Let’s hear it for Herbie!

Herbie Blash.jpgNow 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.

30 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for Herbie!

  1. Farewell, Herbie (or not – tell use more, Joe). He was always part of the fun during my time in F1, and you could always find out something you weren’t meant to know when he was nearby…

    1. Yes yet again Joe drops a hint of something he knows and does not follow up…(well, we’ll see…). So Joe who is taking his place and what is their background? Seems a tough role to jump into….

  2. Thanks Joe. I knew little about Herbie until now. Can only hope he writes his biography. Is he retiring or moving on to something else?

  3. I was the race director in 1996 when Herbie first came in to help. He was very supportive and a great friend with wise counsel for a new boy!

    1. Ah Roger! I would be very keen to hear your views on the current BRDC mess considering your previously held position there. Don’t you think that it was all much more successful and stable with you at the helm and Richard Phillips in charge of SCL instead of that laughable Pringle fellow they have now?

      Joe, I’m sure you know who Roger is, he would be a worthy interview.

  4. I secretly wonder whether he’s been thrown under the bus. I won’t go any further than that though as I could be barking up the wrong tree…

  5. Thanks Joe, great piece of F1 history. That side of the business usually unknown to the normal public. Bravo for Herbie !.. great and successful career at F1 and highly responsible for what F1have achieved so far today !

  6. I heard his interview on Sky and he still seems to have plenty to do.

    Folks like this are few are far btween. I’m sure he is one of those people that would be great to know.

  7. I had the pleasure of working with/for Herbie back in 1977/78 at Brabham. Super guy and I’m happy he’s got out still in one piece.
    So many story’s, but they all seem to revolve around very alcohol fuelled nights.
    Happy days.
    Hope he gets to enjoy some time for himself.

  8. Thanks Joe for such an interesting article, a lot of it I can relate to although my time was in NZ in the mid 50s through to 1954.

  9. Somewhere I have a 70s Rothmans umbrella and the wing mirror from a 6-wheeled Tyrell that a now deceased lady gave me, telling me that Herbie Blash had given them to her man moons before…

    But I digress. Joe, I don’t get it. There are various F1-related books and bios out there written by folks with but a fraction of your experience and skill, so why aren’t I seeing the sports shelves of bookstores showing your name? It seems that any non-entity these days can get a book deal (mt gf’s mate has just got a flower arranging book deal on the strength of her securing a few PR interviews in the press) so what gives? I’d love to see a book entitled ‘The Insiders – tales from the men who shaped F1’ with chapters covering the likes of Herbie, Ron, Bernie etc interviewed and written by you.* You can’t tell me it wouldn’t sell like hot cakes, and any publisher with half a brain would recognise it.

    Get on it son. The world needs properly written, deeply insightful, revelatory F1 books, not more coffee table glossy photomontages.

    *Or just pitch the likes of Herbie and Ron to write their official bios. If Toms Boyer and Rubython can get unofficial ones published, you sure as hell can get the real deal off the ground, no?

    1. There was a book called ‘Grand Prix People’ about 20 years ago of the type you describe here Moo. It features profiles of the key figures around F1 race weekends from Bernie and team bosses down to team and event crew.

  10. Sadly all the charcters are moving on !

    I am sure Herbie could write an interesting book without quite telling where the bodies are buried.

  11. I hope it’s not his final race.

    I’ll never forget seeing him walking around at the USGP a few years back now. It was a Thursday and he was walking around saying hi to all the marshals. I could just tell he was one of those truly rare people that genuinely cared about his job and the people he worked with.

    Saw him many more times after that but what a top guy. Not sure who his replacement is (?) but I can’t imagine theyll be half as good!

  12. Thanks for the very nice bio of Herbie Blash: I learned a few new things (to me) about his career. I thought the coverage of his retirement was superficial in most other F1 media.

  13. His career brings to mind Jenson’s helmet slogan: “the journey is the reward.” Sounds like a great guy who always stood his ground even when he was far from senior management.

    Speaking of Jenson, there goes another class act. I think his winning personality helped keep him in the sport for a very long time. So, nice guys don’t always finish last (longest in this case). I randomly came across Jenson in Hawaii once and unless he’s a good actor he was an extremely, pardon the cliche, down to earth guy. You would have never known he was a huge star unless you were F1 fan.

  14. Great piece Joe very informative. Truly amazing just how many races he’s attended and I didn’t realise that there have only been 972 GP’s in total so it also means that you have attended over half of all the GP’s.

  15. What an amazing career and what a wealth of knowledge that man must have. He must know every trick in the book which a team may try to pull and therefore he and Charlie must be invaluable as a team in directing races. The person who steps into his shoes must have a monumental task.

  16. It was good to see the “Whatever will we do without you Herbie?” sign in the cool down room and the man himself was there being roundly ignored by all, while both Nico and Bernie were close to serious injury as the latter was lifted and carried for a few moments. Meanwhile Herbie stood quietly under the sign and I wondered if there was to be a well earned podium presentation to him for long service and being himself a good bloke. Not hat we know much about him beyond what Joe tells us, he is always hidden away. Though precedent was broken the other week when Charlie appeared most inappropriately in the driver’s press conference. (Than should have been done as a separate event)

    A book about Herbie should be a good read, he has certainly been there and done it!

  17. Herbie is another link with proper GP racing, and after a very long career, doing good work wherever he landed, i’d hope he has a long and happy retirement!!

  18. Herbie have a great retirement ( or maybe ), look forward to seeing you again in the future. We last talked in Mexico last year and you were thinking of leaving F1, I still have two years to go in which to match that 50 years in motorsport. Enjoy your life moving forward my friend.

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