INTERVIEW

Flying the flag: Johnny Herbert

Johnny Herbert has been one of the stars of Formula 1 this year. He hasn't been winning racing like Nigel Mansell, but then Johnny doesn't have the same machinery. In fact his car is over two years old.

Johnny seems to have been around Grand Prix for a long time now, but he had still done only 18 races in total -, just over a season. The same number of his rapid young Lotus team mate Mika Hakkinen.

His F1 career has encompassed three teams: Benetton, for which he did just five races - twice finishing in the points; one race with Tyrrell and the remaining 12 with Lotus.

His greatest day of F1 glory was, unquestionably, his debut in Rio de Janeiro in 1989, when he finished fourth just 10 seconds behind the winner Nigel Mansell. The remarkable thing was that he achieved this while scarcely being able to walk, the legacy of his frightening F3000 accident at Brands Hatch in August 1988.

After that initial promise he finished fifth in Phoenix but failed to qualify in Canada and was dropped. He didn"t score another point until South Africa this year, when he took the ancient Lotus 102D to sixth place.

In Mexico he drove through the field after a first lap incident (self-inflicted he freely admits) to finish seventh and in Brazil where he started last on the grid after a troubled practice, but was an incredible 18th at the end of the first lap and had moved up to seventh when the two Ligiers collided and sent Johnny off into a sand trap at the first corner.

"That was a bit of a shame," smiles Johnny. "It was going well up to then."

What everyone wants to know is how the (in F1 terms) prehistoric Lotus is so competitive?

"There is no question," explains Johnny, "that the Ford engine has really helped and, obviously, we've done a little bit of work on the car - not a lot - but it has improved compared to last year. The 102D is now very good. We can set it up for qualifying and we found in the first two races that we could leave the same settings for the race and it had a good balance in race trim. Plus we have the power.

"It is really only nips and tucks which have done on the chassis. We cannot do much about the weight unless we do major changes, but it is much easier to drive than last year.

"If you take the weight of the car alone - its around 50kgs overweight and that's quite heavy, to say the least - there is probably a second in that at the moment. Added to which the car is out of date as well. I can't see why we can't get two seconds from that. We have to wait and see when we get the new car up-and-running but, realistically, we should be up with the Benettons - and maybe even ahead of them."

Being up with the Benettons this year means that the Lotus team should be able to challenge for podium finishes, something which has not been the case for the cars from Ketteringham Hall since 1988 when Nelson Piquet was a Lotus driver. That seems a long time ago.

Like many other racing drivers in the modern era, Johnny doesn't have any particular feeling of history. Driving for Lotus is not something which he considers to be special.

"For me," he explains, "a car is a car. It doesn't matter what it is or where it is. Only since I've been involved with Lotus have I started to notice the history of the team. It's a very special team and everything, but being quick in the car is more important than the rest of it - that can come later. I want to get back to being in a top team and to do that I have to make it quick. What I do like is being involved and getting the team back up to where it should be. I'm involved in that at the moment."

The man who has made Johnny"s career after possible and who is pulling Lotus back from the graveyard is Australian Peter Collins.

"Peter's done bloody well," says Johnny, "particularly if you consider what the team was and where it has got to now. It's all coming together quite well. The results so far have helped and the whole thing seems to be back where it should be on the driver side and performance-wise."

When, in the future, people consider the career of Johnny Herbert, there is no question that the name Peter Collins will figure strongly. It was Collins who signed up the injured Herbert in 1988, confounding the critics. He stuck by Johnny at Benetton and, in part at least, it led to Collins"s downfall at the Witney team. Then, at the start of 1991, Collins again picked up Herbert, who was hovering on the edge of F1.

"At the start of last year," admits Johnny, "it really didn't look very hopeful for me. I'm just very lucky that I've got Peter. He has stuck behind me the whole time and given me two chances - and in F1 you don't get that very often. I'm glad I did do the Benetton thing because if I hadn't done it I'd never be in F1, because I can't see anyone taking me if Peter hadn't when he did."

But Johnny has also made his own luck, with strong performances in the last year against young Finnish hotshoe Mika Hakkinen. Mika leapt straight into F1 from British F3 and everyone was talking about a new star and yet Johnny has kept Mika busy.

"Mika is quick, no doubt about it," says Johnny. "He keeps me honest. I just have to keep him behind me. Up until Brazil he hadn't outqualified me since Suzuka last year and I think he's only done it four times in total.

"Everyone thinks I have heaps of experience but I've actually done exactly the same number of races as he has. He's done them all together, which does help. Whatever we hit it off well. He's a good team mate to have and that's important."

Last year was not easy, with Johnny arriving at Lotus while also competing in a full season of Japanese F3000 and racing for the Mazda factory sportscar team. That had its rewards when Johnny shared the Le Mans 24 Hours-winning Mazda with Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler, but it made his F1 appearances disjointed. He was always coming and going, jumping in and out of F1. It cannot have been easy?

"It didn't help," says Johnny, "but then I always believed that if you can be quick in a car you can just jump in and drive it. The difficulty which I found was more to do with the travelling all over the world. I was flying out to Japan, doing a couple of days testing and then flying straight back to a Grand Prix. I remember Portugal especially, I was absolutely destroyed physically. I was run down. After that the schedule was better and it came back. It was hard to work like that, but I had to do it to keep trying to get into F1.

"The nice thing was that there was problem with my feet and I could get on and do the job. So far it has gone very well and there"s no reason when we get the new car that it can't go better still. Everybody seems to be happy within the team. It's a rare thing in F1, but it seems to be working well so far."

And will there be more work for Mazda this year?

"I should be doing Le Mans," says Johnny, "but as far as the World Sportscar Championship goes I don"t know. I did read that Maurizio Sandro Sala and Volker Weidler are doing it, so I"m not sure. I"ve said I can do the first four races - and that"s all know at the moment."

Although Nigel Mansell is on a roll and, seemingly heading for the World Championship, everyone all the English in the F1 paddock know that Nigel"s reign at Top Brit will be coming to a close in the not too distant future. Everyone is lining up to discover who will be top Brit when Mansell does retire?

"I want to take over from Nigel," says Johnny, "but I don't just want to be ninth or tenth placed best Briton, I want to be up the top. I want to be one of the quickest drivers out there and if I can do that with the new Lotus that's really what I want. Being the best Brit is not what it's about, is it?"

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