recently caught up with Herbie Blash – one of the few figures to crossover the two and four-wheeled worlds in the modern era. After two decades spent as FIA Formula 1 deputy race director, Blash called it a day in the sport after over 700 races spanning the best part of 50 years of service in total. Blash is now working as a consultant to long-term partner Yamaha with its World Superbike and MotoGP exploits, while he still holds roles at the FIA, to make it a very busy ‘retirement’.

From F1 to World Superbikes, how did this all come about?

Herbie Blash:

I have been involved with Yamaha for about 28 years and it goes back to when I was running the Brabham team. We were looking for an engine and Yamaha had sent a letter to us to see if we were interested as their supplier in Formula 1. I saw the letter just as we were starting our Christmas break and I telephoned Yamaha immediately. It was a case of if you come over tomorrow we can talk because we are about to make a decision on where we are going for our engine in F1.

I had to jump on a plane over Christmas to go to Tokyo and met with Yoshiaki Takeda who I’m still involved with today 28 years on. We had a meeting and we went down to Yamaha by train, which was surprising because at the time in 1989 we travelling by helicopter, so that was a bit of a shock.

They asked me what type of engine I thought was necessary for Formula 1 and at that time we were looking at V12, it turned out it may have been the wrong direction, but at the time it looked the way to go. We came back and started the association in 1991, while at that time Brabham was going through all sorts of different owners before unfortunately folding. It moved away from its factory in Chessington which Yamaha purchased as they were designing the Supercar at the same time, the OX99, and the idea was the old Brabham factory would be used to build components for the OX99. At the same time Yamaha decided to build three dynos in Milton Keynes which were going to be for the F1 engine.

They asked me to become the sporting director for Yamaha and run the facility in our old Brabham factory which was titled under the Activa Technology. It was a Formula 1 facility with carbon fibre, a wind tunnel and the machining. That’s how I started as the sporting director for Yamaha before working with Jordan, then four years with Tyrell then one year with Arrows then Yamaha decided to pull out of F1. They retained me as the managing director of Activa Technology.

While I had been doing that, I was also going to all the Formula 1 races wearing an FIA hat. Now, how did I get an FIA hat? Well, we go back 22 years and there was a position available for a race director when Max Mosely was President and they took on a gentleman from the Royal Navy, Roger Lane-Nott, who was an Admiral and in charge of NATO nuclear submarines but he didn’t know anyone in F1. I was asked to become his advisor but at the same time Yamaha was still involved in F1. So, in the morning I would arrive with my Yamaha shirt and go through with the day’s programme then I would change into an FIA shirt to work with Roger.

Then things didn’t quite work out with Roger so we decided to put in a new race director called Charlie Whiting. I actually employed Charlie as a junior mechanic for Brabham in 1978. The idea was I would be his advisor for one year but 20 years later we were still together!

Now I have stepped down from that position to what I thought was going to be a slightly easier life. But at the same time at the end of last year Yamaha World Superbike – which is a Yamaha Europe programme – were in contact. The President of Yamaha Europe asked for some assistance from Yamaha Japan so they asked me when I was stepping down from F1 to come along and have a look to see if I could help in any areas. So we now have two engineers from Japan working in the World Superbike team. One of them has a lot of experience in MotoGP. We’ve also been having the project leader of Yamaha MotoGP, Kouichi Tsuji, who has been to three races and will come to another race. So we are seeing more involvement from Japan.

The team itself from the engine side has just moved from Germany to Italy so there are lots of things happening. Hopefully the team will be more competitive this year than last year and by the end of 2017 we should be in a good position for podiums.

So this was called a retirement for you when you left F1 but from what we can see it looks nothing like it!

Herbie Blash:

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. There were a lot of things I wanted to do but my whole life has been Formula 1, I hadn’t missed a race since 1973! The idea was to have a new life and go and see things like the Isle of Man TT. But these things still may not happen because I’m working on this programme with Yamaha and I’m still with the FIA as an ambassador on the volunteers and officials commission. I’ve also been lending a hand on a new programme which focuses on training future race directors and stewards.

From your early experience of the World Superbike championship, can you compare the world of F1 to WorldSBK?

Herbie Blash:

Many people in F1 have been asking me what it is like and I’ve summed it up very quickly. When I did my first round in Thailand and I was looking at the podium I saw these two big blow-up bottles of prosecco… I’ve just come from a champagne world!

In all honesty, racing is racing and it doesn’t matter if it is karting, F1, Indianapolis 500 or whatever. When I look at the Yamaha team the mechanics work so hard and they are what I would call true mechanics because they deal with every aspect on the bike and work non-stop compared to F1. The mechanics have an easier time now especially with the various curfews in F1 and the parc ferme situation after qualifying. The World Superbike guys work a lot harder than the F1 guys do. It is great to see the passion as well.

As for the riders, I just think they are so brave. Of course, it is a totally different world to our car drivers. When you look at the precision of a motorcycle rider when the contact patch is so small and how they can be so consistent with one-tenth of a second it amazes me. The championship is very professionally run and they do some really good things for the fans which we haven’t seen yet in F1. The fan zone here is something F1 is looking at now and trying to do more with which I think they should.

Seeing a paddock with fans inside which we haven’t seen for maybe 20 years in F1, it is extremely exclusive and dare I say it too exclusive, WorldSBK is fan-friendly and everyone wants to help one another which is how F1 used to be years and years ago.

Switching focus to World Superbikes now, how would you bring the series to a competitive level?

Herbie Blash:

I’ll put my hands up first and say I had never been to a World Superbike round until this year so I am not an expert on motorcycles at all. But, coming from my world a very simplistic way would be to have a single ECU, the same as we had in F1. I’m not saying that would cure all the problems and I am not sure it would suit all the manufacturers but looking at it simplistic points of view that’s what I’d change. When I look at British Superbikes I can see it is a very competitive championship and you don’t want to see one manufacturer walking away with it and I also don’t think they should be penalised for their success because they’ve been very clever and done a very good job. But this is a show. People want to see good and close racing. Personally, I don’t want to see the same guy winning and I’m sure the guys watching on the TV don’t.

I say this not as an expert, and this is also not Yamaha’s perspective, this is purely a Herbie perspective. Possibly Yamaha may think in a different way but coming from my world from the outside that is one of the first things to look at.

In F1 there has been a real shift in major figures at the top of the sport. Bernie Ecclestone, Ron Dennis and yourself have gone on to different things for various reasons. Do you also see F1 in a new era?

Herbie Blash:

The whole world of Formula 1 in some aspects has changed. The new brigade has arrived. I would class Toto Wolff in as one of those new guys, like Maurizio Arrivabene at Ferrari even though he has been involved at Marlboro for many years. The new guard has taken over from the old guard there is no doubt about that.

What are your thoughts on the new era?

Herbie Blash:

It is still early days but from what the new owners are talking about like opening up the paddock, being more fan friendly, dealing with social media which with Bernie wasn’t happening. I believe opening up F1 will be beneficial to the sport. Bernie said himself his role was to make money and he was one reason why the CVC did an excellent job for the sport and why it was sold for what it was. You have to take your hat off for that.

But Bernie wasn’t working for the fans he was working for the company CVC. The current owners are coming in with a different mindset altogether and it’ll be interesting to watch. Obviously they are new to Formula 1 but having Ross Brawn they’ve got someone who has seen and knows about the sport. I think it is going in the right direction.

You’ve had a close affiliation to Ecclestone, what has he said about it?

Herbie Blash:

Let’s just say an upset Bernie is a dangerous Bernie.

Very interesting. Changing the direction slightly, what is your best memory in F1?

Herbie Blash:

A real classic day for me was in 1982, so much was in the background, and it was when Brabham started with BMW but there were certain sections of the team which wanted to stop working with BMW. In Canada this really came to a head but Nelson Piquet was determined to continue with BMW. We finished first with Nelson in the BMW car and second with Riccardo [Patrese] in the Ford car. I don’t know of any other teams who have used different engine and produced a one-two so that was a real classic.

Before that, for me as the gofer, working with Rob Walker when his team won the British Grand Prix in 1968, and then 1970 I was working for Lotus and of course we won again at Brands Hatch. That was when I first met Bernie. But with over 700 Grand Prix we’ve had some bad ones with fatal accidents. They were very, very sad days.

Did F1, and now perhaps WorldSBK, become like an extended family given how much time you spend together and form bonds?

Herbie Blash:

Although F1 is a serious competition it still is a family. The family might not be as close now as it was and also it is so large now, and compared to World Superbikes which is much more tightly-knit and we saw that with Nicky Hayden’s passing. He was such a wonderful guy and it came as such a shock and sadness spreading into the MotoGP and F1 worlds. He was such a genuine and nice guy. This sport is dangerous, there is no doubt about it. These guys are gladiators but to have such a simple accident which Nicky had – we had a similar accident happen to Bob Wollek who was on a bicycle and Mike Hailwood for example driving to get his fish and chips – they live these extremely dangerous lives but then outside of that something so normal it can be quite hard to take in.

Does this pain get people to fight through it, make those bonds stronger, and improve safety in the future?

Herbie Blash:

Yes, but sometimes I find it hard to take in. When we were working after the Ayrton Senna accident, Max Mosley got a safety research group together of which I was part of and I see how hard the FIA work on safety with the tracks, the kerbs, the run-off areas and the cars in particular. Every year the cars are made safer, even the finer details like the rear jack position was changed by the Monaco Grand Prix because of what happened at Donington Park with Billy Monger. That is what a lot of people don’t comprehend how hard they work on safety.

It has been truly fascinating, thank you very much for your time and best of luck with the so-called retirement!

Herbie Blash:

Thanks, I’ll try my best!