Features - Interview
AUGUST 1, 1991
BY JOE SAWARD
Make no mistake, Johnny is enjoying his success. He is constantly bubbling with laughter and is back to being the same confident, wise-cracking, lunatic that he used to be before his dreadful Formula 3000 accident at Brands Hatch in August 1988. Gone is the gaunt and serious Herbert, pained by every step he took.
Seven months after the accident, which smashed both Johnny's lower legs, he made his Grand Prix debut in Rio de Janeiro, driving for Benetton. Although he could barely walk at the time, he could certainly drive, and his startling fourth place that day - just 11 secs behind winner Nigel Mansell - marked him as being a man to watch.
The Benetton deal, however, turned sour. The team was in a political ferment and, after failing to qualify in Canada, Johnny was dropped by the team. Peter Collins, who had insisted that Herbert be included in the Benetton driver line-up, followed Johnny out of the team within a matter of weeks.
That was two years go. The promise of a comeback with Benetton faded as a new management took over the Witney team and Herbert was left in the Grand Prix wilderness.
Today, Johnny looks back on his days at Benetton without any bitterness.
'I still think I am glad that I did it. If I hadn't have done it I would never have done F1, I honestly believe that. In a strange way it was probably good for me. I did Rio and it was fantastic. Then it gradually got worse. My feet were not improving, they were getting worse. I went to Canada and, I suppose I knew I couldn't do it, but I didn't want to admit it, or rather, I thought it would go away tomorrow. That was the way I was thinking at the time, but it wasn't quite that easy.
'I knew before I went there that the politics could be very bad, but I didn't know how bad it could be. In a way it was a shame because I was thrown out just before the races at the quick tracks, which would have helped me a lot because I didn't need to brake so hard. Braking was the real problem.
'Anyway it didn't happen and, in the long run, it was probably better that I didn't stay, because I probably would have done myself more harm than good.
'After that I went to Japan and did sportscars, F3000 and loads of testing. It was very good for my feet and I made a big improvement.'
There were a couple of F1 appearances with Tyrrell later in 1989, but he was not really ready for a full-scale Grand Prix comeback, so for 1990 he stayed in Japan.
By then the Lotus team was fragmenting, following the loss of Lamborghini engines and Camel sponsorship. For 1991 Johnny decided to stay in Japan.
Many drivers go to Japan and are forgotten, but for some reason Johnny has always been on the edge of the spotlight, his name always popping up as a potential GP driver.
'I don't know why it is,' he admits, 'but people still talk about me. Rio keeps my name alive for some silly reason. Still, that was good for me.
'Racing in Japan is bloody hard. I cannot put my finger on why it is so hard. In my F3000 car I could drive well I would do a qualifying lap and think: "Yes, that's pole position", and then I would see the timesheet and find myself two seconds off the pace. I cannot actually say whether it the tyres or not, to be honest. The car always felt okay. Still, it's been very enjoyable and very competitive.
'Japanese F3000 is better than in Europe. You have qualifiers and three different types of race tyres. You've got a hell of a lot more grip, so it is much closer to F1. The times we have done at Suzuka are 1m43s and 1m44s which is good enough to be at the back of the F1 grid.
'You earn a bit of money and the good thing is that it is enjoyable out there. The only problem for me is that it was too far away from home.'
Although he was concentrating on his F3000 programme, Johnny had not forgotten his F1 hopes.
'Earlier this year, I was after the McLaren testing deal,' he admits. 'I thought maybe I was going to get it, but that didn't come off. The only other thing I had was with Mazdaspeed for Le Mans.'
'It went well, he says. 'It was just a shame it all went wrong in qualifying when I had a mechanical problem. Although I didn't qualify I was pleased with the way I was driving. Even when I did the two races for Team Lotus last year I didn't feel confident enough with the braking, but when I got to Canada it was back to normal. Braking always gives me a lot of confidence and I just seem to get quicker through that.'
Then it was on a plane, heading to France for the Le Mans 24 Hours, where he was to share a Mazda 787B with Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler - a repeat of 1990, when the trio retired after 14 hours.
'We thought we would do pretty well this year,' says Johnny. 'We had been testing at Paul Ricard and the car was very good. Consumption was never a problem and it always handled well.
'I think really that the strongest team was Mercedes, but I reckon we had the Jaguars sorted out. We were quite confident from the word go.'
'As you know it worked out very, very well. Bertrand (Gachot) and I have been rivals right through our careers. We haven't always got on, but we have always respected each other. He drove very well and so did Volker. And I did too. We were really pushing. The car had no problems. We never had to pit for anything and we never went off or anything like that. Basically, we all did well and drove as a team.'
It was Johnny who ended up with the honour of finishing the race - with three consecutive stints at the wheel. At the time, it probably didn't feel like much of an honour - Johnny was exhausted.
'A few of us got a bit of food poisoning during the night,' he explains. 'We were poisoned by our own crew! We had some spaghetti bolognese and myself, David Kennedy and Pierre "Doughnut" (Dieudonne) were all sick. Pierre didn't actually finish the race because he felt too bad. David and I had funny stomachs and when you have that it makes you dehydrate much quicker.
'I also didn't get any sleep at all. There was this noisy bloody Mazda out there! You could hear the Porsches whistle past and the rumbling noise the Mercedes made, but the Mazda was screaming around - wha-a-a-a - and I just couldn't switch my mind off.'
By the time he finished the race, Johnny was exhausted and failed to make it to the podium - one disappointment in an otherwise remarkable weekend.
Four days later - fully recovered - he was back in his Lotus for the Silverstone F1 testing.
'I'm quicker than Mika again,' he commented on Thursday evening. 'That is nice. He doesn't like it, but you know what he's like! I tell you what, the car has improved and I'm sure it will improve more before the Grand Prix. It is probably better for us now going into a series of races on the quick circuits. It is not the top speed we lack, it is how quickly we get there. It's obviously more difficult than having a V10 or a V12 but it's nice to drive now and it's reliable. You have to get to the finish in Grand Prix racing.
'It will be good to actually do a British GP,' he muses. 'This will be my first. You know, although I've been around GP racing for a while, I haven't done many Grands Prix. I did five with Benetton, one for Tyrrell and so far I've done three with Lotus. That's only nine. I've been with different teams so obviously from an experience point of view that has helped.
'Lotus need to get some more results. They have had the two finishes at Imola, but they need more. I hope I can help the team and Mika as well. I hope it all works out. It would be a shame if Lotus ever did go down. The name itself is a good name, there are a lot of good people trying very hard to keep that tradition going, to rebuild the whole thing. It is a very good team and once they get the money I'm sure Lotus will get back to where it really should be. We've got to get the points to get an engine deal - that would make things a hell of a lot easier. If we can get some good results then maybe I can get something for next year.
'I think, in all honesty, I'm driving as good as I was before the accident. Now that the braking is good again, I can do what I used to do.
'I've been very lucky you know. Through my whole career. When I did FF1600 we were always there but not quite, then I won the Formula Ford Festival - everyone remembers that. Then I did FF2000 and I driving an aerodynamic brick and didn't get nay results. I did a couple of F3 races and: "Bang!" I was back again. Then I won the F3 championship fairly easily and I got Benetton test which went very well. I won my first race in F3000 and, a week before the accident I had a really good test with Lotus. Then there was Rio.
'I always seem to have been able to do right things at the right time. Then again, it may all go wrong again. Right now, though, it's not bad - not bad at all...'