x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

How I came back from my horror injury

Johnny Herbert's world came crashing around him on August 21 1988.

Johnny Herbert's legs are seen dangling from the wreckage of his car, top left, during the accident at Brands Hatch. The Englishman was told he would never race again but made a career in Formula One.
Johnny Herbert's legs are seen dangling from the wreckage of his car, top left, during the accident at Brands Hatch. The Englishman was told he would never race again but made a career in Formula One.

Johnny Herbert's world came crashing around him on August 21 1988. His dreams of winning races in Formula One and becoming a world champion appeared to be over when he was involved in a horrific accident at Brands Hatch in a Formula 3000 race, which left him with two broken legs and doubts over whether he would be able to walk again.

The Englishman, now 45, made a courageous recovery to not only walk again, but seven months later make the step up to Formula One, the pinnacle of motorsport. He went on to have a decorated career that saw him claim three victories, finish on the podium seven times and also triumph in the Le Mans 24 hours race. In the wake of the accident last Saturday at the Hungarian Grand Prix in qualifying - that left the Ferrari driver Felipe Massa with severe head injuries and in an induced coma for two days after he was struck on his crash helmet by a spring that had bounced off a rival car - Herbert says the Brazilian will be desperate to get back in the car and start racing again as soon as he is back to full health.

Doctors yesterday at the Budapest hospital where Massa is being treated said that the Brazilian was recovering well and could be able to return home in 10 days. There also appears to be no damage to his left eye, as had been initially feared. "In Felipe's case I would think he will take the view that he has survived the accident and as long as he is physically able, as a sportsman, all he will want to do is get back in the car as soon as possible and get back to racing," said Herbert.

"From my experience of what happened to me when I had my accident and my legs were a bit of a mess, my aim was always just to get back in the car again. My view was that I had survived it and I still had that chance to race and I wanted to take it. "It was difficult as I had doctors saying I may be able to walk again, but never race again, and you just strive to prove them wrong and race. "You want to keep going and get your life back and go back to what you were doing and I was able to do that." Herbert returned quickly, but thinks Massa should not rush his comeback.

"He is not in contention for the world championship and doesn't need to rush back, so he should relax and and come back at his own pace," he said. "But I'm sure he'll be desperate to get back in a car and drive as soon as he is physically able to." Herbert was in Budapest to watch the race and, initially, like the majority of viewers, thought Massa had crashed because of a mechanical problem. It was only when he saw the television replays that it became clear something out of the ordinary had happened.

"When you first saw it, the car was in the tyre wall and it just looked as if on the replay that his throttle had stuck open," he said. "But when you saw the replays from inside the car you were aware of seeing the spring come up and hit him in the helmet and at that speed the helmet did a fantastic job to take much of the impact, as it certainly could have been a lot worse. "It was a just a very freaky accident. I think there is always a danger of a freaky accident happening. It can happen in any sport.

"Recently we've seen a golfer die after he was struck by lightning and then there was the accident on the Tour de France that saw a spectator killed after they had been struck by a motorbike. "Things like this can happen and it isn't just motorsport." The other drivers had to watch as Massa was treated in his car before being extracted and Herbert acknowledged that is not easy for a driver to race knowing one of their colleagues is seriously injured, but said that he agreed with the protocol of the racing going on, even if someone has suffered an injury.

Herbert had that experience at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix when he raced after Ayrton Senna had been fatally hurt in a crash early in the race, and the Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger had been killed in a qualifying crash. "It is not nice for the drivers to see a colleague injured, but usually they are kept upto date with all the information on the injured drivers' conditions by the pitwall," he said.

"It is then down to them to go out and qualify or race and try and put the incident out of their mind, which everyone in Hungary appeared able to do. "When I was racing I could do it [concentrate on driving] and then when I got out of the car I would want to find out the condition of the fellow driver. In 1994 I had to deal with it and while it wasn't easy I got on and raced. "I certainly always felt that if something happened to me that I would not want everyone to stop racing in 'respect of Johnny'.

"I wouldn't want that as I knew the risks and I would not want people to stop racing because I had been hurt." @Email:gcaygill@thenational.ae