What Doesn’t Kill You . . . My Life in Motor Racing
Criticizing John Paul “Johnny” Herbert (b. 1964) falls firmly into punching a puppy territory but this book does not do the author full justice because it appears to be little more than a virtually unedited transcript of tapes made by Herbert. Although credit is given to James Hogg for “translating” “Broken Herbert” into the Queen’s English, if ever a book needed brutal subediting and some editorial rigor this is it. The text is often glib and superficial, being littered with unnecessary verbal tics (“as I said earlier” or “mark my words”). Typos such as “Zytec” instead of “Zytek” are common too.
With that caveat—and it’s a big one—there is still an extraordinary story to be told of the Essex driver whose tenacity and determination were rewarded with three Grand Prix victories and a Le Mans win in 1991 for Mazda. This victory, after Toyota’s last-minute retirement in 2016, remains the only win for a Japanese marque at Le Mans. Unlike his contemporary and rival, Damon Hill, Herbert took to four wheels instantly and his only secret was that he had no secret at all—he just instinctively had a feel for karts. He drove under-age in the early years and, given his butter wouldn’t melt angelic looks, it was no surprise that he was soon found out. However, when he returned to competition he was near invincible. Formula Ford 1600 was the accepted career path for 1980s karters and, although he found the cars unwieldy and unappealing at first, his Formula Ford Festival victory in 1985 reflected his ability to adapt almost instantly to new demands. His graduation to Formula 3 went perfectly and, thanks to Eddie Jordan, F3000 was going exactly according to plan until The Accident. In a collision caused by the mercurial (and that is being kind) Gregor Foitek, Herbert suffered appalling injuries to his legs at Brands Hatch in August 1988.
It is the chapters that describe that accident and its aftermath that partly redeem this book. At times it is near impossible to read the text without wincing and, as a testament to the sheer bloody-minded grit of a racing driver, Herbert’s story bears comparison with Niki Lauda’s To Hell and Back. The question that haunts the reader, if not as much as it must the author, is just what would Herbert have achieved had he not been injured? He adapted to his injuries well enough to become a good Grand Prix driver but I suspect he would have been a great one if the cards had fallen differently.
The story of his Formula One years is well known and, whilst the book has few real revelations, neither Flavio Briatore (Benetton F1 boss) nor teammate Michael Schumacher are shown in the best of lights. However, to his credit, Herbert is invariably at pains to emphasize that despite feeling disadvantaged and stigmatized, he fully understands and accepts why they acted as they did. Not a man to bear a grudge then, not even against his erstwhile friend and mentor Peter Collins, whose management of the moribund Lotus team (assuredly not the Team Lotus of the glory years) almost led to the end of Herbert’s career.
I do have a bone to pick with two statements made by the author: his claim to be “the world’s first disabled Grand Prix Formula 1 driver” and that only he, Bertrand Gachot, and Nico Hulkenberg have won Le Mans whilst at the same time active as Grand Prix drivers. The second statement perhaps confirms the common view that many racing drivers know little or nothing about the history of the sport. This ignorance must explain why the names of Grand Prix drivers and Le Mans winners Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Henri Pescarolo, Chris Amon, and Jackies Ickx and Oliver (inter alios) seem unknown to the author. As for the first statement I really wonder why Herbert felt the need to make the claim; his valor is without question so why this need—if that’s what it is—to diminish the courage shown by so many other drivers in returning to the wheel after a life-changing shunt? I really should not have to mention Graham Hill’s frightful accident at Watkins Glen which preceded his challenging 1970 season, Brian Redman’s catalog of serious injuries in Formula 1 and sports cars, nor the burns that Denny Hulme endured with his usual stoicism as he fought to motivate the McLaren team after its founder’s death in 1970. And there are many more examples to mention in this cruellest of sports.
A couple of asides: the book perhaps reveals much more about Herbert the man than I suspect the author intended. He describes going to Brands Hatch in 1983 and hearing a V12 Ferrari for the first time (“It is to this day the purest and most perfect sound I have ever heard”) and he confesses to being moved almost to tears. And I thought it was just me. . . . In the Acknowledgements at the end of the book the author expresses his profound thanks to the journalists who supported him over the years. A throwaway pleasantry perhaps—but what a contrast to the gracelessness, if not outright hostility, shown by more than one other British Grand Prix driver to the press.
The last motorsports book I read before this one was Damon Hill’s masterful bio Watching the Wheels and the contrast between Hill’s cerebral, elegant prose and Herbert’s book could hardly be greater. Herbert’s book employs the well known Friedrich Nietzsche quotation in its title and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But Nietzsche also said “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” and that, to me, captures even more of the essence of the man. As written, this book would work far better as a series of podcasts and, whilst there may still be a great book waiting to be written about Johnny Herbert, sadly, this one isn’t it.
The above notwithstanding, the book has been nominated for the Autobiography of the Year prize at the Cross Sports Book Awards.
Copyright 2016, John Aston (speedreaders.info)