If it hadn't been for that day at Brands
- Rainer Nyberg, Mattijs Diepraam
- 8W May 1999 issue
- Ivan Capelli - Smooth operator, by Mattijs Diepraam
1989 Belgian GP
The Johnny Herbert story is really one of the best comeback stories.
Today, this jovial character has become a GP veteran with Johnny doing his 12th F1 season in 2000, before finally seeking new challenges. Johnny began his racing career began in 1974 at the age of 10 racing karts. In 1978, he became British junior karting champion, going on to claim British senior 135cc karting honours in 1979 and 1982. Johnny was also 18th in the World Championships at Kalmar, Sweden, the same year. Herbert then took the jump to car racing and spent 1983 to 1985 in Formula Fords with Johnny winning the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch at the end of 1985. He took another step up the ladder in 1986, graduating to FF2000 and then a further step to F3 late in the same year at Donington. There he drove a Mike Rowe-entered machine and finished a fine 4th. Johnny continued in F3 the following year but this time racing for Eddie Jordan in a Reynard-VW 873. He notched up five wins and took the British Championship. He also finished 3rd in the annual Monaco race.
Things had been going so quickly that later in the year Johnny had his first ride in a GP car when Benetton invited him to Brands Hatch for a test in the Ford V6 turbo-powered B187, while for 1988 Johnny graduated to F3000, staying with Eddie Jordan, this time racing a Camel-sponsored Reynard-DFV 88D. Johnny, Jordan and Reynard were successful first time out: it continued the amazing string of success of constructor Adrian Reynard's cars winning their first race in every category they graduated to.
With Herbert's star forever rising, in August he was invited by Team Lotus to Monza to test their 100T. He was immediately on the pace. Then fate dealt the Briton a huge blow. Only weeks after his amazing Lotus test, Johnny suffered that infamous accident of horrendous proportions at Brands Hatch which could have ended his driving career there and then. Johnny's feet were seriously injured in a prolonged series of crashes that seemed go on forever.
Some even thought that Johnny would have a hard time to ever walk again. But an extraordinary power of the mind got him on his feet again - figuratively speaking at first, for Johnny could perform the arts of driving a bicycle (and for that matter, a GP car) sooner than the simple act of walking. So amazingly, Johnny was back behind the wheel of an F1 machine by December.
Benetton team manager Peter Collins had kept a weak spot for Herbert since his first Benetton test and after the reacquaintance convinced his team's backers to trust his judgement that Herbert - now not only a debutant but due to his injuries an even more unknown quantity - would do the job for them in 1989. In Rio, at the first race of the season, walking the paddock on crutches and being lifted into the B189 cockpit, it looked like Collins had been right. But Johnny drove a fantastic race, finishing a remarkable fourth, only 11 seconds behind winner Nigel Mansell. This race was easy on Johnny's damaged feet, however, and further on in the season his form became erratic, up to the point of non-qualification in Canada.
All the premature high-level activity had done his feet more worse than good, and Johnny was unable to keep his speed. For Benetton the tough decision followed to "rest" him mid-season. Today, Johnny Herbert claims the Brands crash has been a millstone thwarting his World Championship aspirations. For team managers, he explains, the crash has forever put a question mark over his true potential, allowing them to rationalize their objections against signing him. Even outpacing later champions Häkkinen and Zanardi in his Lotus days hasn't been enough to convince the top teams of the fact "Brands Hatch" is well and truly a thing of the past. And thus a meteoric start to a career destined for world success fizzed out quietly when he was rested by Benetton. On the other hand, Herbert readily admits that without the Benetton opportunity he would never have gone on to drive over a hundred GPs, even winning two of them.
His fourth place at Rio probably kept him in the picture for a brief return for the Tyrrell team later in the season, replacing Jean Alesi at the two races which conflicted with the Frenchman's F3000 campaign. (That day Alesi was busy winning the Birmingham street race for EJR.) Here we see Johnny bouncing into the Bus-stop chicane - which must have hurt! - at Spa-Francorchamps in his first race for Tyrrell.
In the meantime, Herbert found a safe refuge in Japanese F3000 with the crack Le Mans team, partnering a visiting Michael Schumacher at Sugo. He didn't score any meaningful results but his Japanese presence allowed him to be signed on by Mazda for its 1991 Le Mans effort. Signing Herbert proved to be a master stroke as Johnny was the kingpin in the Herbert/Gachot/Weidler crew, Herbert doing double stints like there was no tomorrow - but at the Sarthe there inevitably is... - and falling flat on his back on the bonnet of the Wankel-engined 787B as soon he climbed out of the car as the victor. In fact, Johnny was so exhausted that he missed the victory ceremony!
A third F1 return followed after Martin Donnelly's shunt at Jerez late in 1990, when Johnny was drafted into the Lotus team. He would remain in the team for the coming four years. Sadly, Team Lotus was on its last feet and despite a striking 4th on the grid at Monza thanks to newly found Mugen horsepower, Johnny was punted off the race track in first chicane by Eddie Irvine in a race Johnny believes he could have won...
Still, his superhuman qualifying effort had not gone unnoticed with Flavio Briatore who needed a steady back-up driver in place of Jos Verstappen, for Benetton to take a realistic shot at the 1995 contructors' title. So, for the European GP, Herbert was placed with the Ligier team, effectively Briatore's second-string operation, before replacing Verstappen permanently at the last two races of the season.
But soon Herbert discovered why the young Dutchman had been two seconds off Schumacher's pace in 1994: the team was totally structured around the German, Benetton even refusing Herbert permission to compare both drivers' settings and telemetry. Kept in the blind, Johnny did contribute to Benetton's goal of taking the 1995 constructor crown and got two victories as small consolation. He did it by just being there at the end of two races of abnormal attrition. These were to become two glorious victories as it was Herbert's luck he kept to the old adage "To finish first, first you have to finish" in the blue-riband events of Silverstone and Monza - a wonderful set of Grands Prix for any driver to appear on their winners lists.
With Schumacher leaving for Ferrari and Briatore anxious to grab both Alesi and Berger as replacements, being a GP winner made Johnny attractive to upstart teams. In the end, he picked Sauber, an association which apart from a couple of spirited drives remained generally fruitless in the three years he spent with the team. In 1999 he found himself in virtually the same situation as in 1995: again replacing Jos Verstappen, Johnny discovered for a second time why Jos (and Jan Magnussen, for that matter) had been unable to keep up with his team mate. As soon became apparent - since there are no clouds covering Johnny's reputation, as opposed to Verstappen's - the Stewart team were unable to field two equal cars, electing to concentrate on their number one driver. Far into the 1999 season, equal number one status or not, Johnny hadn't exactly profited from Stewart's upturn in fortunes and there was doubt over Herbert's ability to swing the team's favours from Rubens in the same fashion Jean Alesi took control at Sauber when Herbert looked to be the Swiss team's eternal favourite.
At the end-of-season European GP, however, in a madcap wet race which everybody tried not to win, Johnny stayed on the black bits best and added a 'Ring victory to his Silverstone and Monza set. It was the last time an outsider upset the scoring sheets. Of course, it had to be Johnny...