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FEBRUARY 1, 1994

Johnny Rebel: Johnny Herbert


Johnny Herbert hasn't achieved a hell of a lot in his Grand Prix career - but no-one in Formula 1 has any doubt that the man from Romford has what it takes to be a Grand Prix winner. And that is Herbert's big problem. Everybody wants him. Two of the top Grand Prix teams - Williams and McLaren - have both shown interest in him but now he is stuck with a bulletproof contract with Team Lotus and team boss Peter Collins is not planning to let him walk away.

The Herbert-Collins relationship used to be one of F1's strongest. It dates back to 1988 when Johnny smashed his feet in a Formula 3000 crash at Brands Hatch and Collins, then the boss of Benetton, took a risk and signed Johnny for 1989. It was a Boy's Own hero story: barely able to walk, Johnny finished fourth on his F1 debut in Brazil. But a power struggle was coming at Benetton and newboy Flavio Briatore ousted Herbert a few weeks later. Collins soon followed Herbert out of the door.

Both Herbert and Collins spent the next 18 months in the F1 wilderness before the abrasive Australian bought Lotus and rescued Johnny's career. But now that relationship has soured.

"I'm not very happy" says Johnny bluntly. "And he's probably not very happy - or he shouldn't be - with the state of the team's performance. I am focussed on what I can do if we can get the car to work, but we are not going anywhere. Every time I went out in the car at the British GP we tried something different. If it didn't work we tried something else. That probably wasn't the best idea but if you are going to be 20th you may as well have a go. You might find something.

"You can see it isn't going very well. Maybe they are trying as hard as they can, but we haven't really made any improvement. The new car was quicker, but relative to other teams we haven't gained any positions and we've now done a fair bit of testing. Maybe money is part of it I don't know really know."

"It would be nice if Lotus could be in a winning situation one day but at present, when there are opportunities with Williams and McLaren - and chances like this don't come up very often - it would be nice if I was allowed to push MY career."

Johnny is worried that his chance for stardom will pass him by.

"I could end up being one of these guys like Riccardo Patrese who was around for 250 GPs and never really did anything," he says. "I don't want to do that. That is not why I am in F1. I am doing it to win races and World Championships. That is the whole point of competing in F1."

Johnny has just celebrated his 30th birthday and he is only too aware that on paper his F1 career hasn't amounted to much.

"I've had a couple of fourth places and when Mika Hakkinen was my team mate (in 1991 and 1992) I usually outqualified him. He did better in the races when I didn't finish. I think that competing with Mika I proved I could do the job.

"But the only way that people will know more is if I get the opportunity to drive a good car with a good team."

So how long does he HAVE to stay with Lotus.

"There is another year in the contract," admits Johnny. "But they may not take it up. Maybe Peter will come to his senses - which doesn't really seem likely. I suppose I can see it from his side but I hope he'll let me go."

Johnny hasn't forgotten how important Collins has been in his career.

"Obviously Peter had helped me out in the past," he says, "and when I signed this contract - in Australia at the end of 1992 - there weren't really any gaps anywhere else. There was talk about Mika or me going to Williams because Nigel Mansell was leaving but I think it was more about him than me because he had got the results."

"I was told by my wife not to sign the contract. I was told by my solicitor not to sign it. And an hour later I signed it. I was silly doing that. I took that decision because I thought things would be better and better in 1993. That didn't happen and this year has been even worse."

In the old days drivers would simply break a contract which got in their way, but you cannot do that any more.

"You used to be able to just walk away from a contract and say 'Bye-Bye, I'm gone'. Senna left Toleman for Lotus like that. All the big stars did it but they introduced the Contract Recognition Board in 1992 - after Schumacher quit Jordan to join Benetton - and it stops that sort of thing dead.

"You could say I've come along at the wrong time," he muses.

"But that's life, isn't it? I did it for the good of the team... and I've probably screwed myself."