This week saw the launch of Johnny Herbert’s book What Doesn’t Kill You: My Life In Motor Racing, and Badger’s Sarah Merritt was lucky enough to get an early copy to read, ahead of catching up with the man himself at one of his book signings in London.
We all know Herbert as a bubbly chap co-presenting on Sky Sports F1. We know he’s an ex-F1 driver. Depending on your age (apologies recent fans who’ve popped along, this isn’t meant as an insult) you may know more about him, but even to the more knowledgeable fan his book offers something that you will likely not have heard before, and that is personal insight; telling his own story, how it was, from behind the scenes.
Johnny’s stats, should you Google him, would appear as “British racing driver from Brentwood, 3 F1 wins, 7 F1 podiums, Le Mans Winner 1991” and then immediately mention Brands Hatch in 1988, the scene of an accident where he sustained injuries that almost halted his promising career. If it had, the aforementioned career statistics would not exist, and this is the most remarkable take-away from the book. After that crash, Herbert kept smiling through the pain, worked around his disabilities to still find a way to drive, and made all of that aforementioned racing success happen.
From the opening page, Johnny’s book had me smiling. The words that I was reading on the pages in front of me entered my head in his voice; it was almost like he was reading it aloud to me. Making people laugh, being a joker, playing pranks; these are all things that he goes on to describe in the book around the serious stuff – and Johnny marries the two together well.
He walks us through a career commencing with a holiday dalliance into karting, then with the support of his family upon seeing he has talent, sees progress to be British Junior Karting Champion, before winning the Formula 3 title with Eddie Jordan. Post-crash, Johnny doesn’t give up and strives to make it to the grid in Brazil and that much coveted F1 drive, and walks us through the pain, the politics, and the podiums that followed, complete with stories about teammates, legends, and making history.
I met up with Herbert at Waterstones in Leadenhall Market, London, just as he was finishing a radio interview and signing copies of his book that had been pre-ordered by customers. His multi-tasking was excellent, with nearly all books getting the correct name in them whilst also doing a fine impression of Jackie Stewart describing how Johnny should drive (I’ll let you get to that part of the book!).
Sarah Merritt: Johnny, thanks for taking the time out ahead of your book signing to talk to me today. There’s quite a queue of fans forming outside already! I’ve been lucky enough to read the book ahead of today and I really enjoyed it. Why was now the right time for you to put pen to paper? Is it any coincidence that Damon has released a book this year, did that perhaps sow the seed or was it totally independent of that?
Johnny Herbert: Totally independent! I didn’t want to get involved with the champ! (laughs).
I have thought about it before, and the way it all came about was that it felt like the perfect time because of this young generation that we have like Max (Verstappen), Carlos (Sainz Jr.), Ocon (Esteban Ocon) and more. These guys have come into Formula 1 in a similar way that I did, but of course, the safety has completely changed.
My story is completely different than those guys will probably know about, to be honest, because the whole world is in a very different place. Especially with the crash, and how I came along after it. I was this “next big thing” that was going to happen.
I had Peter Warr interested at Lotus, I had Enzo Ferrari who wanted to meet me the week before I had my crash, and then I had Frank Williams at Brands, who wanted to see me after the race. Obviously, I also had Peter Collins of Benetton with an option for the 1989 season anyway. So, a bit like Max, I had everybody wanting a piece of me.
SM: Hot property, you’d say then?
JH: Yes I was, I was the Michael Schumacher of the world at that point, but of course it all went in the blink of an eye. It all changed in a massive way. I always explained it as being like a ball that got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. I was on top of it, and I was invincible, that’s how I felt, and I could beat anybody, anywhere, any track, in any conditions. I had that aura that people felt because I was always very shy.
(At this point, I pull a face at Johnny and giggle. The man that I have met before and am chatting to does not strike me as shy! He tells me that motorsport has helped him overcome it, but back then, it was far more prevalent.)
JH: After the crash, and many years later, I was told that I was looked upon as arrogant in Formula 3000 because my shyness meant that I didn’t talk to many people. How powerful is that? That was the aura that I put out there, and drivers get that!
There’s an aura from Lewis, there’s definitely an aura that we get from Max, and that is part of what you need to have. Ayrton had one, Damon had one, Nigel too. That is part of the power a driver needs to be able to get to the top. I had all the ingredients there, the belief from everybody in the paddock, the self-belief, and then in a blink of an eye that all evaporated.
After the crash, I never ever got that back to the same degree. Of the guys that win – there’s good, very good, and elite, and I think I was in the elite – but it popped, and then I just became good.
SM: You may say that, but I think that three F1 wins, including the British Grand Prix in 1995, seven podiums across your seven teams, and a Le Mans win in 1991 is a pretty good way to be remembered.
JH: It’s nice, and I had to work damn hard to get to Brands Hatch, but then I had to work 100 times harder just to get to Brazil (1989, Johnny’s first F1 race), and during my career, I had to work 50 times harder than I should have done before the crash just because the raw natural ability that I think I had, and that I see with the Hamilton’s of this world, got lost.
My belief of being able to drive right on the limit – something I always used to feel through the tips of my fingers and the tips of my toes, and through my backside in the seat – was something I never had again. All those little ingredients that you need to be the best weren’t there anymore. I never used to think about where I was going to brake or turn, it just happened.
I believe Lewis is the same; if you ask him where he looks when he goes into Copse, he’s not looking at a board, or a marshall post, or a dark patch on the tarmac, and it’s all natural. After my accident, yes, I had to pick out points, so I lost that natural ability, sadly.
SM: What I loved when I was reading the book was how light-hearted you kept it – I could feel you injecting your personality into every page, and I could hear you saying what I was reading! Now I know in the book that you say this was your way of dealing with things after the accident, to make jokes, so how difficult was it going over the accident to write about it again – does it feel like it drags it all up again every time you discuss it?
JH: I don’t have a problem with talking about it. I tell you what is funny; at the first talk we did, in Bath, I actually cried on the stage. Now, I’m not normally like that, but for whatever reason, talking about it and knowing it’s in the book made that emotion come out of how I had to get the energy to get through this – my foot is hanging off, I’ve got bits of grass coming out of it, and there’s a point when I had massive amounts of pus coming out as there was an infection in the left one. Then I remember going to Austria and having to climb up the mountain, and it was almost like snipping off the tips of each toe as it was so raw, and I had to do that about ten times each day, then the next day, and the next week, and the next month. It was so intense, but I had to do it.
I always say it was like a jigsaw puzzle – I had the missing piece and it was just about to go in but then I dropped it. I got that close, and then it was gone! Then I had to say, “right, well I’ve got to dig in, I’m not going to let this beat me” and it was always “I will try my best”. If I don’t make it, I tried. If I do make it, then, of course, it will be worth going through what I went through and luckily it was the latter, but Peter Collins was that man who gave me that chance twice.
It’s nice that everybody still remembers Rio where there was this broken man, a cripple, whatever you wanted to call me, and he was able to shock the whole paddock. That’s nice, but it’s not what I wanted – I wish I hadn’t had it. Tell you what I am going to do in my next life is give these to Lewis. (Johnny points at his feet). I just want to see what I would do with normal feet, and what he would do with my broken ones!
SM: In the book, you talk a lot about your relationships with team members and bosses, and you do use the F word a lot – by that, I don’t mean the expletives in the style of Mr. Vettel of late, I mean Flavio! You’ve been quite open about Flavio Briatore and his treatment of you, and the lack of praise he gave you when you did well as a driver in his team. Do you talk to him now? You must see him around the paddock on your travels?
JH: I’ve seen him, yes. I suppose I’ve gotten over it. I still bear a grudge as to how he treated me – he was the manager of the team, and he managed my part of it very, very badly. If I am honest, would I have beaten Michael with everything? Probably not, but it should have been a hell of a lot closer than it was, and Flavio never really allowed that to happen, especially with that data thing in Argentina, which was stupid. (Johnny was stopped from being able to review Michael’s data, whilst Michael could still review his).
I understand Michael asking, I understand him wanting to try and take control of the situation and use that energy towards winning the world championship, but it was Flavio’s job to say “No, Michael, this is a team, we work together” and then we’d go out there and go racing, and beat each other fair and square.
When it happened, mentally it was quite a hard thing for me to take. I expected it to be tough, but I didn’t expect it to be as tough as it was early on. I thought it would be later, but when it came about in that way, it was hard. Ross Brawn was very good, actually, and talked to me in the meetings about it.
SM: I was going to mention that Ross, and Pat Symonds, were both at the team at the time – have you ever talked about this with them in later years?
JH: No, it had happened and that was the way it was. I tried to deal with it, I may not have done that in the way I should have, but I did decide at one point that I might not be able to compete in qualifying. The main thing was getting the race to go as well as I can. That was really my focus but I still had that support factor that wasn’t there from the man who should be feeding that through the team to the drivers.
I was also having to deal with my injuries at the same time – I was in a lot of pain in every single Grand Prix I raced in for the last 10-15 laps, but I couldn’t share that with anyone, because as soon as they knew I would have been out!
Instead of a driver just getting in the car and driving away, I had to deal with all the other stuff that was going on here (Johnny points to his feet), but also deal with the Formula 1 bubble and politics you get from people like Flavio not helping out. I had a lot more to deal with than a normal racing driver.
SM: I believe you were interviewed by Ron Dennis once. What are the circumstances surrounding that, and how did you end up not driving at McLaren as a result of it?
JH: It didn’t last very long! I walked in the office, and the first thing he said was – not “good morning, how are you, how’s the family, welcome to McLaren, lovely weather outside” – no, he looked at me and said, “I need to change you”. That was all part of the defence mechanism that I had – the bubbly me that you get today – I was trying to almost laugh the pain away.
It was the only way I could find of dealing with it, but when you do that, and especially in Ron’s case, people don’t think you are serious. That was why he wanted to change me, and as soon as that was said, I knew it was really not for me. I didn’t pursue it any further. I can understand it from the other side; people not being sure and thinking I’m just mucking about, and not putting myself in the right frame of mind to race. I went off and did other things with Sauber, and then to Stewart, and then Jaguar, and the nice thing that happened with Stewart was great (Johnny drove Stewart to their only race victory). It had been an experience, it didn’t happen and that’s fine. I’m not saying that I wish it had because I had enjoyment driving with other teams instead.
SM: Let’s talk about where you are now – working with Sky Sports F1 and on our TV’s over every race weekend – and you all appear to get on very well together as a team. You mention in your book that you have a great love of practical jokes (and give a particularly good example of one with a bath, a flannel and a certain world champion that had me in stitches!) so I’m wondering if that is something you engage in with the Sky team – do you play pranks on each other?
JH: I have only done it when we went to Korea, where had about a four-hour ride from Seoul to Mokpo, and we were on a coach. It was one of the support team, not Simon or one of the presenters, and he was asleep with his earphones on. Over the years, and I’ve done this a few times, where I have a little bit of a snog. He was asleep at the back and I leant over and gave him a big kiss, and he woke up and freaked out. He got his arm round my neck, he twisted my head round, pinned me on his thigh, whilst heavy breathing, and I thought “oh dear!”. I tried to speak and he pinched my earlobe and squeezed it as hard as he could, and then he suddenly realised who I was…and then panicked big time. Not one person – Simon, Natalie, Damon was there I think – came to rescue me! They left me there being pinned down.
So that’s one thing I do. I also always touch them slyly, tickle their testicles, and I just have fun with them and they join in. I go nowhere near Lazenby’s though…!
SM: Last question, and I have to ask this one – two races remain; Nico or Lewis for the world championship?
JH: I think Nico. I think he has just had that luck this year that sometimes you need. Lewis undoubtedly has been unlucky, but does Nico deserve it? Yes. Is it fair for Lewis? No, but that’s life, and sometimes it doesn’t quite work out for you, and we know he’s going to win another one.
It’s not over yet though – we don’t know, it could be that at the final race, we’re into the final ten laps and then ‘kaboom’ with Nico leading, and that’s it and it’s all change! But I think he deserves it personally, the last two years he’s been up there, and he’s a good lad.
My time with Johnny is up and we head upstairs to the table where he will be signing copies of his life story. There’s a fine turnout, and the queue outside is a long one despite the fact it has started raining. Johnny seems to have a solid fan base and it’s great to watch him interacting with each person, in turn, some of whom had brought along some memorabilia, as well as getting a copy or two of the book signed. In addition to the Minichamps cars and the scale replica helmets, there’s some autograph cards from back in the day, and my personal favourite of mine, a copy of Autosport with the green cover celebrating Johnny’s 1995 British Grand Prix win. Johnny smiles as he signs it…
Johnny’s book, What Doesn’t Kill You (My Life in Motor Racing) is out now, and he has more signing events scheduled in – take a look at his twitter account @johnnyherbertf1 to see where you can catch up with him.
Many thanks to Johnny and to Penguin Random House for their time.