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Herbert signs for Sauber

JUST after we closed last week the Sauber team confirmed that it had finally reached agreement with Johnny Herbert, and the Englishman is now confirmed as Heinz-Harald Frentzen's team mate with the Ford-powered team for 1996.

The news means that Mark Blundell is unlikely to get an F1 drive in 1996, although he will probably be happy to wait until February to see whether Mika Hakkinen is really fit enough to race for McLaren again. Hakkinen has been told by F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins that he cannot drive a McLaren until the end of January.

Hakkinen has been back at his home in Monte Carlo for a couple of weeks. He is already driving his road car, but continues to lead a quiet life, forbidden by doctors to do any hard physical exercise. He is not allowed to go jogging but walks a lot, and he is using an exercise bike in an effort to regain some of the muscle which he lost during his three weeks in the hospital in Adelaide. When he crashed seven weeks ago he weighed around 145 lbs, but that has dropped to around 122lb. In an effort to regain some of that weight Mika will be able to eat as much as he pleases this Christmas - a rare chance for a Grand Prix driver these days.

Johnny Herbert will also be able to relax over Christmas, his future settled after three months of uncertainty since it was announced that he would be dropped by Benetton. He was the obvious choice for Sauber but it seems that he decided to keep his options open - talking to Tyrrell, Ligier and the PacWest Indycar team - to see how the driver market developed. In the last few weeks Sauber has been pushing for a decision - hence the rumors that Blundell was about to be confirmed for the drive - which appear to have finally forced Herbert to act, despite the fact that he was not very happy at the thought of being second driver to Frentzen. Nonetheless, this is the role that Herbert will fulfill.

Announcing the deal with Herbert, Peter Sauber said: "We are very happy to have a second strong driver in Johnny Herbert alongside Heinz-Harald Frentzen" which leaves little doubt as to where Johnny stands. Having said that, Herbert will be able to breathe new life into his career if he gets close or even beats Frentzen on occasion. His experience with the new Zetec-R V10 engine will also mean that he will be extremely well-placed to be used by Ford for whatever the company plans to do in 1997.

Herbert's F1 career has been one of many up-and-downs. He made a brilliant debut for Benetton (finishing fourth in Brazil) in 1989, despite barely being able to walk - following a Formula 3000 crash in August 1988. He was then dropped by Flavio Briatore and, after a few appearances for Tyrrell, went to race in Japanese F3000. He was called back to F1 by Lotus after Martin Donnelly's accident at the end of 1990 and stayed with the team until the end of 1994, when his contract was bought by Ligier. He stayed just one race with the French team before being bounced on to Benetton.

This year he won the British and Italian GPs, but both were fortunate victories, after Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill collided, and he was generally outclassed by Schumacher. Johnny explained his difficulties as being the result of having to drive a car which was built specifically for Schumacher. This explanation has been borne out by Gerhard Berger's problems with the car in recent weeks, although Jean Alesi has apparently been able to adapt to the car without too much trouble, even if he has not been as quick in the car as was the German.

Herbert flew down to Paul Ricard last week to have his first tests with Sauber. He wasn't very happy with the temporary seat made for the test and recorded a best lap of 1m09.36s after 26 laps. Johnny will test again in the New Year.

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