The 2008 Formula 1 season was the most exciting for 'many, many years' and 2009 will be 'as intense as it always is', reckons Johnny Herbert - who nevertheless lamented the string of controversial penalties meted out to new world champion Lewis Hamilton over the course of last year.

Former British, Italian and European Grand Prix winner Herbert was a keen observer of the action as it unfolded over the duration of the campaign, and the see-saw title battle that developed between McLaren-Mercedes' Hamilton and Ferrari star Felipe Massa. It was, he admitted, a thrilling clash - with some exceptions.

"I thought it was very good," Herbert told Radio. "I thought the whole year was interesting. Some of it I didn't like - all the penalties that were dealt out I felt were a little bit excessive and unnecessary, but it made the championship go to the last race and the last lap and the last corner. You couldn't have actually asked for anything more - I don't think it would have been possible to have stuck it in a computer and come out with the same result; it just worked very, very well.

"As I say, I didn't agree with everything that happened - Spa for example, where I don't think Lewis did anything wrong - but things have changed since my day. When I raced there used to be a little bit of grass and then a gravel trap, and when you went in the gravel, if you got out again you'd lose maybe five places, and if you didn't get out again that was it.

"That was always in the back of your mind, but what's different for the guys who are doing it now - and it isn't really their fault - is that because they have this extra tarmac run-off area, they know it's there as a safety thing, and that if they go off they can come back on again.

"Even when I last raced in 2000 there was always a gentleman's agreement that if you got an advantage, you backed off and let the other guy through again. That's exactly what Lewis did; yeah, he passed Raikkonen again, but he was quicker than him anyway. He didn't have the momentum, because he had eased off to let Kimi back past. He lost momentum; he didn't gain momentum."

That, though, was Herbert's sole downside of what he acknowledged was in general a classic campaign - one that surpassed anything he had seen, he contended, since back when he made his own debut in the top flight, at the height of the fierce Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost rivalry some two decades ago.

"Overall, the racing between Lewis and Felipe was good," the 44-year-old stated, "and there was a lot of the momentum swinging backwards and forwards. There was also [Robert] Kubica at the beginning giving a big push, even if BMW didn't quite do it in the end. We had [Fernando] Alonso and Renault come back at the end of the season too, which added a little bit of excitement as well, because he was taking points away from both Felipe and Lewis.

"It was just a good mixture - the best year I've seen in many, many years. The last time I saw a championship like that was probably the Senna and Prost era. It was always very interesting what was happening in the garages, where I remember Ayrton was trying to wait a little later than Alain before going back to the hotel so he could have a look through Alain's notes, and Alain was waiting as well. They used to stay there until 10 o'clock, and there were all these sorts of games going on. That was the last time I remember it being so exciting."

Moving his attentions forwards now, the single-seater turned sportscar star - who triumphed in the inaugural season of the Middle Eastern-based Speedcar Series last year up against such as fellow grand prix aces Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen - is not convinced that the raft of new regulations sweeping F1 in 2009 will improve the spectacle as they are intended to.

"Regarding the amount of downforce that they've lost through all the changes with the wings and everything, they will probably get most if not all of it back somehow," he argued. "The engineers can always dig out something to get it back, so the racing itself probably won't change much.

"The slicks are the only thing that might make it better, but probably not - at the beginning maybe, but only because everybody might not be up-to-speed with it all. There will still be the same issues that we've had in recent years.

"Because they've changed the cars so much, sadly it's probably going to be the guys who are spending the most time in the wind tunnel [who benefit most], which does cost money. It will always be the big teams, for sure, but then again, there aren't many small teams left in Formula 1 now. They're all big; even Force India has gone from Jordan to Midland to Spyker to what they have today, which is a McLaren-powered car, so they're going to be competitive too.

"Then you've got Williams, Red Bull and Toro Rosso, who are the only ones left that are really privateer teams shall we say - everybody else is all manufacturer-backed. At the end of the day it will be the guys that adapt [that do best], and that's always the same year-on-year.

"McLaren and Ferrari at the moment are battling it out, but there is more chance for the others to maybe close the gap. Toyota and BMW and co will still be pushing very hard to make it happen from their point-of-view, but Mercedes and Ferrari aren't going to back off either. It will be as intense as it always is, and there is always a chance that someone might make a big leap forward. It's happened before, and there's no reason why it can't happen again. Who, though? I don't know..."

by Russell Atkins