EXCLUSIVE: Motormouth caught up with Johnny Herbert; one of Britain’s F1 greats and now Midland F1’s Sporting Director for a wide-ranging chat about Midland, 2008, driver moves, regulations, technology and much, much more. This article appeared in many different shorter TV versions on Teletext.

Some Communications Centres in the blazing hot Magny Cours paddock are always busy, like Renault and Ferrari; buzzing with the constant churn of the media, the wealthy and the usual fair-weather friends that such vast success inspires.
Others, like McLaren with its hastily posted “Invited Guests Only” signs – clearly caught a bit on the back foot by the departure of Juan Pablo Montoya a day or two earlier, would wish to be less busy than usual.
But it’s perhaps unsurprisingly in the Midland F1 Communications Centre, the least pretentious and willy-waving of all in the paddock, that communications are most friendly, helpful and effective.

Ron Fine, the team’s affable Communications Director, pulls Johnny Herbert, Midland F1’s Sporting Relations Manager, from the vast, deep grey trucks that back onto the garages at a moment’s notice, and we wander down to their hospitality suite to settle down in the shade with some cool drinks for a chat.
Herbert turns out to be possibly the nicest man you might ever meet; immediately friendly and frank – and he’s also someone whose previous life as a driver gives him a great perspective on the sport’s intrigues, cycles, politics and relentless technological march.

I ask how the Sporting Relations Manager role suits him – looking after a whole team, when previously as a driver it was all just about himself: “Oh, it’s still all about me…” he laughs, “No, when you’re this side of it you want the best for the whole team, to get the best from both cars. I’m enjoying it – I’m still learning it and learning how the whole thing evolves and the way the whole thing works around the way the team puts things into practice.”
“Originally it was more to do with the media side of things, because of how the rumour mill was churning (surrounding Jordan in 2005), so I was brought in to be the friendly face for people to talk to, but it did get quieter and much more together.”

The media role persists, with ongoing stories about the future ownership of the team he admits: “Even now, there are rumours about where this place ends up, but it’s really a much calmer atmosphere within to be honest. The original idea was to do very much the press side of stuff, dealing with the drivers and the sponsors; the easy stuff… but now there’s a bit more the engineers, the ongoing stuff and what’s going on with the FIA towards 2008 and so-on.”
I ask if that fuller role is more interesting than just the media side of things for an ex-driver: “Oh yes, but I wouldn’t have wanted to just dive straight in, because I hadn’t got any experience in that area. Hopefully it’ll get more in-depth and there’ll be more of the running of everything the way it needs to be.”

Herbert originally joined the team last year, and a lot has happened since then… “From the Jordan era to this year it has changed very quickly – I thought it might take longer to shake that off, but it hasn’t – and everybody’s very dedicated to it, and of course there’s all the rule changes which everybody’s talking about at the same time. You’d think (the rule changes) would benefit the smaller teams such as ourselves, but of course they’re not actually settled yet, so we don’t know quite what they’re going to be – we’ve got a good idea but we don’t know exactly so we’ll have to wait and see.”

I ask where he hopes Midland will be by the end of this year, and where they hope to be next year? “We’ve come from a position where we had no chance of getting through to the second round of qualifying to now hopefully getting that consistency there that we do qualify both cars in that second round.”
Which gives some room tactically as you look to the race itself…
“Oh yeah – exactly. We still need to improve our race pace… we’ve seen it sporadically but we need to see it more consistently. To compete against the others that’s what you need: that’s probably the biggest thing we need to work on for the moment.”

So, for 2007? “Once we can get that race pace side of things going, and we know what is happening with F1 in 2008 basically then we can structure ourselves in a way that aim towards 2008 really…” So that ideally puts you in a position to then develop for both 2007 and 2008 simultaneously?
“Yeah, exactly – sure. I think 2008 will be the main one because of the amount of change.”

One area where Johnny Herbert has a naturally deeper awareness of sensitivities and dynamics is in the nurturing of the two Midland drivers; Monteiro and Albers. What’s it like to look after and push two competing talents working for the same team as well as for themselves? “The competitiveness between the drivers is always, I think, a positive thing because I think it just lifts the drivers, which lifts the team, and which helps everything work much, much more efficiently. But we’re not looking at winning or podiums of course; we’re looking more at the latter part of the points.”
Whilst his approach to inter-driver competition seems healthy, does he find the Red Bull approach of threatening drivers a bit destructive by comparison? “It’s destructive, but I suppose there are certain points that you have to get to if things aren’t going your way – Red Bull for example, they expected a lot more, but they haven’t got it. The Toro Rosso has probably effectively started to out-drive the Red Bull cars, and then the pressure’s on Red Bull, the drivers, the engineers and everybody else to get it together to be able to keep them behind, so then the pressure does up itself. But then that’s Formula One.”

The Midland F1 drivers, the odd tangle aside, seem to have been quietly doing okay so far… “Yeah, they’re doing okay really. They have helped development, and the car has gone forward. So the guys back at the factory have all done the aero work and put it on the cars, the drivers have given their input, and it has been really positive – and it has got better. It’s not easy to close the gap on the big guys, but we’ve been able to do that – we’re not up their exhaust pipes of course, but we have got closer.”
Herbert’s main concern for his drivers is not losing the pace from qualifying to the race itself: “As I said the only thing we need to do is to get the race pace better; and that’s down to the drivers being able to get the best from the car – if they can get the best from the car in qualifying and get it into the second phase of qualifying then I don’t see any reason why they can’t have a better race pace.”
If they can sort that, then it looks to build a virtuous circle: “It’s good for their careers, it’s good for the team, it’s good for all of us.”

Knowing what a great F1 driver Johnny Herbert was, you can’t help wondering if he misses it a bit… I ask if he’s driven the Midland M16: “No… though actually I almost did the other week!” he says, referring to almost sitting in on a recent test session. “Tiago had a problem with his neck, and Christijan had a problem with his back. He eventually did do the day, but they did phone me up to see if I was sitting around throughout the day, which would have been quite an interesting one, It was close. My comeback was close!” he laughs.

It’s inevitable that I’d also want to ask Johnny about his own time as a driver. I ask what his favourite cars were, not necessarily because of having taken wins in them, but more because of character and driveability… “Well, I was very lucky and fortunate in that I got the end of the turbo era: I drove the Benetton Ford and the Lotus Honda – and they were good. They were very ‘brute force’ power, they had about 950 to 1000 horsepower when I drove them, but then of course you had the big tall wings, the big front wings, the big fat tyres – they were really awesome to drive.”
Were they really very different to drive, as they always look like they got thrown around a lot more? “Yeah; a different style completely because it was all more or less ‘brake very very late, get round the corner, get the turbo spinning again, short-shift through the gears and get going again – they were pretty awesome things: I would say that was the best thing ever. But the early nineties were good as well, because we still had the big tyres and wings and everything else and they were really good too.”

Johnny Herbert’s F1 driving career lasted several years, during which – as ever – the sport was in huge transition. And although he cites cars like the old Lotus as a favourite, he was still competing in cars such as Saubers and Stewarts, which have a lot more in common with today’s cars.
By the time Johnny retired from driving, the cars were designed and built to parameters and regulations which, at a basic level, have changed far less than during the years that he drove.
I wonder if any of that kind of power or brute force or ‘oomph’ he used to enjoy is missing from the contemporary F1 car? “It’s one of those things. It’s typical with the designers – the way they’ve tried to reduce everything, they’ve still been able to achieve, this year probably for the first time, the same G-forces that we had in the early nineties. They’re up around 4G again which probably we haven’t seen since those days when we had slicks and big wings. So the G-forces are still there.”

Nonetheless, in recent years, driving styles have been less riveting, more conservative? “You have to be very careful – a bit like a ballerina on her toes, it’s all very delicate the way you have to drive; whereas again, now you have people like Kimi and Fernando, maybe those two, who are very aggressive with their cars. I think we lost a bit in the early 2000s, but it has slowly crept back, which I think is good because as a driver I always think the ultimate was being able to grab it by the scruff of the neck and basically drive the pants off it.”

I ask his opinions on today’s crop of British drivers; the up and coming, and the already established. I suggest that you’ve got to feel pretty sorry for Jenson so far this season. He agrees: “Yeah – Well, he’s been under a bit more pressure because Rubens has come through after a bit of a slow start to the season.”
But then Rubens has upped his game, hasn’t he… “Yeah, well, he’s had to. He’s under pressure too for the first time in quite a long while. Rubens is no slouch – he’s a good qualifier and he’s a very consistent racer too.”
“For Jenson it’s a shame, as the Honda hasn’t come to fruition – it looked good at the beginning of the year; and then it was back to that position of qualifying well but racing badly, and now it’s sort of – well, the qualifying isn’t that good and the racing’s about as same as the qualifying. So it’s not too good at the moment. But you’ve got to see how that pans out. He’s just got to stick at it. It might change next year, and he might be absolutely brilliant.”

DC seems a lot happier, I suggest. Even though Red Bull may be lacking a bit right now, it seems the right kind of place for him…? “Yeah, he seems to have had a new lease of life at the end of his career really. Recently probably hasn’t quite gone quite so well – it’s been a bit mixed. As you said, there’s a been a little bit of a depression because obviously the Toro Rosso’s been pushing right up their backside… But, yeah, he’s enjoying it. The car hasn’t been as good as they expected – and it’s probably been 50-50 between him and Klien at the end of the day.”
I suggest that it’s a bit of a shame that in fact Christian Klien has sometimes been doing a good bit better than DC and losing out to mechanical failures or whatever, and the Red Bull policy of choosing / sacking drivers on points doesn’t necessarily reflect their true performance…
Johnny, whilst accepting that, still understands the harsh but clear team perspective on it: “No, but it’s always black and white unfortunately. People always look at black and white, they very rarely look at the reasons why… and that’s always a problem.”

How about Anthony Davidson? “Anthony? Well… it’s one of those unfortunate things. I always feel he should have a chance because I think that he’s a not half decent driver. Of late he’s come back because of the Friday practice sessions again this year, though perhaps the car isn’t as competitive as it was. Sadly though the chances for him are going to be very limited as there aren’t many seats left. I think he’s done a good job but never really had a proper opportunity to show that.”
With Montoya having so recently and abruptly left McLaren, I wonder what his thoughts are on the much-talked about Lewis Hamilton with regard to Ron Dennis’ team… “Well you’d think they’d test him and see how he is – and if he’s not ready, then maybe farm him out for a couple of years and then bring him back.”
“You know, Alonso did fine by doing his Minardi bit and then getting his Renault chance, so from that point of view I don’t think that’s a problem for him, but then of course McLaren don’t want to lose him.”

What were his thoughts on Montoya walking away from the sport? “Well, to be honest, I think for him, it was probably the best thing for him… He obviously can’t have been enjoying it or having fun with it, and was very disillusioned with it…”
I think many of us wouldn’t have been surprised to not see him on the grid next year – but disappearing right in the middle of the season? “No, I’ve not really heard any negatives about it really, I think it was probably the right thing to do from his point of view – It wasn’t going to happen, he didn’t want to stay, so why not go now.”

Possibly the only other ‘rising’ Brit might be Gary Paffett; though his chances of a seat next year are surely fairly slim? “Paffett… I must say, I don’t know how much testing he’s actually done… there’s too many hanging around for a very limited amount of slots. Out of the two, you’d think it would be Hamilton, yes… because of what he’s done, he’s been with McLaren a long time, he’s doing well in GP2…”
“Why would you put Gary ahead of him? So you would think it would be Hamilton. Then of course there’s Kovalainen – now you would think that Flavio would put him somewhere. So then that’s limited the seats.”
While we’re on the subject of the limited likely slots in 2007’s line-up, I ask about the possible Midland seats. “I have no idea what we’re doing next year yet…” he replies. Not in any kind of cagey or defensive sense though.
He just sounds as if it genuinely isn’t an issue to get in the way at this point of the season; his drivers have their work to do with continuing to up the team’s performance, so why cloud things with distracting talk of seats and line-ups.

The 2007 grid is, of course, fascinating to speculate on though, so we chat a bit further about other teams’ options. With regard to BMW he says, “Heidfeld I’m sure will stay. But Jacques’s been doing better so he might well end up staying. He’s had a good year to be honest…”
And what about Kimi? “Well if he’s off to Ferrari or has done his deal with Ferrari I would have thought Michael will always have that “I’m number one”… and how does that work, because Kimi’s not going to go there as a number two…”
I ask him where he’d put his money right now as far as Raikkonen is concerned: Ferrari or Renault? “Er… well, actually – I suppose, knowing Flavio, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised…”
He too finds the general lack of confirmations to any team, or of definitely parting with McLaren, quite noticeable: “It’s very quiet though isn’t it? It’s amazing how quiet it is. And there’s the assumption that he has gone – that’s the big thing. It’s very strange. It’ll be interesting.” It certainly will…

As we’ve been discussing the regulation changes for 2008 and how they may impact his, and other teams, it seems natural to bring up the other major 2008 talking point; the arrival of Prodrive. Will it be good to see David Richards back? “Yeah – it’ll be interesting to see him running his own outfit, as we’ve obviously seen him before running the Honda team as BAR, he’s had his rally experience and his sportscar experience and they’ve always done very, very well. Formula One is a different thing though, especially when you’re doing it yourself. There’s a lot of pressure on you to get everything together to make it work out.”

Time has flown, and I’ve filled up loads of tape with questions I hadn’t even planned on asking. What started as an interview has just played out into a long, diverting and hugely enjoyable F1 chat.
It’s fascinating to hear someone with so much experience from all angles of the sport giving you the benefit of his thoughts. After saying thanks, I walk away through the baking heat, strangely noticing how it’s not felt the tiniest bit like work.

You leave the Communications Centre feeling almost obliged to support Midland from here on, simply for being so accommodating and helpful. Or maybe it’s one of those underdog things; like the reason so many people loved Minardi, or indeed Jordan.
They’re a bunch of phenomenally talented guys working at the highest levels of sport – and to not be on top in a sport so fiercely competitive and where ‘on top’ is about the only thing that gets noticed, probably hurts a great deal more than it deserves to.
Nonetheless, seeing ways forward, ways up to that rarified top level, is exactly why they’re there. And you only want to wish them well with it. This year, next – and of course in 2008.

Given the somewhat limited options for excitement elsewhere for the rest of this season, I’ve certainly promised myself to go whooping at every success that comes Midland’s way.
And I hope they’ll be giving me plenty to cheer about.