On this day…. 21st August
In July 1988 Johnny Herbert signed to drive for the Benetton Formula 1 team. He was competing in Formula 3000 at the time and this was his big chance. A few days later Johnny was involved in a huge multi-car accident during the F3000 race at Brands Hatch. He suffered multiple fractures of his lower legs, ankles and feet. Seven months later, despite being unable to walk without sticks, Johnny made his F1 debut for Benetton in Rio de Janeiro and finished fourth in the race. It was a high point but in the months which followed Johnny was unable to reproduce the performance and he was dropped by the team at mid-season because his legs were not strong enough to enable him to drive competitively.
“At the time there was still manual gearchanging,” Johnny remembers, “and you had to use the clutch when you were shifting up and down through the gears. We used to use the heel and toe technique, rolling our feet from the brake to the throttle to keep up speed. The problem I had was that my feet would only move up and down but they could not move sideways as they had before the accident. Before the crash I used to have the brake pedal set a long way forward of the trottle pedal so when I pushed fully of the brakes my foot would be level with the throttle and I could roll my foot across. The accident meant that I could not do that any more so I had to have the brake pedal set so that when I pushed it went beyond the throttle pedal which meant that I could take the throttle pedal with me when I braked. The clutch was not a problem as my left foot was OK to use that.
“Nowadays gearchanging is all done automatically with the flippers on the steering wheel so that has helped me out.
“Olivier Panis won’t have any trouble at all getting back in action. He’s only broken his legs. His ankles and his joints are fine. It is the joints that are the problem. If you break your legs they just screw the bones back together and everything heals. The joints are more complicated. It is like a football player who has a knee problem, if the doctors have to put screws in the knees that usually mean that the player’s career is finished. If they just break a leg, it heals and they normally come back without a problem”.
But what about the psychological effects of a big accident?
“I was lucky because I never had any psychological problems,” explains Johnny. “I was always pushing myself so hard just to get back into racing that there was no thought at all that I could hurt myself again. I am still the same. Before I had the crash I was like all the drivers. We do not think we will crash. Ayrton Senna had this thing about being protected from injury and I think exactly the same way. I had my crash and now I think I will not get hurt again – but I could do.
“I don’t think about it. If you did think like that you would not be quick – your driving would slow down. I had my problem, I got better and I just started racing again. In my head it was just as it had been before the crash. I was doing something I enjoyed doing. I knew the risks and I was willing to take them.
“Originally I had a lot of pain. I cannot remember which foot it was now but I still had a little infection inside the foot when I did that first race in Brazil. There was a hairpin on to the back straight which had a big bump which used to hurt my foot. What I had to do was to bang my foot hard against the cockpit on the first lap out of the pits. It hurt like hell but then it was not a problem. So I used to go round over the bump without tensing my foot. That would throw my foot against the side of the cockpit. It used to absolutely kill me but after that I was able to drive without pain for the rest of the run. In the race I did the same on the parade lap before the grid. I did not have a problem. That was the only problem with pain.
“The danger is coming back too quickly. I did it because after my accident the muscles in my calves were not built up enough. The hardest thing was getting the strength back into my legs because I was not able to do all the exercises. I cannot stand up on the toes of my right foot because some of the bones had to be fused together after the accident. This means there is no spring in my foot so I could not run. My calf muscles are now built up but they are very different from what they used to be. They look different to most people’s.
“As far as I am aware Olivier will not have these problems as he does not have any joint problems. The only thing he needs to do is build his legs back up again. He is going to have full movement of his ankles and that means he will be able to recover much quicker than I was able to do.”
Interview by Joe Saward, 1997, for GrandPrix.com