Now folks, if you’d all stop slugging one another over what happened in Abu Dhabi, it would be a grand idea, because things move on, to say farewell to an F1 personality, who has done more Grands Prix than anyone else: something in the region of 760 races – a career that dates back 50 years. Herbie Blash, the deputy race director, did his final race (well, we’ll see…) in Abu Dhabi. The World Championship showdown this year was the 972nd Grand Prix, which gives you an idea about just how much Herbie has done.
It is a story which began in Leatherhead in Surrey, where Herbie was born Michael Blash in 1948. When he was 17 he got a job as an apprentice in Rob Walker’s Pippbrook Garage in Dorking, a few miles from his home. He was soon roped in to helping with the RRC Walker Racing Formula 1 team, because there were not enough staff to do everything. His first race was at Goodwood, but he would soon he off to Syracuse in Sicily.
“They needed someone on the race team and looked around the workshops and told me to get ready,” Herbie remembers. “I packed a few pairs of underpants and we set off in a van, to drive all the way to Sicily. There were so few people in F1 teams in those days. It was completely different to today. And we worked all the time. When we didn’t work, we had parties. Nowadays, the mechanics have a very different life. They have curfews so they don’t work all-nighters and today they go running and stuff like that. It’s not the same at all.”
Blash quickly earned the nickname “Herbie” because his colleagues thought he was “a right herbert” (which is an English expression for someone who gets into trouble all the time). At the time Walker was running two Brabhams for Jo Bonnier and Jo Siffert and Herbie learned as he went along.
“The cars didn’t cost a lot,” he recalls, “because we fabricated everything. I do remember driving to Cosworth one day with two engines in the back of the van, thinking ‘Wow, I could buy two houses with what there is here’. Today, you could buy a huge mansion with what two engines cost.”
After three years with Walker, during which time he also did evening classes, studying mechanical engineering, Blash applied for a job at Team Lotus, which had just moved up to Norfolk. He became one of Graham Hill’s mechanics and a year later was moved on to Jochen Rindt’s car. It was in this era that he first met Bernie Ecclestone, who was Rindt’s manager
“I was mainly working on Rindt’s car,” he remembers. “He was an incredible driver. He could drive around any problem. He wasn’t really technically minded at all. I would sometimes work on Hill’s car, but he was not the easiest driver to work for, but he was always very sociable with the mechanics. At end of race, he would always join in and have a drink with us. There was a lot of camaraderie within the teams in those days. It was like a family. In F1 in those days everyone knew everybody so it was always enjoyable to go to a race. But, at the end of the day, you were there to win.”
Rindt was on his way to the World Championship that year when he crashed in practice at Monza. Blash, aged 21, had to deal with the death of his driver. It was a shocking blow, but one which was sadly common in F1 in that era.
He did not stay long at Lotus as he fell out with team boss Colin Chapman the following year when he led a walk-out of staff at Lotus because of the crazy hours that the team members were working.
“There were five different disciplines,” he said, “and we were working on all of them. F1, F2, F3, sports cars and Indycar. There were about 30 staff in total for all of this. That is far less than an F1 team takes to races today!”
At the end of that year Ecclestone bought Brabham and asked Blash to go and see what they had in the factory. The plan was for him to work with Ron Tauranac but they did not get on and so Herbie went off to Frank Williams in 1972 and worked on the new Len Bailey-designed Politoys FX3, which Henri Pescarolo was due to drive. When Ecclestone completed the purchase of Brabham and Tauranac departed, Herbie was taken on and began his career there running the F2 operation, before switching across to F1. For the next 15 years Blash worked with Ecclestone, designer Gordon Murray and others to build up Brabham into a championship contender. The team won 22 victories beginning with Carlos Reutemann in South Africa in 1974. In 1975 Carlos Pace became a winner with the team as well and Reutemann finished third in the championship. Hoping to get a jump on his rival Bosworth users, Ecclestone did a deal for free engines from Alfa Romeo for 1976. These were heavy and not very competitive and the team then lost Carlos Pace in a plane crash, early in 1977. It was not until Niki Lauda arrived in 1978 that Brabham won again, with the controversial “fan car”. That year Blash hired a former Hesketh mechanic called Charlie Whiting to be a member of the Brabham test team.
At the end of 1979 the team switched over to Cosworth and quickly became competitive with Nelson Piquet driving, although Lauda quit to go off to run his airline. In 1980 Piquet became a strong championship challenger and finished runner-up to Alan Jones, but in 1981 the Brazilian took the title. Ecclestone did a deal to race BMW turbos when they were ready and Murray worked his magic on the drawing board.
“I think the best time for me was in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the cars were so different,” Blash says. “The designers had freedom and there were different engines. I remember one year Brabham scored a 1-2 in Canada with a BMW engine in one car and a Ford engine in the other. That cannot happen today. We had some drivers who were really very special, obviously Ayrton Senna, he was something else, but also the characters like Nigel Mansell and James Hunt. We hardly ever see the current drivers. They hide in the motorhomes and run to the garages. It’s a little sad, but I am really excited about the new boys on the way up now.”
The 1983 season saw another World Championship for Piquet. But the team soon began to break up as Ecclestone concentrated more on the commercial side of F1 and paid less attentiont to the team. The death of Elio de Angelis ina testing crash in 1986 was another blow and slowly the team began to fall apart. Murray left, BMW withdrew from F1 and Ecclestone sold the team to Swiss financier Joachim Luhti. Blash left and went to work with Ecclestone’s FOCA Television operation for a season. He would return to Brabham soon afterwards as sporting director but luhti and the owners who followed did not have thenous to do the job properly. Brabham started a relationship with Yamaha and employed drivers such as Damon Hill and Martin Brundle but the magic was gone. The team went into administration in 1992 and Blash went to work with Yamaha, taking over the Brabham facilities and founding Activa Technology Limited, a company manufacturing composite components for race and road cars. He also oversaw the technical alliances betwen Yamaha and Jordan and later Tyrrell as well as being named as the FIA Deputy Race Director at all Grands Prix in 1996, alongside Race Director Whiting. The pair were poachers turned gamekeepers and they proved to be pretty effective in stopping teams gaining unfair advantages.