Formula 1 Book Review: 'What Doesn't Kill You...' by Johnny Herbert

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistNovember 3, 2016

Johnny Herbert
Johnny HerbertDan Istitene/Getty Images

I bet you didn't know that Johnny Herbert once (jokingly) tried to climb into a bathtub with future Formula One world champion Mika Hakkinen while they were sharing a hotel room as Lotus team-mates.

Maybe you didn't want to know that, either, or it feels like too much information, but Herbert doesn't hold much back in his new autobiography, What Doesn't Kill You..., out November 3 from Transworld Publishers.

The 52-year-old, Essex-born Herbert has been in the spotlight since his teenage years, and the broad strokes of his life are well-known among racing fans. His promising karting and junior career was derailed by a horrific accident at a 1988 Formula 3000 race at Brands Hatch. In the midst of a lengthy, difficult rehabilitation, he finished fourth in his F1 debut at the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix.

After an up-and-down, 12-year F1 career, highlighted by three grand prix wins (not to mention a victory at the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans), Herbert is now an analyst on Sky Sports' F1 coverage, where his affable personality and extensive motorsport experience have endeared him to fans.

Johnny Herbert driving for Jaguar in 2000, his final F1 season.
Johnny Herbert driving for Jaguar in 2000, his final F1 season.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

For someone who has spent so much of their life in front of a camera and surrounded by the media, you might wonder about the value of an autobiography. What more could they have to say?

I asked Herbert that question during a phone interview in the midst of his promotional blitz for the book.

Given how long he's been involved in motorsport, he said he wants a new generation to understand what the sport was like back in the 1980s—back when death, or at least the spectre of serious injury, still hung over every race. Herbert also wants readers to understand what he had to overcome to build his career.

If there is anyone qualified to talk about safety in motorsport, it is Herbert. He nearly lost his left foot in that F3000 crash and still suffers from mobility problems to this day.

"If I'd had my crash five years before, I probably wouldn't be here today," he said "And if I'd had it five years later, I probably would have just brushed off my overalls, stepped out of the car and walked away."

Johnny Herbert @johnnyherbertf1

In my hands https://t.co/k0Ya7JVyUw

The Brit's typical, self-deprecating humour—a coping mechanism for all that suffering—is on display throughout the book, particularly when discussing his injuries and their effects on his body. Herbert alternatively describes himself as "an inebriated water buffalo," "a constipated Transformer" and "a walking freak show" as he struggles around the paddock and around the world in his quest to become world champion.

Spoiler: He never quite makes it.

After his F1 debut with Benetton, he moved to Tyrrell, Lotus and Ligier before returning to his original squad at the end of the 1994 season, just as Michael Schumacher was wrapping up his first drivers' title for the Enstone-based team. 

Herbert has spoken previously about his somewhat acrimonious relationship with the German champion and Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore. For example, Schumacher, perhaps threatened by Herbert's talent, refused to share his telemetry data with his new team-mate.

But Herbert does not harbour any ill-will for Schumacher. Rather, he blames Briatore for not managing the team in a fair way. More so, he writes that Briatore basically ignored him after he scored his first two F1 victories, at the 1995 British and Italian Grands Prix.

Instead, in a touching moment, Schumacher was the first person to congratulate him after his win at Silverstone. "I think he meant it too," Herbert writes.

Johnny Herbert celebrates his first F1 victory at the 1995 British Grand Prix.
Johnny Herbert celebrates his first F1 victory at the 1995 British Grand Prix.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Although it is an autobiography, Herbert did not write his book without a bit of help. "I failed my English at school," he said, laughing. "I know Damon [Hill] did a lot of work on his book, but I know he had a degree in literature—he got that two or three years ago. So he's a smart cookie; I'm the Essex boy."

James Hogg, whose previous literary collaborations include Welsh footballer Robbie Savage and British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, among others, translated "'Broken Herbert' into the Queen's English," according to the acknowledgments.

They sat down five or six times, Herbert explained over the phone, so he could tell his story and Hogg could probe him for more detail here or there.

High literature it ain't, but Herbert's voice—so familiar to millions from his Sky punditry—is evident throughout. Reading the book is what you imagine it must be like to sit with him at the pub and have him tell you the story of his career.

While reading, it jumps out at you that, although some aspects of the F1 world are different today, many are still the same.

There was angst about pay drivers in the 1990s, too, and concerns about Ferrari's close ties to Sauber (hello, Haas F1). 

One difference, though, is the amount of scrutiny the drivers are under today. Herbert told me it would be nearly impossible for a young driver today to suffer the same type of injuries he had and still make it into F1.

In fact, he writes, he was lucky to be allowed on the grid even back in 1989. He could barely walk and had to be helped into the car, but Professor Sid Watkins, the race doctor, cleared him, and FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre signed off on his Super Licence.

As you would expect, the book features plenty of Herbert's off-track funny moments, from pinching Ayrton Senna's butt to announcing his arrival at a Sauber test by crashing his rental car into the back of a Cosworth van to performing a pole dance for JJ Lehto and the rest of their American Le Mans Series team clad in a leopard-print thong.

Herbert's candidness also comes across at more serious times, and he writes openly about the dark days that followed his F3000 crash. During his career, he tried to hide his physical suffering so it would not adversely affect his driving prospects. Now, freed from those worries, he explains that it was nearly two years after the accident before he could enjoy even a few pain-free minutes.

Shortly after the crash, when he was unsure he would ever be able to drive again, he writes, "I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes. I'm certainly no quitter, but at that very moment in time—just for a moment, though—all I wanted to do was go to sleep and never wake up again."

Working on the autobiography also reopened some old wounds, Herbert said during our interview. At a book event the day before, he cried while speaking about the crash and its aftermath, and he started to tear up again on the phone.

Those raw emotions, despite the passage of nearly three decades, underscore the unlikeliness of his comeback from nearly losing everything to the pinnacle of motorsport.

I would have liked to read more about Herbert's foray into television, as there must be some great outtakes from his new life with Hill, Martin Brundle and the gang, but his Sky mates only make brief cameos throughout the text.

Johnny Herbert interviews Max Verstappen.
Johnny Herbert interviews Max Verstappen.Charles Coates/Getty Images

Likewise, there is a missed opportunity to give a bit of insight into the personal life of an F1 driver. Herbert acknowledges the burden placed on his wife, Rebecca, and their daughters, but it would be interesting to read more about how someone involved in a sport as immersive as F1 manages their life away from the track.

Still, there is plenty to like about What Doesn't Kill You... The many anecdotes from the paddock will be of interest to F1 fans young and old, and the details of exactly what Herbert went through following his crash will surprise even those who followed motorsport in the 1980s. Meanwhile the younger generation, who may only know him from Sky, will benefit from reading an in-depth account of his career for perhaps the first time.

Herbert never won his world championship, but his story is inspirational nonetheless. He was just an Essex boy with a dream who overcame some of the longest odds imaginable to fashion a career for himself in perhaps the most exclusive sport in the world.


Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICE, FourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail.

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