Editor’s Note: UK contributor Martyn Pass recently had a chance to sit down with race car driver Johnny Herbert. Around the pages of Fourtitude Herbert is likely best known for his multi-year stint as an LMP1 driver during the Audi R8 era of racing in both the ALMS and Le Mans. Herbert also raced for Bentley in the R8-derived Speed 8 at Le Mans and has led a storied career in F1.
Recently Herbert had a chance to test the 2011 Le Mans-winning #2 Audi R18 TDI. Martyn Pass caught up with the Brit following the test and has captured his driving impressions of “Red Sonja” along with his impressions of the R8 LMS that he also raced last season for United AutoSports. During the chat, Johnny also reflected on his career and his own impressions of the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans when he was working as a correspondent for EuroSport and witnessed the two horrific crashes experienced by two of the Audi R18 TDIs in the race. Follow along below as Johnny recounts it all.
On the Early Days with Audi Sport and the R8 LMP1
My career goes back a long way with Audi – in fact it will be 11 years in June since my first race for them. I had a great time with all the various Audi teams –whether it was the ‘factory’ Audi Sport Team Joest outfit, Dave Maraj’s Champion Racing or the Audi UK (Veloqx) team – they are all really good times to look back on.
The R8 sports-prototype was bullet-proof during what was an amazing career between 2000 and 2006. There are many examples of when tremendous pit work after on-track skirmishes saw an R8 recover to claim success. Audi Sport, or whatever the team, would make the necessary repairs allowing us drivers to slice back through the field. It was a fabulous car and one which chalked up 63 wins from 80 race starts.
By anyone’s standards that is a remarkable ratio. For me, I especially loved my times competing with the car in America. The Champion Racing guys were sensational people and we had some huge battles with the factory R8 cars.
Johnny Samples the R18 TDI
What was very surprising for me when I first slid inside the R18 TDI, fired it up and trundled down the pit-lane, was the transmission noise. It was just like when I drove the R8 sports-prototype years back – in fact, surprisingly, it was a little noisier.
The R18 TDI’s exhaust note is very quiet, as everyone who has seen it on the track will know, but inside the small cockpit, with everything else that’s going on, it’s quite noisy for the driver. From the outside, the engine revs and the shifting don’t seem to make a lot of noise; it’s as though the engine isn’t revving very high and so it doesn’t make a lot of noise. From inside the car, though, it was completely the opposite.
In terms of the biggest difference between the last time I raced an R8 (in 2004) to driving a 2011-spec R18 TDI, actually the Le Mans winning chassis, was the sheer grip level – quite incredible!
It still had an understeer trait, just like the R8, and I assume that this was something the R10 TDI and R15 TDI cars also had, although I never drove them. This is something which has been built in to the Audi sportscars which have raced and been so successful in Le Mans.
While I raced the open-top Audi R8 between 2001 and 2004, the R18 TDI was not the first closed sportscar I’d driven. In fact, I won at Le Mans in ’91 driving a Mazda 787, and claimed second place in a Bentley Speed 8 in 2003.
Vision in the R18 TDI is compromised by the huge front wheel arches – a direct result of the ACO rules which acquire the same-sized wheels front and rear.
You get used to it, but I don’t understand why there is a need for this rule. It makes no sense to me whatsoever because it has actually made it harder for the drivers. Le Mans is a hard enough race as it is.
Driving Impressions of the Audi R8 LMS
I drove the R8 LMS in last summer’s Spa 24 Hours which was really enjoyable. It was my first time in a GT3 sportscar, but it was interesting. We were up against a factory Audi in the WRT entry and we (United Autosports) struggled on the Dunlop tires, but the overall experience was good.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well I could race the R8 LMS. You could drive it really hard, using the ABS/traction control, while the balance of the car was very satisfying.
With the R8 LMS, without stating the obvious, you sit in it and everything is in the right place. It’s a very easy and comfortable car to drive – a typical Audi trait which is a feature of all its race and road cars. It is a perfect racecar for the ‘gentleman’ racing driver and one which has already chalked up over 100 race wins.
On the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Audi Crashes of 2011
I went to Spa last year having been at Le Mans, working for Eurosport TV as a commentator. Allan’s accident was a racing incident. Timo’s Audi was directly in front, Allan went around the outside when Timo was a little slow out of the corner, and the GT3 Ferrari could not see Allan’s Audi diving down the inside of it.
Mike Rockenfeller’s accident was at a much higher speed and was far worse, but because it happened at night, out in the ‘country’, the full force and impact was not seen. With Allan’s crash, it just looked horrible, with the way the car twisted and it was more of a continuous movement.
But I was not surprised that both Allan and Rocky got out of their wrecked cars relatively unharmed. I know how strong Audi builds its racecars. Audi has always been very sharp on trying to make it as safe as possible.
Funnily enough, I didn’t enjoy Le Mans as an event back in 1991 – even when I won it – and it was only when I went back in 2001, with Champion Racing, that I saw it from a completely different perspective. With the factory Audi, Bentley and Audi UK teams in later years, I loved it and now thoroughly like the circuit.
I have always said I would like to race at Le Mans again, but only if I had something competitive underneath me. I was hoping I’d get a telephone call from Dr. Ullrich after the R18 test, but I’m still waiting! But seriously, the only thing I wanted to do before I retired from Le Mans was to win it one more time. I got close three times, that’s my only disappointment.
But that’s Le Mans, and that’s what sportscar racing is. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. But I can’t complain, I had a great sportscar career after Formula 1.
I’m guessing the only Audi I’ll drive at Le Mans is my Q5 TDI…