New F1 tracks used to offer differences. Now we expect perfection: Johnny Herbert

Johnny Herbert at the 2012 European Grand Prix in Valencia. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

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When I was racing, what I most enjoyed about new tracks was the differences they offered. The surfaces were usually tricky, whereas now there’s this expectation that they’ve all got to be the same. That’s not how it should be. If we have the same ‘F1 asphalt’ at every track, then the differentiation will only come from whatever Pirelli brings to the event.

Phoenix, which held the US Grand Prix in my debut season, was the bumpiest track I ever drove on and it was unbelievably physical because of that. Then in Adelaide there used to be rubber ‘marbles’ on the left and right; the track was just covered. But that was expected when you headed there and it was how you dealt with it that was the challenge. That’s what I expected F1 to be: punishing.

Now we expect perfection, but having a clean track isn’t normal. I liked Miami because it was unpredictable for the drivers and it was harder for them to settle. They’d done all their simulations, got there and found it different because of the surface. Still, by the end of the weekend the natural pecking order had been restored.

At Mercedes there remained plenty of unpredictability. George Russell was looking confident in practice, even topping the second session, then he went into qualifying and it
all fell apart. The changes the team brought improved the performance, but it still hasn’t solved that porpoising unpredictability within the set-up. It’s not a bad thing for George: he’s learning from Lewis Hamilton and the team in a difficult situation that is getting better. It will accelerate his experience with all that information that is coming at him and it will prove very useful further down the line.

“If we let F1 stand still, that would be bad. It has to move and change”

Lewis had a similar experience at McLaren after winning the championship in 2008, when he could win the odd race but couldn’t go for the championship. It took another couple of years for that to happen. But it makes you stronger. Look at a more extreme example: Jenson Button at Benetton in 2001. Flavio Briatore almost killed his career. He had that horrible, negative experience with his boss not supporting him, in a car that wasn’t good enough. It helped make him a world champion.

On Ferrari vs Red Bull, Ferrari knows it has a good car, but not a slippery car in a straight line. As we saw in Miami, Ferrari can capitalise in qualifying, but in the race Max Verstappen could overtake Charles Leclerc, but Charles didn’t have what he needed to get him back in the closing stages.

Ferrari has to up its game. Can Charles do anything about it? He can only give his feedback to the aerodynamicists and his team to help find the upgrades to move the car forward. But he can learn from the example of Michael Schumacher in this scenario. Michael took the responsibility to push for changes. He was always on top of it.

What complicates the situation is the budget cap, which dictates when Ferrari brings updates. It’s a step into the unknown, and the same is true for Red Bull: when does it rein back on development? Back at Mercedes, the team clearly needs to return to the front and I think it can do it because of the good strides it has made recently. But there’s a point where it’s going to become financially tougher.

Finally, did F1 crack America? So many celebrities turned out – Pharrell Williams, David Beckham, Michael Jordan and good old Willy T Ribbs! There was a circus element in taking the drivers on buggies to the distant podium, then walking out in Pirelli-branded American football helmets. I know many didn’t like it, but I don’t have a problem with razzmatazz. If we always let F1 stand still, that would be a bad thing. It has to move and change with the times, and it’s always different racing in America.

We never used to see the behind-the-scenes stuff, did we? Remember when Murray Walker and James Hunt were on the BBC? The programme would begin five minutes before the start and end sometimes before the podium. When I started, the TV companies I can remember covering F1 were the BBC, Globo in Brazil and the French and Italian broadcasters. It’s a different world now – and while the fundamental traditions of F1 are still there, it’s moved on. Take DRS: so many people moan about it being fake, but as soon as we had the situation we had at Imola where it’s not in use, what happens? We get a traditional procession.

Change has to be embraced on and off the track, and via that screen through which we experience most of it. But if you didn’t like Miami, just wait until Las Vegas next year.