The worst car I ever drove - Formula flawed

Johnny Herbert – 1986 Quest SF86 Formula Ford 2000

While some of his Formula One seats have left a bit to be desired, Johnny Herbert tells Adam Cooper about his FF2000 nightmare

Now the longest serving driver in Grand Prix racing, Johnny Herbert made his debut in Brazil in March 1989 — some three months before current Sauber team-mate Jean Alesi appeared on the scene. Winner of two Grands Prix for Benetton in 1995, Johnny has established a reputation as a solid, dependable driver who gets the job done. But it’s easy to forget that when he first hit the limelight he was regarded as one of the greatest natural talents to come along in years, a young man who seemed destined for World Championship success.

Herbert’s early career was mercurial, and it all seemed to come so easy to him. A huge star in karts, he won the Formula Ford Festival in 1985, the British F3 title in 1987, and was a leading light in the 1988 FIA F3000 series until his horrific leg-breaking shunt at Brands Hatch. Despite that massive setback, he was in F1 with Benetton in 1989.

You may have noticed that one year is missing from the above precis of his CV. In 1986 Johnny drove in the British FF2000 series, moving up with same Quest team with which he’d starred in FF1600. Far from repeating the success of the previous year, he struggled through a season which almost sent him tumbling into obscurity…

At the time FF2000 was the crucial ‘slicks ‘n wings’ link between the nursery slopes of FF1600 and the sophistication of F3. Ayrton Senna had contested the British series as recently as 1982, while Damon Hill had made his first, unsteady steps in fourwheeled racing in the category at the end of ’83. It was the obvious route for ‘golden boy’ Johnny to take, and he was joined by fellow FF1600 graduates Mark Blundell and Bertrand Gachot.

The car of choice was the Reynard, which had been dominant for several seasons, and even the crack works Van Diemen and Swift teams struggled to beat the Bicester cars. The Maidstone-based Quest outfit, run by Mike Thompson, had been something of a valiant underdog in FF1600, and neat suspension tweaks had given Johnny the chance to shine. Everyone thought the pattern could be repeated in the quicker 2-litre category. However, Johnny’s success had enabled tiny Quest to sell a lot of customer FF1600 cars, and his new FF2000 machine was put together almost as an afterthought.

“I thought it would be a good step,” he recalls, “but I didn’t know if it was going to be the right one. The car had a two-inch spacer between the engine and the gearbox, and the rest of it was exactly the same as the FF1600. Eventually they made another chassis where the tubing clown the side was a bit thicker. Of course it had never been in the wind tunnel… And it was an aerodynamic brick! When I first got the car we had a Raft F3 wing on the back, and the front may have been off a Ralt as well. We tried a lot of really ugly endplates, but it just didn’t have any aerodynamics.

“During testing at Brands Hatch we were three seconds off the pace. I told Mike Thompson and the mechanics to go to Dingle Dell, and I’d go round that corner at a speed that I thought it should be possible to take it in an FF2000. I came charging up, down into third gear, turned in about 20mph faster than I’d ever been before, and I went on the grass, boom, boom, boom from one side of the track to the other. All the wheels were hanging off. The guys were all laying on the bank laughing…”

The team became so desperate that it even tried running a rear wing Johnny brought from home.

“Before I raced FF1600, Sisley Karting had moved in to a new workshop. We went up there, searching around and clearing it up. It had been used by a team called Scorpion, and in the rubbish we found this old rear wing. It was a horrible, mustardy yellow colour. Even at that time it was about 10 years old! I thought I’d take it home and have it on my wall. Anyway, a few years later I bent it back so it was a bit straighter, and we actually tested it on the Quest…”

As the season turned into a classic battle between Blundell and Gachot, Johnny was left trailing, only rarely getting anywhere near the points. He didn’t even make the top ten in the British championship.

“I used to race with a guy called Jo Lindstrom, who was in the Argo. The Argo was basically just as bad as the Quest was, so we used to have a lot of good races together! I did win a race at Donington Park once, just, by the skin of my teeth, when I beat Frank Bradley. It was very good, but it was only a local Donington race!”

At the end of the season a tubby, bespectacled Canadian teenager called Paul Tracy came over to drive the works Van Diemen at Brands Hatch.

“I qualified 16th or something, and he was 15th. I was-rather annoyed that this Billy Bunter lookalike was in front of me. It was a case of, ‘I’m not having this, this guy is not going to last a lap.’ I must say it’s the only time in my career that I’ve said that and actually achieved it. Whenever I used to think about it, mainly in karting, I could never do it properly. But I gave him a little nudge and he went off at Clearways. So I beat Paul Tracy…”

Johnny says that despite the lack of results, he wasn’t worried about his career going off the rails. “At that time, probably not. I was still enjoying racing, not really thinking about it”

He was saved by a few late-season F3 outings which allowed him to remind everyone of his talent. A chance meeting with Eddie Jordan at a winter prize-giving dinner was the break he needed. “Eddie had thought I was going with somebody else, but I hadn’t signed anything, so we struck a deal more or less that night to do F3 with him the following year.”

Success in F3 in ’87 put Johnny back on track for Grand Prix stardom. In the past 10 years he’s had his ups and downs, with the latter coming mostly during the final years of a struggling Lotus team. Were there times at Lotus when he actually looked back fondly on the Quest, perhaps during the difficult active suspension years?

“Actually, the active was the best thing about it, it was just the thing it was bolted to that was bad! The system was really, really good. It had a few glitches, and sometimes you’d have one wheel that was dragging behind like a broken leg on a dog. But I found that car fun…”