with Akira Akagi when the latter bought him out by the following year’s Brazilian GP, Herd was not allowed to have a technical involvement with another F1 team for three years. Last year he helped to set up the Fomet facility in the old March premises in Bicester, sorting out the non-technical details such as finance and the business side as Holloway and Tino Belli worked on a cunning and cost-effective update of the old OseIla for Fondmetal wheel magnate Gabriele Rumi. Somehow, at the time, it seemed as if Herd was simply dabbling, especially as there was at the beginning of 1991 talk that he would run Eddie Jordan’s Barclay-backed F3000 team. By the end of the year, however, Rumi did not feel that he could carry on, but Herd was not prepared to surrender what Fomet had just begun to build up, “We’d done lots of work on the programme, and we didn’t want to give up. The timing went wrong with Rumi, because later he would decide to carry on after all, but by then I’d called Gerard Larrousse when he was in Paris trying to sort things out as the Australian GP was taking place. It all clicked very quickly.”
Larrousse did not agree initially, but thought the proposals through overnight and got in contact the following day. “At first I wasn’t sure,” he admits, “but then I call Robin to say yes!”
Herd is a naturally buoyant individual. If he wasn’t, March Engineering would never have got off the ground in the first place, let alone won its second ever F1 race only months after kicking off in motor racing as a Formula Three constructor. There is no mistaking his enthusiasm for his new project. In the early days of March Engineering the company walked a financial tightrope, on which Herd had to balance alone when Max Mosley finally left. When Robin came back third time around with Leyton House, he was still the juggler of the technical and financial factors. Now, though, he faces his best opportunity since his Sixties days at McLaren to indulge in pure engineering.
Ask him about the concept for the new Venturi-Larrousse and he is almost cagey. “I don’t believe that anyone is clever enough to have all the ideas, Tim, Tino and I work very well together, and technical decisions almost tend to make themselves. When Max and I worked together at March the same sort of thing happened. We never ever had a dispute or a confrontation, because if we had differing points of view we would argue or talk them through rationally and a way forward would emerge.” With only three months in which to produce a new car, its concept was necessarily straightforward, but the team has worked together long enough to have shrewd ideas on what is needed in today’s F1 milieu. Herd cites seven factors that are necessary for success.
“Tyres, the team, the chassis, the fuel, the budget, the engine and the drivers. On the first we are equal because everyone has Goodyears. Hopefully there won’t be any qualifiers. As far as the team is concerned, I’m very happy that we don’t have to go through setting one up. We can just concentrate on the engineering. I believe that we have a good team. The chassis will be good, I believe, although again I think the Williams will be the best. Adrian Newey was surprised when he went there that the technical level was the same as Leyton House’s, but the organisation was much better. We have 15 engineers, Williams has 20, and the difference is in electronics and software. I believe that by 1993 we will be of the same calibre as Williams.
“Fuel is now the seventh factor, but one of the most crucial. Unless you have the correct technical relationship with a fuel company, you almost needn’t bother. Ferrari, Williams and McLaren have good relationships with Agip, Elf and Shell respectively, obviously, but there are two teams with BP and we’re one of them. That gives those five teams a substantial advantage, when there is up to 60bhp to be gained from having the right specification fuel.
“We have the budget to do a sufficient job. We are not yet up to the level of Benetton, but it’s good. I have worked out Williams’ budget and that’s what we are aiming at for 1993. Gerard gets the use of the bottom circuit at Paul Ricard free throughout the year, so we hope to utilise that to the full, but as we’ve learned in the past Ricard can be a dangerous circuit because it’s very flat and doesn’t show how the car handles over bumps!
“There are two areas in which we may not be so advantaged, where there is scope for development, 1991 was a race of engines, and we do not have a Ferrari, a Honda, a Renault or the Ford HB, which I think was underrated last year. We have the Lamborghini. On its 1991 form that could be a negative, but Chrysler is putting a lot more funding into it, and more technical support, and hopefully Larrousse and Minardi will prove better than the teams which ran the engine in 1991. I’m interested that Gianni Morbidelli thinks the Minardi Lamborghini is as good as the Minardi Ferrari was, although of course we can never be sure just what specification Ferrari engine Minardi had last year.
“On the driving front I think that Ukyo Katayama will surprise people, but he is a number two, because of his lack of experience. He is very small, which helps! And quite fiery! Our number one driver, as I say this, hasn’t been selected.
“So, we have four very good areas and others, which can get better. We obviously look to seven very good factors for 1993, but are trying to be realistic. I’d give McLaren eight for its chassis, 10 for everything else, and 11 for the driver! Williams gets 10 for its chassis, nine for the team because the odd wheel comes loose, and nine for its driver, 10 for its fuel and nine for its engine. It has a very well spent budget. Benetton doesn’t have too many negatives, while nobody can be sure what Ferrari will achieve, although Steve Nichols has a free hand on the chassis for 1992. The engine was okay but unreliable last year, and Agip has a learning curve now that it is switching to unleaded fuel. I believe that Benetton will come up to Ferrari’s level this year.
“Eddie Jordan did a fantastic job last year to finish fifth in the Constructors’ Championship and we hope our operation approaches his level. When we were arrogant, naive and foolish back in 1970 with March we would have told you that we had everything, no problem. In our middle age we are quite happy to tell you that we have every intent to get to the same level as McLaren and Williams. We wouldn’t be doing it unless we believed that. There are five or six teams with the same motivation, and others who are content just to earn a good living in quite a glamorous fashion.
“It’s a challenge,” he affirms, and here is a man to whom challenge is vital, who, despite his feelings on winning and losing, still needs some form of career stimulation. “It’s a challenge which one can realistically see coming off. That doesn’t mean that we will be successful, and sure it’s going to be difficult, but we know where the strengths are and we know where the weaknesses are and it’s up to us to build into a position where we can mount a really strong challenge in 1993 or 1994.
“Formula One is the highest mountain we’ve ever tackled in motor racing, and in my own career it’s the only one I’ve failed to climb consistently bar those few successes in the Seventies.”
Though it might ultimately embarrass him to succeed Robin Herd, you sense, is prepared to do everything an Edmund Hillary would have done to rectify that shortcoming. D J T