The seven-year itch

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Damien Smith

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That’s how much time has passed since Johnny Herbert last raced an Audi R8 sports prototype – so how would its 2011 Le Mans-winning R18 stablemate compare?
By Damien Smith

Johnny Herbert is giggling, and as usual it seems to be contagious. He’s attempting to press himself into a ‘bucket’ seat that has been moulded to the pert contours of ‘wee’ Allan McNish, but it’s proving to be a bit of a squeeze. Now, Johnny himself is more Ronnie Corbett than John Cleese, but at the hard-to-believe age of 47 perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that he’s a little less diddy than he once was. “Allan, you’ve got the hips of a girlie,” he chuckles as he scrambles up off the pitlane concrete. “Ah, he doesn’t change,” grins Joest Racing’s veteran technical director Ralf Jüttner. “Well, maybe a little bit…”

Still, it’s impressive that Johnny fits comfortably into his old Audi overalls. They date back to his Team Veloqx days of 2004 when he won the Le Mans Endurance Series in an R8, the illustrious open-top prototype that conquered the Le Mans 24 Hours an incredible five times in the first half of the last decade. That title would prove to be Herbert’s last hurrah as a sports prototype top-liner, following his heroic Le Mans victory with Mazda way back in 1991 and a trio of near-miss second places in the classic between 2002 and ’04. Now, seven years later, here he is again, preparing for a special one-off return to a contemporary prototype cockpit – all for the sake of Motor Sport.

I’d almost fallen off my chair when the offer came through one September evening. Here was Audi brazenly allowing us to be let loose in its latest precious pride of the race tracks, the stunning R18 turbodiesel coupé. And not just any of its R18s. Oh no. It would be chassis number R18-106, the actual car that won the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours, the stealth racer that broke tens of thousands of French hearts in June by defeating the Peugeots against all the odds.

So who should we send? There are few journalists with the ability to make a substantial dent in the performance of such a thoroughbred – and even fewer below the six-foot height restriction set by the supremely tight confines of the roofed coupé. A lithe racing driver who can properly exploit the limits of the R18, but with some perspective – that’s what we needed. Step forward our man Herbert, veteran of 160 GPs (three of which he won), a racer old enough to have experienced the glories of Group C and young enough to have competed at the highest level in the past 10 years, and with Audi history to boot. He’d do.

The venue is Misano, the sort of tight little racing circuit that drivers like to describe as ‘technical’. Situated on the north-east coast of Italy, it’s best known as Valentino Rossi’s backyard and plays host to the country’s MotoGP round. Misano’s mixture of hard-braking acute corners, decent-length straights and fast twin kinks on the back stretch will offer Johnny something to get his teeth into – and he’s been here before. These days Herbert is enjoying a late touring car bloom, racing in the Italian-based Superstars V8 series.

In the paddock on a warm, sunny morning, Herbert steps from his hire car. He flew in late the night before and has only snatched a few hours sleep, but you wouldn’t know it. The familiar hobbled walk – legacy of that ankle-demolishing Formula 3000 shunt at Brands 23 years ago – the short curly crop of still-blond hair, the shiny red cheeks at each end of that trademark grin. Yep, here’s Johnny…

*

Handshakes and banter follow – Jüttner knows Johnny well, not only from his Audi days but also from his stint as a ‘Bentley Boy’ racing the Speed 8 at Le Mans in 2003 – before we are all ushered upstairs for a technical briefing. Jüttner hands Johnny an R18 company driving manual (yes, really), the 1995 British GP winner flicks through it – “yep, read it!” – and giggles. “Are you going to have a go?” Herbert asks me. “No, I’m too, er… shit,” I answer. He creases up again: “Aw, go on. I like a laugh!”

Jüttner’s briefing is to the point. Benoît Tréluyer, who with Marcel Fässler and André Lotterer steered the car to the famous victory in June, has already been out this morning to warm the car up – and set a base time. Jüttner explains that his regular ace turns the traction control dial to eight, to make the most of the R18’s torquey little V6 out of the turns. The most conservative setting is 12, which is Johnny’s starting point for his run. He makes a mental note. “Use full throttle changing up,” says Jüttner, “but don’t touch the throttle when shifting down. It doesn’t like it. We are running to the standard engine configuration today, so there is no reduction in power. And on braking… we can’t help you. ABS is not active.”

The voice in his earpiece during the run will belong to Leena Gade, who made history with this R18 by becoming the first female to engineer a winning car at Le Mans. “Leena is your boss today,” states Jüttner. “You listen to her. Marcel says it’s like listening to a satellite navigation system…” And the most important piece of information: “Needless to say, [Audi motor sport boss] Dr Ullrich would like to have this little car back in one piece.”

Down in the pitlane, Johnny is introduced to ‘Red Sonja’ – this R18’s nickname, dubbed by the mechanics, who borrowed it from the scantily clad cartoon superhero made real for boys of a certain age by the voluptuous Brigitte Nielsen. Anyway… suitable seat fitted, Johnny cocks a leg over Red Sonja (sorry), slides into the tiny aperture and nestles into the seat. It looks so cramped, so claustrophobic, but he quickly makes himself comfortable. Familiar red, white and blue helmet on, fighter plane steering wheel clamped in place, and he’s ready to go.

As McNish says, “This car’s been in a war.” The battle scars and pockmarks earned through 24 hours of hard graft at the Circuit de la Sarthe are still worn by the R18 with pride (Audi, quite rightly, doesn’t believe in any concours gloss nonsense for a car with such history). Since Le Mans, it’s been up Goodwood’s hill… and that’s it. Once we’re finished with it today, R18-106 will become a cherished museum piece.

With that in mind, Herbert doesn’t have long to get used to his first taste of a turbodiesel prototype. Following a couple of laps behind an A4 camera car and a brief pause in the pits, he heads out for a five-lap run: one out-lap, three fast laps and one in-lap. Not much, but for someone of Herbert’s experience, it’ll be enough.

We hang off the pitwall to watch Johnny cross the line for his first quick lap. Red Sonja, LED lights ablaze, darts out of the tight final turn and whooshes past us, the noise of air and rubber on Tarmac drowning out any hint of engine note, as always with these ‘silent assassin’ turbodiesels. Heads nod and eyebrows are raised as he brakes late and flashes through the first turn. Herbert, as you’d expect, isn’t hanging around.

There are big smiles as Johnny trundles back into the pitlane. “Impressive to jump in the car and get on with it like that,” says engineer Gade. “Drivers like that, they don’t really lose their edge even if they haven’t been out for a while. They’ve still got it in them to find the limit.”

Jüttner turns to Tréluyer: “Ben, you’ve just lost your contract!” Johnny pulls off his helmet and shrugs, “well, it’s just so driveable”. “I’ve said for years these drivers are overpaid!” grins Jüttner. “OK, let’s talk!” says Johnny. For the umpteenth time this morning, it’s belly laughs all round.

Later, in the air-conditioned calm of a hospitality suite, Herbert and McNish chat about the car, and how the breed has changed since Johnny’s days in the R8.

“When you came across the startline at the end of your out-lap and went into the first corner, it didn’t look like it had been seven years,” smiles McNish. “It kinda looked like it had been seven days!”

“I suppose I did have to work on experience knowing that it would stop!” says Johnny.

“And there’s a huge run-off area…”

“Exactly, but it’s one of those things. I don’t think you lose it. I might only be doing these Italian touring car things now, but I haven’t disappeared and then come back for this. That might have been a slightly different story. My body’s forgotten the forces, for sure, but it’s just nice that you can still jump in something, not feel out of place and still attack.

“It’s similar to what I remember, but it’s better than what I remember. Overall, with the torque and the greater grip you get from the wider front tyres they have now, and the aerodynamics, it’s a lot more like an F1 should have been during my GP career. When you, Allan, drove in F1 [for Toyota in 2002] it was almost like a driver could out-drive a car too easily. You should be able to get an ultimate car by the scruff of the neck and drive the damn thing. There’s still an element that it’s going to understeer because that’s the way these sports cars are designed and the way the rules are, but there are still certain high-speed corners where I’m sure these things, compared to 2002, ’03 and ’04 when they were pretty good, are now… Well, I’d imagine the Porsche Curves now are incredibly enjoyable.”

McNish nods: “You know going up through the Esses at Suzuka, through the left-hander before Degner 1 and 2, you were just hanging on in an F1 car? It’s just like that now at the Porsche Curves. It’s just so fast. You’re holding your breath and hanging on to the thing. Even on a qualifying run in an R10 or R15 or R8 you were 10kph slower than with this car.”

“That’s nice, because that’s what racing is all about,” says Johnny. “It shouldn’t be too easy.”

Nevertheless, around Misano the R18 didn’t prove too much of a challenge for Herbert. “OK, the rev range is very short, but the torque and the smoothness of the shifting is very different from what I remember back in 2004 with the R8 and before that with the Bentley,” he says. “It was a bit clunky then, although they revved a bit more because they were petrol engines. But I would say this is more fun. There’s no lag from the single turbo, and that torque is nice. You always want to get out of a corner and get on with it down the straight, and that’s what this does. The petrol cars never had that speed out of the corners.”

“It’s more refined in every department,” says McNish. “When we first got the diesel the power of the torque with the R10’s V12 was quite aggressive. Now with the traction control it has smoothed out. The gearshift has vastly improved too.”

Like most racing drivers, Herbert is no fan of traction control and prefers his right foot to decide how much power to grip is required on acceleration. But you use what you’ve got, and it was no surprise that Johnny found time to fiddle with the settings, even in his short run.

“When I started it was on setting 12, so I whacked it down to 10, then nine – and then on the in-lap I took it down to eight and it came alive,” he tells McNish. “It ‘released’ the car. But it was released in a driver-friendly way. I never got to a point where it snapped on me. I expected as it’s a diesel that it would be a bit snappy under acceleration because of the extra torque. I’m sure it can happen when you get to a certain point. But when I was on setting nine, as you floored it the TC sapped all the power and torque out of it, and it didn’t go anywhere.”

“There is a window, and there comes a point where you ask is it faster or slower with more or less traction control?” explains McNish. “It’s not necessarily about snappy oversteer or not, it’s just a case of what’s the optimum for performance.”

‘Driveability’ is a favourite topic of Herbert’s, who drove in eras where designers didn’t always give too much thought to the needs of the bloke in the cockpit. “In the early 1990s when my Formula 1 career was beginning designers didn’t really listen to the driver. In those days you had a piece of wood which you sat in for the seat fitting and you’d say ‘it’s a bit uncomfortable there’, and they’d say ‘well, we can’t do anything about it because that’s the way it is’. Sports cars were the same. They were never designed for the driver. They were designed to be as quick as they could be, and you just made a seat, got in the car and drove it.

“Engineers need to listen to the driver because he’s got to be at one with a race car – any race car. It’s surprising how long it’s taken for engineers and designers to work towards having it right for themselves but also for the driver too. Rory Byrne was the classic one for that. If he could have had a robot in the car, an electronic driver, that’s what he would have had. And he wasn’t unique. There were a lot of them like that.”

Allan nods in agreement: “One thing with this car, there was more interaction with the design group about what we wanted than with any of the other previous cars. In general the design group thought a lot about what we wanted and requested, and that has helped things out. For example the time on a gearshift and the feeling characteristics of how it reacts, for them it is nothing but for us it is quite big.”

But for all this talk about ‘driver-friendly’ racing cars, there’s one big blind spot with this Audi. Literally.

As the regulators have throttled the power with bigger restrictors for the dominant turbodiesels, cornering speeds have become ever more vital to gain back what’s been lost in a straight line. So for the R18, the Audi design team chose wider 18in front tyres to offer more grip – essentially the same size on the front as on the rear. But wider tyres means larger wheel arches, and with the driver sat lower than ever in the cockpit visibility has been affected.

“Out the left side I saw absolutely everything. I saw most of Italy on the left, perfect, no problems at all,” says Johnny. “I looked to the right, it all went dark! The wheel arch is so much higher than I remember. The only way I could see turning into right-handers was through the air louvres on the top of the wheel arch and you can then sort of spot where the kerb is. But of course it would be a different story at night.

“I can see how you can lose the positioning of a car. When we did the photos, I could get to a certain distance from the A4 camera car and more or less block it off completely from view on the right. So I could imagine at certain corners, such as the last corner at Sebring, that you can see something, you know it’s there, you turn in… and there’ll be a point where it disappears. Then you have to make the judgement whether he’s going to stick to his line. It would be very hard to see it.”

But it’s not simply a closed-car problem? “With the Bentley, visibility was obviously a bit of a problem compared to the open R8 and there was an element of blocking things off,” says Johnny. “But it didn’t block your entire view of what’s there, just part of it. So I can see the restriction now is a lot more difficult to judge. You can adapt to it and get used to it from a driving placement point of view, but it’s hard when passing other cars.”

As McNish points out, “The Bentley era, and the Porsche 911 GT1 and Toyota GT-One I drove in the late ’90s, were built to a different regulation base because they had to be built to road car dimensions, which isn’t the case now so there are no real restrictions. And the front tyres we had then were like bicycle tyres compared to these…”

Along with the blind spot, Herbert’s not a fan of the LED headlights that are another unique feature of the Audi. “Whether you look at them from 50 metres or from half a mile, the actual beam is almost the same,” he says, thinking about the GT driver who has to watch his mirrors as much as where he is going. “They are so bright, you have no idea if the car is at the beginning of the straight or not.” Surprisingly, he reckons the Group C Mazda headlights were the best that he experienced during his career.

But even if he can’t see or be seen, at least he won’t boil in the R18 cockpit. For Herbert, who knows all about heat exhaustion from his Mazda win all those years ago, the regulation that now dictates teams must control closed-cockpit temperatures gets a big thumbs up.

“The Mazda was so hot,” he remembers. “Even demoing it this year at Le Mans, there was hardly any breeze in there. The only experience I’ve had that compares was the Aston Martin DBR9 GT1 I drove in 2007, which had very static air in the cockpit. It did have air-con, but not when you were flat out. It only switched on when you eased off, at slower speed. In the Mazda the air just didn’t move. It built up and got hotter and hotter, and never went away.”

*

No surprise for Herbert that the R18 has its pros and cons – name a racing car that doesn’t – but as he and McNish discuss, the breed has been forced to evolve by rule changes that have made sports car racing more dangerous. “We can’t overtake GT cars on the straights,” states McNish. “And the pressure is the difference between winning and losing, which is defined in seconds. Look at Le Mans. The winning margin this year was 13sec, which is less than a tenth of a second a lap. If you look at it in terms of following a car through a series of bends, say at Atlanta through Turn 4 up through to Turn 5, you can lose three seconds, and if you do that three times in 10 hours you have basically lost the race.”

“Down the straight the differences between prototypes and GT cars are not very big,” agrees Johnny. “In the R8 I could just pass them down the straight. Now they have to literally slipstream GTs down the straight, and it’s wrong. It shouldn’t be like that. LMP cars are supposed to be the ultimate, so why shouldn’t they have the ultimate top speed as well?”

For a driver of McNish’s quality, he’s had a surprising number of collisions with slower cars this year. There was the big one at Le Mans, after which he and the photographers behind the tyre wall he hit were all lucky to walk away, and he also collided with a GT Ferrari at the Silverstone Six Hours. “I think vision was a factor in both accidents and the awareness of where cars were, from both perspectives,” he says in assessment. “Each time at Silverstone and also in Le Mans, when I’ve spoken to the driver of the other car they didn’t have a clue I was there at all. Probably if you go through all the incidents in the last wee while it’s because of that. It takes two to tango, I suppose, but certainly nowadays the speed differential is one of the factors. We don’t have the straightline speed, but we do have massive cornering speed, and they don’t necessarily see us when we get to the corner where we’ve got our big speed differentials.”

For Johnny, such problems are a mere talking point. Today has simply been about dropping into his old world – and finding out what’s changed. “You forget how good these things are,” he says. “I’ve done what I’ve done, I’ve achieved what I’ve achieved, but it’s still nice when you haven’t been in one for so long to actually feel it again, to be reminded what it’s like to drive something that just completely surrounds you, that you’re at one with and that gives you what you want. To have that grip, that torquey power. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

And his lap time? Well, Le Mans winner Tréluyer logged a 1min 28.7sec early in the morning. In just three flying laps, Herbert got down to 1min 31.0sec. First time in a prototype for seven years, first time in a turbodiesel – all at the age of 47.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect Johnny to be that close,” says Jüttner. “Quite impressive, eh?” Oh yes, Ralf. He’s still got it.

Factfile
Engine 3700cc turbocharged V6 diesel, 120-degree cylinder angle, 4 valves per cylinder, DOHC, Garrett turbocharger with boost restricted to 3.0 bar, direct injector TDI, fully stressed aluminium engine block
Power/Torque 532bhp/over 663 lb ft
Transmission rear-wheel drive, traction control
Gearbox sequential, electrically activated 6-speed sport X-trac gearbox
Monocoque Carbon-fibre composite design incorporating aluminium honeycomb core
Suspension independent suspension with double wishbones all round, pushrod system with torsion bars, adjustable dampers
Brakes hydraulic dual-circuit braking system, monobloc light-alloy brake callipers, ventilated carbon-fibre brake discs front and rear
Wheels OZ magnesium forged wheels, front 14.75 x 18 inch; rear 14.5 x 18 inch
Tyres Michelin radial, front 360/710-18; rear 370/710-18
Weight 900kg
Fuel capacity 65 litres

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