This article first appeared in the 22nd August edition of Autosport magazine
It was approximately 3.45pm on 21st August 1988, the handful of spectators at Pilgrims Drop were not entirely sure what they had just heard. Out of sight, before the cars came in to view below the bridge, a thunderclap of shocking energy resonated through the concrete parapet and out in to the woods. A split-second earlier Johnny Herbert had braced himself as much as he could, but it was too late even for that final indignity. The ear-splitting impact rang out, resonating obscenely through the trees.
“As the car turned left I went to say, ‘Oh Shit,’ recalls Herbert, 25 years on from the accident that almost claimed his left foot and his career. “But I only got to the ‘Oh,’ part!”
After the noise came the violent conclusion to what was one of the largest chain-reaction accidents ever to occur on British racing asphalt. In seconds, the undulating stretch of track resembled the scene of an aircraft crash. Amid the dense woodland of the Brands Hatch Grand Prix loop, a motorsport ‘heart of darkness’ had played out in a shower of wheels, carbon fibre and fervent ambition that had burned far too intensely that afternoon.
“I clearly remember Paolo Barilla crying when we got back to the grid after the accident,” recalls Mark Blundell, who along with the Italian was one of only nine cars to make it through the destruction. “He was convinced someone had been killed because he had driven through the wreckage and, like me, had glanced in his mirrors. That had been a mistake because it really looked like a bomb site. It was a strange weekend all-round; you could just feel it in the air.”
Whirlpools of dark eddying energy do indeed build up and hang forbiddingly over certain weekends. Spa 1960, Indianapolis 1973 and Imola 1994 are obvious examples. At Brands Hatch that weekend, the accidents had begun during Friday free practice with a hefty shunt for Enrico Bertaggia at Paddock Hill Bend, when his Dallara 3087 turned sharp left in to the tyrewall. Spectators looked on aghast, first concerned but then astonished as the Italian walked out of the monocque which had opened like a tin can. The incredulous Italian sidestepped from the wreck, eyes widened at his miraculous deliverance.
A day later, Michel Trolle was not so fortunate (see separate story – below). The debate about the safety of F3000 cars had already started at the very first race of the year at Jerez, where the promising Steve Kempton broke his ankles in the morning warm up. It continued at Monza in June, when Fabien Giroix suffered severe leg injuries and Massimo Monti cartwheeled his Ralt through an advertising hoarding and in to the trees beyond the first Lesmo corner. The accidents in 1988 were horrendous and that no-one was killed during the season was nothing short of a miracle.
It all came to a head at Brands. Herbert had been heading out of Surtees Corner, and at the forefront of his thinking was making up for the poor start in part two of an already-controversial race. In his F1-destined mind was winning the race and preparing for the Birmingham Superprix the following weekend before confirming his place on the F1 grid with Benetton via his mentor, Peter Collins, for 1989.
But alongside him as he approached the Pilgrims Drop bridge was Gregor Foitek. In a white Lola T88/50 and in plain white helmet, Foitek’s simple exterior profile belied a more complex vision beneath. Wild-haired and wild, too, of reflex, the Swiss carved a twitchy, cavalier figure in the paddocks of Europe that summer. There was no doubting his pace. But his somewhat desperate crave to impress cast doubts aplenty.
Given the chance to make it to F1 by his wealthy father Karl, Gregor had the substantial backing of his family’s lucrative automobile dealership in Zurich and this smoothed the path for him. But by the summer of 1988 he was hell-bent on ascending it in a blizzard of energy and coruscating performances.
Many assumed that ‘Papa’ Foitek was living a second career through Gregor. The intensity of the relationship did make some in the paddock uneasy and, while he was by no means the only ‘competitive Dad’ in motorsport at that time, he was unforgiving and very hard on his son, exerting a sometimes intolerable pressure for the younger Foitek to succeed.
“Gregor was wickedly quick but unsure as to why or how,” recalls his engineer at GA Motorsport in 1988, David Luff. “He was a quiet guy who didn’t speak much English and generally kept himself to himself. But when it came to the cockpit he was seriously competitive and had a real natural aptitude. He did get in to scrapes but most drivers on the last rung up the F1 ladder do don’t they?
“I think the reason he was castigated so much after Brands was because of a mixture of these scrapes and also that he was a bit detached from the paddock gang. He didn’t speak English and didn’t socialise with his contemporaries. He was an easy and convenient target and I don’t think that was fair at all.”
Herbert and indeed some of the F3000 drivers were wary of Foitek. Out of the cockpit he often gave an air of almost lunar detachment. He was seriously fast, as Luff attests, but with the pace came unpredictability and marginal understanding of spatial awareness, was causing concern from the very start of the season.
“At Vallelunga in the first race I had a run-in with him,” remembers Herbert. “In the race we were pretty much side by side and he started to come over on me, so I went to move away as I didn’t feel completely comfortable racing him. At the last possible moment he just turned in on me and I went off and slammed sideways into the end of the hairpin Armco which is in a ‘U’ formation. My head hit the barrier and I couldn’t remember much after that apart from the fact I needed to be more wary of Mr Foitek!”
Herbert had slight swelling of the brain that was eventually diagnosed by Professor Sid Watkins at his base in the London Hospital, Whitechapel. He was forced to miss the Pau round and rejoined the championship at Silverstone in June, but even then still took time to get back to race fitness.
By August, Herbert needed big points from the Brands/Birmingham back-to-back races and after a faultless qualifying at Brands he was well on track for rejuvenating his title challenge. Pole was his by such a margin that he sat out most of the second phase of qualifying, watching with interest as his new team-mate Martin Donnelly – who had stepped up from F3 to join him in Eddie Jordan Racing’s squad of Reynard 88Ds – was the only driver to get close to the time. After a recent impressive F1 test with Lotus, Johnny was on the crest of a wave.
The yellow Reynard 88D led the race comfortably, but when Roberto Moreno slammed hard in to the Paddock Hill Bend tyre wall, while going wheel to wheel with a defensive Foitek at the start of the 22nd lap, the red flag came out. Moreno, who led the championship after a trio of wins at Pau, Silverstone and Monza, was livid, and vented a very public condemnation of Foitek on the public address system as he walked back to the pits to tell his engineer, Gary Anderson, about the holed monocque that would be arriving in the paddock on the back of a flatbed truck.
All of this seemed to disrupt the previously serene Herbert, who was left to await the restart with a 12-second cushion in his pocket for the second tranche of the race. All of a sudden fate started to deal some unpleasant hands.
“It all began at the re-start,” says Herbert. “I don’t know why I parked it (on the grid) where I did, with the back of the car in relation to the infamous Brands grid gradient. As the green light went on, it went a little bit sideway but I still caught it. Now though of course I went right down the dip, got a lot of wheel spin and dropped back behind Martin (Donnelly) and Martini. I was side by side with Foitek going into Paddock and he moved across to try and intimidate me, we banged wheels but I managed to stay ahead up to Druids.”
Through Graham Hill Bend and Surtees, Herbert if anything appeared to be thinking more of an attack on Martini rather than worrying about Foitek’s GA Motorsport Lola T88/50 behind him. And then they headed out in to the country…
“He had a slightly wider run and then he was able to get a bit of a quicker exit (from Surtees),” recalls Herbert. “On the exit I looked in the mirror to see where he was as I knew he could have a run going down to Hawthorns but I didn’t really think it was on at all because it is so narrow there. I saw him coming and I remember him diving left, I didn’t move and then he just touched the left rear of my car. Whatever he was trying, it was never going to work. He should have backed off but he just kept coming.”
In a split second both cars were heading for the bridge parapet. Just watching the video footage of the accident takes the breath away. For those involved and just behind travelling at approximately 160mph, it must have been utterly terrifying.
“I remember some fast and violent movements in the cockpit,” remembers Herbert. “My head was going forward and down so fast and then I remember spinning and hitting something again, my head thrusting forward once more with massive pressure everywhere. I opened my eyes, looked forward and noticed the big hole in front of me. All I could see was tarmac and some grass. Then I saw my knees but nothing behind or below them. I thought ‘well, they have gone wherever the front of the car has gone.”
Those behind the incident soon became involved. Olivier Grouillard’s GDBA Lola T88/50 was instantly collected by Foitek’s and Herbert’s rebounding wrecks. The Frenchman suffered bruising after a fearsome impact with the Armco. Foitek was incredibly fortunate as his Lola barrel-rolled to destruction along and on top of the Armco on the right-hand side of the track, the unconscious Swiss’ helmet covered in mud and grass. Impacts with the Armco had punctured several holes in the monocoque. Claudio Langes, Andy Wallace, Russell Spence, Aguri Suzuki, David Hunt and Gary Evans all came to grief amid the cascade of wishbones, wheels and fragmenting carbon fibre.
For Mark Blundell and his Lola Motorport T88/50, it was also way too close for comfort as he somehow made it through, more by chance than judgement, such was the speed of the unfolding horror.
“Part of Johnny’s wing end plate, quite a major bit of carbon, was heading straight for my helmet,” he says. “At the last minute it went low and lodged like an arrow between the nose on my Lola and the main plane of the front wing. My guys yanked it out when I got back to the grid but at one stage I thought it was going to cut my head clean off.”
For some of the survivors who had seen the shunt it all became a bit too much. Those who made it back to the grid ambled around not quite believing what they had just witnessed. Many, like the very distressed Barilla were highly emotional. A barefooted James Hunt, working as a driver advisor for Jean Alesi and Volker Weidler on behalf of Marlboro, ran up to parc ferme to inspect the cars as they were salvaged. He returned with a drained pallor, shaking his head at what he’s seen.”
“It was a pretty weird atmosphere because nobody really knew what was going on and exactly who might be hurt because so many had been involved,” recalls Blundell. “We all knew it was bad. There was just that sense of foreboding you get sometimes at a track. It seemed that you couldn’t just have a small accident anymore.”
Blundell, like most, had serious misgivings about Foitek even before the incidents that day. “He was one of those guys no-one was ever able to infiltrate; he just seemed to be a loner. There was something within him that could not control the red mist coming down and that seemed to be evident on a number of occasions. You just couldn’t trust the guy in wheel-to-wheel racing.”
Foitek was instantly and perhaps unjustly labelled as the significant contributory cause of the incident. His previous misdemeanours and propensity to be involved in contretemps with his adversaries had come back to haunt him. Yet some, including Foitek himself, even believe that he and Herbert didn’t touch and that the Eddie Jordan Racing Reynard could have suffered a failure that pitched the car left and in to him. This is swiftly discounted by Herbert’s engineer that day, Trevor Foster.
“We gave the car a thorough examination on the morning after the shunt back at (the Jordan team’s base at) Silverstone. There was no breakage we saw that could have contributed to the accident. It appeared to be just two hungry drivers occupying the same piece of tarmac at the wrong time, with no quarter given.”
“Immediately after the shunt I got in to a medical car and was taken to the scene,” says Foitek’s engineer, David Luff. “Gregor was still in the car and just coming round. I have never seen anything like what I saw that day. It really did look like a plane crash. Gregor was sat in nothing more than a tub. It was just devastated and he was a very lucky boy to get away with just a small wrist fracture after rolling down the guardrail like that.”
For Herbert, still being extricated from his car, consciousness was leaving him. Yet a quarter of a century on he remembers surreal moments in gauzy, flickering hazes.
“I think Aguri (Suzuki) came over to see if I was ok, but I can’t remember any of that clearly. What I do remember is a marshal coming up to the cockpit and saying ‘Are you okay?’, then he stepped to the front of the car and looked down. I caught his face just as his expression changed. He looked like he was going to be sick. That wasn’t very promising at all for me, and I think that’s when the body has its own way of protecting itself and the mind shuts down.”
Adrian Reynard and Foster arrived on the scene as Herbert was sedated with nitrous-oxide, removed from the remains of the car and taken to Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup. Foster remembers the harrowing hours that followed.
“The surgeon came to see us before the accident and said that Johnny’s injuries were severe and that his left ankle was so badly damaged that his racing career was definitely over, and that there was a real possibility they would amputate,” says Foster. “We were very clear to him that whatever they did that night they should not take the foot off and that they should do whatever it took to save it. They did an initial operation which essentially was hoping for the best. I will never forget seeing him after the first operation. He just looked like a 10-year old kid. He almost seemed to have lost weight and become dishevelled within the space of a few hours. ”
While Herbert’s professional career hung in the balance, Donnelly took a comfortable victory from Pierluigi Martini and Mark Blundell in the second re-started race of the afternoon. All three had half-heartedly gone through the motions of a joyless podium ceremony. Donnelly in particular was wrestling with a variety of emotions.
“It was such a strange weekend with so much going on,” recalls the Northern Irishman. “EJ had wheeled, dealed and charmed me in to a crazy contract that only he could come up with. I was also supposed to be getting some money for the seat but of course there was a slim chance of that happening at all. Still, we had won the race, my first in F3000 and it was so important for me as I was at a real crossroads career wise.”
“But we almost instinctively knew that Johnny was badly hurt so it just didn’t feel right celebrating afterwards. There are all these conflicting emotions that want to come out of you after a race like that but they never do. We were all young and ambitious for F1. It really was war out there sometimes.”
In the days after the race, doctors were pondering the future of Herbert’s feet and preparing for more theatre sessions in hospital. After a weekend of carnage the pieces had to be picked up. For 1989, the governing body FISA made crash tests mandatory, as was the placing of the pedal boxes behind the axle line of the front wheels. The shockwaves of Brands ‘88 reverberated all the way to March ‘89 when, at the drivers’ briefing Herbert for the season’s opening Grand Prix at Rio, Herbert came face to face with Foitek who, with EuroBrun, was also making his F1 debut.
“I walked in to my first drivers’ briefing and said hello and introduced myself to everyone,” says Herbert. “It was quite something doing that to all the heroes of the time: Piquet, Senna, Prost, Mansell… Then I stuck out my hand to this familiar face with curly hair. It was Foitek. By the time I has realised it was too late. He shook my hand and smiled. After all the pain and operations in the previous six months here I was saying good morning to him like nothing had happened.”