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Herbert hopes to fish in wet tracks

By Andrew Baker

NURBURGRING (GERMANY), MAY 20. The weather forecast for the Nurburgring on Sunday is absolutely revolting. The thickly forested Eifel mountains which surround the circuit will be doused by frequent showers, battered by strong winds and shaken by the occasional rumble of thunder. Spectators are advised to pack their woollies and wellies, but the man who will be happy with the conditions is Johnny Herbert.

Heard it all before! Johnny Herbert will be looking for a repeat of last-year's success. The British have an unfortunate reputation for their obsessive interest in the weather. But this national characteristic was a boon to Herbert at the Nurburgring last year. As a succession of showers swept the circuit, he imitated Michael Fish rather than Michael Schumacher and kept his eyes on the clouds. Timing his pit-stops to perfection, he won the race, recording the first and only Grand Prix victory for the Stewart team and resurrecting his career.

Now all Herbert needs to do is to repeat the trick on Sunday, in what will be his 150th Grand Prix. Stewart has metamorphosed into Jaguar, and on the strength of that clever win, Herbert kept his seat. But, as so often, bad luck is dogging his wheel tracks and the whisperers in the paddock suggest his long career in Formula1 may soon be over.

``I think it's going to be a little more difficult to spot the rain clouds this year,'' Herbert said. ``Last year there was one great big cloud and I saw it coming. This year it's all little clouds, little showers.''

But following Jaguar's dreadful start to the season, Herbert realises that he is going to need some kind of divine intervention if he is to have any chance of recording a fourth Grand Prix victory on Sunday. ``We would have to improve a great deal to win,'' he admitted, ``even with three big black clouds and three times as much luck as we had last year.''

Herbert considers himself lucky to have contested one Grand Prix, let alone 149, following the disastrous Formula 3000 accident in 1988 which nearly cost him his legs. He still walks with a limp and jokes that the state of his feet is so bad that he wears socks in bed so as not to frighten his wife.

``Sometimes I forget how bad the damage is,'' he said. ``Just recently I saw a video of myself playing volleyball on the beach and I was shocked by how bad I looked. Feet a mess, one leg at a funny angle - oh, dear.'' But he laughs at the recollection.

Large chunks of any interview with Herbert must be consigned to the litter bin for diplomatic or even legal reasons: discretion is not his watch-word. But don't be fooled by the crinkly grin and the non-stop asides. Herbert takes his job extremely seriously, as he must if he is to hang on to it.

Thirty-six-year-old Grand Prix drivers are a rare breed, and there is a queue of drivers almost half his age ready to jump into the Jaguar. How long can he continue to fend them off? ``As long as I'm here,'' Herbert said, with a not-so-nice blue-eyed stare. ``If things go better and keep improving, then maybe I'll still be around next year. My goal is definitely next year.''

The man he has to beat to hang on to his ride is Eddie Irvine, recently and lucratively recruited from Ferrari. The two were team-mates in Formula Ford in the mid-Eighties, but could hardly be described as bosom buddies these days. Herbert insists, though, that the bumptious Ulsterman is not annoying him. ``Eddie's all right,'' he said. ``We get along fine. But I don't go out partying with him - my wife wouldn't let me.''

Herbert's wife, Becky, finds the tax-exile life in Monaco a little dull. ``It's easier for me, always flying off to races,'' he conceded. Their daughters, Chloe and Aimelia, are coming up to senior school age and provide the family with an excuse to move back home; Herbert fancies a house in the Cotswolds.

But not quite yet. He would dearly love to prove his critics wrong, to breathe life back into his career as he did here last year. To a man written off when he had barely got started, defiance comes naturally. ``In my next life I'll come back with normal feet,'' he said. ``Then we'll see what happens.''

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