Away from Formula 1 I have many good memories of competing at Le Mans. In 1991 I was competing in Formula Nippon, the equivalent of today’s GP2, I also competed in sports cars with Mazda and Formula 1 with Lotus, all at the same time, so I was busy toing and froing all the time, but that year I won the 24 hours.
Le Mans is special to a driver and it still is today. It is a prestigious race, the ACO have done a fantastic job to keep the momentum and honour going for the lifetime of the race. To be able to win it is fantastic. But it is also so enjoyable. When I finished Formula 1 I loved to go and compete at Le Mans, returning to drive there for Audi/Bentley and that is something I can look back on very fondly.
Winning in the Mazda was a real joy. It was a very popular car, not necessarily because it was quick, but because it was very noisy. It was and still is the noisiest car that has ever been to Le Mans. It had a very bright colour scheme, with day-glo orange, green and black, but it was the noise that stood out. The exhaust came out of the side of the Mazda. It was like a flame thrower! Its fair to say it wasn’t the most economical of cars, as it would shoot out these huge flames, three foot long from the exhaust. Heading into Arnage, there is a bank on the left hand side and at 3 or 4am you’d change down and the whole bank would be lit up, I’d see all these people asleep at the side of the road!
It was a Wankel engine, which are banned from Le Mans now and we were the underdogs. Mercedes were there in force that year and were expected to win it and were leading it, but we pushed them hard and eventually I think the leading car had a mechanical problem, a belt on a fuel pump fail, which enabled us to get back into the lead. Our pace was so good and the rotary engine ran like clockwork. We had no glitches whatsoever, I think we did one less pit stop with the brakes, which we didn’t expect and all the ingredients came together.
I think sometimes winning Le Mans is a bit about luck, in my latter years competing there I was second three times on the trot, we lost the first one where we had a puncture very early in a lap so it took us a long time to get back to the pits. The second year with Bentley we had some duff batteries in our car. Every three hours we had to keep changing the battery, whereas the other car ran like clock work. The final one I did, we were leading in the Audi for about 22 or 23 hours. We were leading by a lap when we had a suspension breakage. We manage to get in and have it changed very quickly, probably only losing a lap and a half, but we were then down half a lap and lost more time under a pace car, to put us a full lap down, but ended up losing by just twenty seconds. You just need that extra bit of luck, that’s the nature of Le Mans.
As a racing driver, nailing the Porsche Curves is always rewarding, in the Mazda, which had a manual gear box, you’d go down into fourth or maybe even third and it was all on the throttle off the throttle through the left part, off again. The car would bounce a lot too, the aerodynamics weren’t as good as the later cars. The Audi was way quicker, it was like a Formula 1 car against a Formula 3 car. Just immensely different. The only thing I missed out on experiencing at Le Mans was the old Mulsanne Straight, as my first time there coincided with the first time they put the chicanes in.
The whole build up to the race, with the drivers parade in the village, the history that surrounds the place, practice and qualifying and then the race on Saturday, through the night and into Sunday makes for a memorable experience.
www.johnnyherbert.org Follow on Twitter @JohnnyHerbertF1
Our sincere thanks go to @celebkarting and @racedriversinc for making this memory possible. Johnny was interviewed whilst participating in the Autosport International Karting Challenge (AIKC), run in association with Race Drivers Inc. and presented by Johnny Herbert.
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Memory added on January 29, 2013
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