He was regarded as hot property in his early racing career, but a horrific accident at Brands Hatch never allowed Johnny Herbert to show his true potential. As he proves in his autobiography, What Doesn’t Kill You…, he didn’t let that get in the way of his dream of joining Formula One.
As most great stories go, they usually always begin with a dream. Johnny Herbert is not unlike any other racing driver who dreamt of one day making it into the world of Formula One, but his story goes beyond the ordinary struggle. What began as a promising career in motor racing, was turned upside down when Herbert suffered injuries from an F3000 crash at Brands Hatch in 1988 that would impact him for the rest of his life. But, since then, Herbert has achieved an illustrious racing career with three GP wins, seven podiums, a Le Mans victory and even a title in the Speedcar Series, exceeding the boundaries of what people thought was possible for him.
He tells the story in his aptly named autobiography, What Doesn’t Kill You…My Life in Motor Racing in that familiar voice that people have come to know and admire of the SKY F1 pundit. To the delight of fans, the book is riddled with laugh-out-loud anecdotes from the world of Formula One of the early 1990s to the 2000s including skinny dipping with JJ Lehto and a “sensational” pole dance number in a leopard print thong. This is, after all, Johnny Herbert we’re taking about, and any story of his wouldn’t be complete without a cheeky adventure or two…or three.
I spoke to Herbert over a phone interview as he prepares for another day of promotional book signings. Despite touring almost non-stop since his book launch, Herbert was more than happy to share his tale once again, “When I was coming through (racing), there was that element of danger that was there that we sort of accepted, but of course, I was the one, or one of the guys that got hurt by it and I suppose the book is telling that story that I got through it and it wasn’t easy.” He says. “I look back now and I think, ‘how did I do that?’ because it was just unbelievably painful and although it was just seven months, it felt like five years! It was just so intense trying to push yourself every single day and every single week and every month to get there. Mentally…phew! It was very very tough. I wish I hadn’t had it, would have been better without it, but it happened to me and it’s a way that I had to deal with it and it was that never give up situation.”
Born in 1964 in Romford, Essex, Herbert came from a family with no background of motor racing, save for an uncle who had owned a fun kart in Cornwall where the young Herbert would spend his summer holidays there, “My uncle did a bit of karting but he wasn’t very good. I was the only one” he laughs. The then underaged Herbert’s small stature and long blonde locks, (which he describes as looking more like Cinderella than a mini James Hunt) gave him not much choice but to fiddle with his birth date in order to be allowed a license to compete, which eventually led him to be banned from every kart circuit in the UK until he was 12.
I asked if being the first person to get seriously involved in racing in his family made much of a difference to his early career, “As far as it makes a difference, I think if a family has money, it helps, but talent is the number one and most important thing. My father was an electrician, we didn’t have that much money, but it was OK and we had a colour television very, very early, so we had little things like that. Racing is quite an expensive sport because you always need some support and I think if you have money, you can pay for the support, but if you haven’t got the money, you have to prove and you need to earn that support.”
“I think the way my career went was that I always had to earn the support that I got and then I always repay back. Bill Sisley was sort of the first guy who sponsored me in karting, he gave me some karts and some engines…so that support was very important for me and I won the Junior British Championship in 1979 for example, then when I moved up to Formula Ford, I was driving for the QUEST Racing team and I won the Formula Ford Festival, so that was me paying back.”
“Then I met Eddie Jordan and he needed a drive and he thought I was the right driver, so he took me on. He had the majority of the budget that we needed and I had to find a little bit, which we were able to get. Then he gave me the team, the car, the engine, and then he gave me all of what I needed and then it was down to me to give back which was what I was able to do and we won the Formula 3 Championship. So you always you gotta be helped and you also gotta give back at the same time – it’s not just take, take, take.”
After the F3 win, his career was quickly gaining in credibility and Herbert was even widely regarded as the next Jim Clark, “Before I had the accident, I was sort of the next big thing. Everybody was trying to get me, Benetton had an option with me, Peter Warr from Lotus was interested in me, Enzo Ferrari, Frank Williams… So, when I went to Brands Hatch, I was just full of the most massive amount of confidence that anybody could feel and when the accident happened, of course that all sort of…in a blink of an eye, it totally disappeared except I had Peter Collins who’s the manager at Benetton who still had belief in me and still gave me the chance to get to Rio in 1989.”
Where exactly does that iron determination come from? “The biggest thing for me was…I was so, so, so close. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. The final piece that I was trying to put into the jigsaw…and my arm was fully out. It was just about to go in and then I dropped it and then it disappeared. So, because I was THAT close, that was what gave me the drive or the determination to do whatever I needed to do to get to that first race.” The Brazilian GP in 1989 was the first race where Herbert scored points after he finished fourth with 10.5 seconds behind the winning Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari. Staggering results for a man who was in crutches. Would we see something similar in the sport today? It’s almost certainly unlikely.
I asked him if there were any regrets throughout it all? “Well, on the day of my crash, the first part of the race, I was leading easy by 12 seconds or something like that. Then when they stopped the race and we came up to the grid before the start, I had put the car at an angle to try to make it go off the grid. I wish I hadn’t put it at that angle. It was the ONLY thing that maybe would’ve made a difference and the accident would not have happened.” He says, “Everything else I’ve done, I wouldn’t change. That was the only moment which probably only lasted four to five seconds or ten seconds maximum and that changed my life and I wish I had just done it in a normal way. But I was a little bit…I don’t know…maybe too confident and I just thought it would be beneficial for me to do that but it didn’t work out that way. That’s the only thing.
YouTube: Brand Hatch F3000 1988
“Even after the accident I wouldn’t change the way things were at Benetton. I had my problems with Flavio Briatore and in my heart now, I go, ‘Would I have been able to beat Michael (Schumacher)? Probably not. Would I have changed…maybe how some people now say, ‘Why did you go to Rio? Why didn’t you go away for two years and get yourself in a better position then come back?’ But I don’t think I would have had a career. No one would have been interested, because they’d always have it in their head, ‘Oh, the last time I saw him, he was broken, he was in a wheelchair.’
“Max Verstappen’s father, Jos had told me that Max’s chance that he had with Torro Rosso, he had to take it because it may not have been there the next year and then maybe today we would never have seen Max Verstappen (in Formula One). So it’s funny how life can be, you know, it swings in roundabouts. But sometimes, it’s just fate that happens and sometimes for the right reasons, for good reasons. For me it was a good reason to push through the winter time of 1988 to get to Rio and finish that 4th place. That moment, basically sort of saved my career in respect.”
Another defining moment for Herbert was wining his home GP. In 1995, he won his first Grand Prix at Silverstone, a win he credits as his proudest, “My first thought then wasn’t ‘I’m gonna win my first grand prix.’ It was thinking, ‘I’ve gone through so much and I’ve pushed myself to the absolute limit and now I have a chance of winning a grand prix and then I could actually enjoy winning the race. My thoughts during the last two laps was thinking about the sacrifices, the pain that my girlfriend then and my wife now, went through and the support she had given me.”
“So, that was really the proudest point because I’ve gone through a hell of a lot of pain to get there but I actually managed to achieve it. My first talk I did on this tour, I actually cried when I was talking to the people because it was just so emotional and it was something I hadn’t done before. The whole emotion of that experience suddenly came back. So that’s was sort of the core of what Johnny Herbert is; someone who would dig deep, and fight, fight, fight and that’s where I think is the strongest part of my character.”
Is there anything he misses about being in Formula One today? “Well, I don’t miss it at all, because I’ve had my chance and I had my window. I had ten, eleven years in Formula One and I’m very lucky I had that long so I don’t miss it. I’m still competitive in whatever I do outside and if I ever get the chance to drive a car, I’m still competitive when I do it. I was so lucky I had so many years involved with motor sports since I was 10 years old.”
There’s also a message that Herbert hopes to share in the autobiography for the younger generation to understand that motor racing was and still is a dangerous sport, “It’s just telling a story to a generation that probably didn’t really didn’t know much about how it was. I know mine was not a bad time, but there was still a lot of accidents happening. The 1960’s was probably one of the worst time in formula history. Working with Sky Sports now, some of the guys are probably not quite aware of what things were like back in 1988 – how racing was very, very different- and the sacrifices that you did as a driver and also the dangers that these cars were able to hurt people. So, I think hopefully, it’ll give a message to a generation that watches TV and see a crash, but the drivers just get out the car without a problem. Hopefully it tells people what racing was like when I came through and how I dealt with it to get to that point. I think it also just proves you should never give up, always have belief, and if you have that belief, it’s always amazing what you can do and what humans are…special little things.”
Undoubtedly, Johnny Herbert is one of those rare special individuals.
What Doesn’t Kill You…My Life in Motor Racing by Johnny Herbert from Transworld Publishers is out now.