Last week, prior to the Spanish Grand Prix weekend, selected media were invited to a phone-in with former Lotus Formula One driver and Le Mans winner Johnny Herbert, to grill him on all things motorsport. Richland F1’s News Editor Jack Leslie and Daniel Puddicombe were in attendance to ask the driver-turned-pundit a few questions. Outspoken, witty and clever, the Sky Sports F1 summariser shared his views on subjects varying from the future F1 calendar, Pirelli and how he would structure the junior formulas.
Sadly there wasn’t the time to discuss his career in great detail, but his is what you may described as ‘good’, having won three grand prix during his Formula One days and most famously, the 1991 Le Mans 24-Hour race in the wankel-engined Mazda 787B. Read on for his insight into the world of motorsport and his thoughts on this season as a whole.
2013 has so far proved to be just as exciting and controversial as its predecessor, and one team that has everybody talking is McLaren. Opening the phone-in, the former Benetton driver was asked about the Woking squads leading driver Jenson Button. The Brit has so far had a difficult start to his season but Johnny revealed that Button’s mood is still fairly positive. Taking from what he has observed so far, he said “He has been in a good mood,” said Herbert before adding “I think coming in to the season he has been in a good mood” because he is “the leader and ex-world champion.” The Sky Sports F1 pundit also gave insight into his body language, admitting that it still showed a positive and happy driver, losing none of his humorous nature. “His body language even in the last weekend ion Bahrain, he was still bubbly and positive.”
He thinks that their troubles are not all down to the car’s ride, saying that he feels the aerodynamics is what’s letting them down. “I think we are seeing an aerodynamic issue from that car,” he said before sharing that he feels the car is very front limited, saying “From what I hear it always seems to be front limited so they need to produce more downforce on the front end to be able to utilise and balance the car at the rear end.”
“The concept that McLaren has at the moment, as a package, is not the package that Jenson and Sergio needs at the end of the day, more so with Jenson as he is the ex-world champion,” said Johnny. So can they fix the problems and will it be anytime soon? “I have no doubt that they are more than capable to be able to fix that.” According to Johnny, the “car has underline speed” but the real challenge for them is to find “the right ingredients to actually give the driver what he needs underneath him so he can utilise the whole package in general.”
Herbert also shared his thoughts on the upcoming regulation changes for 2014, branding them as “different” before saying “I don’t have a big issue with it, but I don’t have a big issue with what we have today in many respects.” Whilst he may not be the biggest fan of the return to the turbo-era, he said that it will be “interesting” to see the cars debut on track in testing. He also admitted that he feels the noise of the engine is an important factor for the sport, and whilst he feels that they will be quieter reports suggest the noise will not be as different as first thought. “There’s a lot of talk about noise,” admitted Johnny, before describing former champion Niki Lauda’s first impressions on the new V6 turbos. What was the Austrian’s conclusion? That it’s “actually not that bad.” Herbert expressed the important of the sound and noise of the engine, “I think it is an important part. I think the sound should always be part of what Formula 1 and motorsport is about.” However he knows that, as always, people will just “get used to” the regulation changes.
Aside from the move into a new Turbo era, he also shared the importance of the new KERS unit which will produce double the horse power of the current unit. “The KERS is going to be a big percentage of the power; I think it’s about 150 or so horsepower just purely from the KERS.” Herbert revealed that problems with the device will have a bigger impact on the race, saying “One issue that you do have that you every now and again is where KERS does stop working. If you lose it nowadays it’s not such a big deal as you only lose 50 or 60bhp.” But now the more horsepower that will be lost “will be quite difficult” for teams to contend with.”
The regulations are not the only changes for the 2014 season, there will certainly be some movement in the driver market and Johnny feels that Kimi Raikkonen would be the perfect fit for Mark Webber’s potentially vacant seat at Red Bull. “The one who fits for me is Kimi,” admitted the former race winner. “His mannerisms are very Red Bullish of old; he had the relationship when doing rallying which makes complete sense” and he is a world champion too.” Daniel Ricciardo was discounted as a 2014 Red Bull driver, “I don’t know if he has achieved enough for them to say ‘this guy looks like the future’” So does he think Mark Webber is on his way out of Red Bull? “Yes, it does seem to be the case now,” was his response.
James Allison’s departure from Lotus was also a hot topic with Herbert, however responded to questions on the impact that will have and whether it will derail their title challenge he said “Well the car is what the car is; the development work is something that is pretty much on-going. Obviously he would have been involved with all those processes that go with it but there are a lot of other good guys that are in the structure of Lotus as well.” He added that “If they can carry on with the same philosophies that they have been using at the moment, there is no reason why the guys that are still there” can’t keep them at the front.
However he admitted that they have had a good season so far and that the position they find themselves in is not bad at all. “They are in a good position. It was a great result that they had in Bahrain.” He also shared his wisdom on observing world championship victories, saying that the development needs to be kept up. Lotus cannot lose focus on this season. “I think we all know that to keep you in this championship, which is where Kimi is at the moment, that progress has got to continue to develop throughout the year and at the moment it shouldn’t be a big issue.” Is losing Allison a loss to the team? In short, “It’s a loss, yes.” However he is sure that they can continue running at the front.
From a team who have already won a race this season to one who has come close, but failed to turn their strong qualifying position into a race win. Mercedes has been there or thereabouts in qualifying, taking pole position in the last two races, but can they win a race? Herbert doesn’t think so. “In short, no,” he said. “That’s not going to happen, that car is a very good one lap, two lap qualifying car but when it comes to the races as we saw even in Bahrain, even though he did better than Nico, Nico went from pole backwards and Lewis has had the same thing before.”
However Johnny is not discounting them from challenging for the 2014 title, expecting them to come on strong and “do a Brawn.” When asked if they can turn the situation into what Ross Brawn did when the Honda team transitioned in to Brawn GP, he shared the confidence that they can. “Is there a chance of them doing the same thing for next year? Yes, things change as you all know very big changes next year and I think you need to throw a lot of time and effort into developing a car in a relatively short space of time. So it’s a big shift, it means a big amount of input from the guys back at the factory to be able to turn it around for Lewis to go for a world championship.”
He knows that it isn’t going to happen this year, citing their tyre troubles to continue on for the remainder of the season. “That isn’t going to happen this year for sure. I don’t think they could even win a race this year; they still have the problem with the tyres in the race. So they have got to basically need to put all their effort into next year for that to happen.”
Females in motorsport had proved to be a controversial and current topic after recent comments by Stirling Moss saying that women do not have the “mental aptitude” to race in the sport. Susie Wolff is the closest female to the sport thanks to her role as Williams’ development driver, but can Johnny see her making the step up to a race seat and succeeding if she does? “I think potentially yes but at this point, I still don’t see it. It would be lovely to see Susie in a car to see what she can do; she will be no slouch for sure, but will she be right on that edge? Hopefully she’ll surprise me and prove me wrong, but I think that at the present time, not yet, down the line, maybe.”
So how can more females get in to the sport? Johnny feels that they need to dominate their feeder series and prove that they can fight at the front, “The only way it’ll be dominated by women is for women to dominate the sport by starting in Formula Ford, coming through Formula 3, GP2, and then getting your chance in Formula One. You need all those experiences to come together for it to work for you.”
Speaking of the feeder series, Herbert was asked how he feels about the system currently and the lack of a bottom series to start in. “I think the thing that’s different is that when I did karting you went into Formula Ford, and Formula Ford is where you started, and you did FF2000, F3, F3000 and Formula One.” He admitted that the order just mentioned was “the classic route into Formula One” and what the drivers have now is that there are “so many different choices of where you can go.” Concluding on the topic he said “We do need to have less categories because it seems to be that we have too many categories,” which cause “the routes” to get “a little bit diluted because you don’t know who is an up-and-coming talent.”
Pirelli was high on the agenda too; with the news that the Italian tyre supplier would bring an extra set of tyres for Friday practice in Spain just breaking, there was a lot to be discussed. Herbert said that he “thinks it was the right thing to do to bring another set of tyres for that Friday”, but expressed a worry that the teams will sit in the garages and wait for the track to rubber in saying “I just hope we still don’t see that holding back of waiting for the track to be at a better working state” before concluding his thoughts adding that “they’ve given the chance of that [more track action] to happen. I still think there’ll be a little bit of a lull at the beginning but I think it’ll be less than what we’ve seen in the past.”
The Formula 1 calendar looks to expand to new areas in 2014 and 2015, but can the sport cope with more than 19 races? Yes according to Johnny, but there is a limit. “20, I think, seem to be a good amount.” However with the time off over the year he could see a few more being added with no problem at all. “But with the way testing is and the amount of time off there is at the end of the year and the beginning of the year, I don’t think that’s a big problem.”
But he does feel that a few races could be under threat, naming Korea as one such event due to the lack of spectator interest, saying that they are interested in other things like “drag racing” or “rallying.” However he does admit that European races are also under threat, but the likes of the British Grand Prix, which has been in trouble previously, has been able to adapt and keep its spot on the calendar. “There are always circuits in Europe that the way Bernie talks has always looked a bit more under threat. Silverstone is one that always adapts: the circuit, the new wing, to try and bring its standards up and it is the best modern facility that we have in Europe.”
However despite the improved facilities, Herbert feels that the European rounds will always be under more threat as money comes to the forefront. “If there is any realistic chance we’re going to lose any, they’re going to be in Europe as long as those new circuits (Russia, for one) continue to crop up.”
Listening to Johnny Herbert’s expert views on the sport in its current state was fascinating. You can hear more of his views on Sky Sports F1 HD where you can watch live coverage of all Grand Prix sessions on TV, online, on the go via Sky Go.
By Jack Leslie and Daniel Puddicombe
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic