His is the chirpy face of Sky F1, but little appreciated outside of F1’s inner circle is that Johnny Herbert was on the inside line to grand prix stardom when a horrific Formula 3000 crash at Brands Hatch – while a title front-runner – resulted in severe foot and ankle injuries that left him with a permanent limp and unable to jog. Amputation was considered but averted only by multiple operations, followed by intensive therapy.
His career seemed over, but then-Benetton team manager Peter Collins – who later guided Vitantonio Liuzzi to F1 – kept faith in the Essex driver and took up an option even before Herbert could walk unaided. Thus, he was carried to his car for qualifying for the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix, claimed tenth on the grid – one place ahead of team mate Alessandro Nannini – and placed fourth in his first grand prix despite braking with his heel.
Herbert’s first taste of F1 came in a Benetton-Ford B187 turbo at Brands Hatch the previous year, an experience he recalls with his trademark chuckle: “So turbo, that was my introduction [to F1] and it was different from everything else I [later] raced in F1 because in those days the turbo lag was just ridiculous.
“The driving style was completely different: where now you wrestle a car, with those turbo cars we short-shifted through corners, then waited until it was straight before fully getting on the gas.”
During his F3000 year he undertook further tests for Benetton “at Jerez and other places”, then was strapped into the (Nelson Piquet) Lotus-Honda 100T at Monza a week before his crash.
“That was the last year for the turbos, and they were monsters to drive because you had massive rear wings, massive front wings, massive everything; the brakes were big, the cars were big.
“My biggest impression sitting in the car was the pungent smell of the fuel. To drive it was pretty okay because it had so much drag – which wasn’t something that was thought about much, it was about power. The braking was unbelievable, because it stopped on a sixpence because the brakes were good and drag came into effect at the same time.”
So, to testing and the season opener in Rio: The team’s 1989 car was delayed until mid-season so Herbert only raced the B188. His overriding recollection was of the difficulties posed by braking: “I was unable to brake effectively,” he says, adding laconically, “and braking is, as you know, fairly important…” Other than that he has few recollections of the car, not surprising given the circumstances.
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The long and short of it is that after that stunning debut his performance went backwards, so much so that he failed to qualify in Detroit and was fired by newly-installed team boss Flavio Briatore, despite claiming points again with fifth in Canada.
“I remember crying at home when I got the call – typical Flav, I never got a call from Flav, I got called by the secretary telling me what was going to happen. That was something that hurt even more because he didn’t have the balls to call and tell me it was over. But, at the end of the day, it was probably the right thing to do.”
Herbert wasn’t on the sidelines for long. Ken Tyrrell, whom Herbert met during a Formula Ford awards evening, made an offer as substitute for Jean Alesi, who was dovetailing F3000 with F1 when contractual obligations to the former series permitted. Grabbing the offer, Herbert drove the 018 at Spa and recalls the Harvey Postlethwaite-penned “was actually very nice to drive because it had the mono damper on the front” and aerodynamics that were “pretty impressive”.
“It had a much sharper front end compared to what the Benetton was like, and the rear end followed the front. When I drove it at Spa I remember going through Pouhon where it was absolutely mighty.” But in streaming wet conditions he spun into retirement on his fourth lap.
He had one further outing in the Tyrrell – at Estoril, where he failed to qualify, partially due to his injuries: infection set in and his foot swelled to “the size of a rugby ball”. Internal problems compounded his woes. “I had eaten a big bad lobster on Friday evening and was sick as a pig. Everything was sort of against me…”
His F1 hopes having receded, Herbert headed east to Japan’s F3000 series for 1990, which brought him into the orbit of Mazda’s Le Mans operation. That culminated in the first (and thus far, only) victory in the French endurance classic for a non-reciprocating engine, in 1991 with a Wankel rotary.
He made a pair of F1 starts in 1990, again as a substitute. After Martin Donnelley’s career-ending shunt at Jerez – described by the Northern Irishman’s Lotus team Derek Warwick here previously – Herbert was called by team boss Peter Warr, whom he describes as a “bit of a fan, which is why I got the Lotus test in 1988.”
Herbert’s overriding recollection of the Lamborghini V12-powered 102 is that it was “long, heavy, but a lovely smooth power band. It was actually very drive-able, wasn’t very torquey in any shape or form. But the car was sort of at the end of its life, which is why Martin’s car just exploded when he had his crash.”
Still, Herbert’s outings at Suzuka and Adelaide earned him a 1991 seat with the Frank Dernie-designed, Judd-powered Lotus 102B after the team dropped Julian Bailey after four rounds. It proved a busy year – F1, Le Mans and Japanese F3000 – but at least he was back in the premier formula, with a team by now headed by Collins.
Although Lotus was teetering on the brink he has fond memories of the team, in particular Collins and Dernie, the latter likened to “a mad professor in many respects, but an interesting man to work with because there were always ideas. It was an era where ideas were plucked from the top of a tree and then you applied them to see if they worked.
“It was quite a good car to drive, gave you a lot of feedback through the steering wheel, through the pedals, but it sadly wasn’t very quick because we were 80-100 horsepower down on a Benetton Cosworth.
“Peter, unbelievably for me anyway, still had this belief that I could jump in an F1 car and do the job. So I was bloody lucky Peter was around because if it wasn’t for Peter I don’t think I would have had a career.”
Herbert drove the 102 in three versions – Lamborghini (1990), Judd (1991) and Ford-powered (1992) – but says “We were no further forward on the aerodynamic front [with each engine change]. Although we had a bit more horsepower underneath, we never had the car develop in any way. The only positive thing it was it was it was nice to drive, that’s about it.” Still, it delivered a point for sixth place at Kyalami in 1992.
But he raves about the active suspension era: “Of all the cars I drove that was the most interesting, that electronic control suspension system was absolutely fascinating for me [because] there were just hundreds and thousands of different set-ups that you could play with. We didn’t have a chance to get through probably half of those, but it fascinated me by what it was able to do.”
Mid-1992 saw the introduction of the neat Chris Murphy Ford-powered 107 – “one of the best-looking cars I ever drove, it had a flowy look to it and the whole package was just nice.” After delivering 12 points across 1992/3 in active and passive forms it received a Mugen V10 for 1994’s openers before being superseded by the 109 also powered by the Japanese engine, the pseudo-Honda being described as “better than the [Ford].”
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Sadly, the team’s cash ran out after Monza, where Herbert qualified fourth after they set the car up with the help of suspension guru and ex-F1 driver John Miles and fitted “monster wings, obviously low downforce”, but he was taken out at the first chicane on the opening lap. The spare car – which unlike his regular mount lacked a potent engine upgrade – proved two seconds a lap slower.
With that Lotus collapsed and Tom Walkinshaw bought his contract, ostensibly for the Ligier team he ran at the time (on behalf of Briatore). Herbert had one race – in Jerez – with the Renault-powered JS39B, then arrived for a test in Barcelona to be told by a Ligier mechanic he was testing for Benetton.
“Flavio didn’t even inform me,” he laughs. “He really had it in for me…” Understandably, though, he raves about the Benetton B194 with which Michael Schumacher won that year’s championship, under controversial circumstances.
“That was my first time in a Benetton, and, wow, was there a change from what I’ve been driving the last couple of seasons: the downforce but at the same time the low-speed grip, the responsiveness and power of the [Ford] Cosworth. Everything was just very alive, a completely different stratosphere of F1 cars.”
That was the year of the infamous ‘Option 13’, a setting buried in the team’s steering wheel menu which was (allegedly) used to activate (illegal) traction control system by those in those in the know. Was he in the know? “I never saw that,” Herbert laughs, “it didn’t exist on my steering wheel…”
In the space of three races he drove three different cars fitted with three different engines: Mugen-Honda, Renault and Ford-Cosworth. “The Ford was mightily impressive,” he recalls. “The Renault was very, very good, probably smoother, it was a lot nicer, had a little bit more power and torque than the Mugen. The Cosworth was just alive. As soon as you touched the throttle it sort of went, ‘Yeah, baby, I’m alive!’”
He stayed with Benetton in 1995, when they switched to Renault engines. A breakthrough victory on home ground at Silverstone was a high-point, and he won again at Monza, but no one was in any doubt Schumacher was the team’s priority.
Herbert describes the B195 as “the most complete car I ever drove, with amazing front-end bite” – but were the Schumacher versions possibly even more “complete”? “I didn’t feel it was [ever] fully the same…there were occasions when things would happen on my car but [these] never happened in the other one.”
He transferred to Sauber for 1996-98, racing the C15 (Ford Zetec R V10) and C16/17 with Ferrari (badged Petronas) V10 power, all three designed by German engineer Leo Ress. At the time the team did not possess a wind tunnel – its state-of-the-art facility arrived in 2002 – and enjoyed only modest support from Red Bull. Hence budgets were not exactly flash, although he is highly complimentary about Peter Sauber.
Herbert describes his three Sauber cars as similar apart from the back-end switch from Ford to Ferrari, with. The latter, similar to that used by Schumacher at Ferrari, was “very drive-able” he remembers. “It had lots of characteristics that you expected, which was small and very smooth. You could do a lot of little tweaks with the electronics – it had engine braking, for example, which was something new to me and a very powerful tool.”
Although he placed 10th in the 1998 championship, he recalls there “wasn’t much year-on-year gain, so it was a bit like Lotus where it was a bit slower with development and it goes back to the aerodynamics. They just never made big strides, strides forward. When I left in ’99, to Stewart, I think it was even less competitive, if I remember correctly.”
His final two years in F1 spanned the last year of Stewart Grand Prix and the first for its Ford-run successor Jaguar Racing. The 1999 SF3, powered by the Ford CR-1, the lightest and most compact V10 on the grid, was “brilliant to drive” Herbert recalls “because it never had a sharp end like on that Benetton, but it had a very positive front end and could lean on the back.
“The effect was a really smooth rotation, then it had a very smooth power band so you had a good shot. The only thing that was very hard was our power steering: it was the heaviest of heavy steering I’ve ever driven in my life.” This was a preference of team mate Rubens Barrichello. “It took me ages to get used to it, it was just so bad.”
The SF3 was engineered by Gary Anderson, who transferred from Jordan when the car’s designer Alan Jenkins left Stewart. Herbert used to claim his final grand prix victory – and the only one for Stewards – at the Nurburgring on a day when the Eifel weather was at its most capricious.
As intermittent rainfall wrong-footed his rivals, Herbert stuck with dry-weather tyres before perfectly judging the time to switch. “I just stayed on,” he explains, “I just knew I had to stay alive so that’s what I did.
“What put me in the position to get the win in the end was when it rained properly the I put wet tyres on and everybody else put slicks on. That made me like 10 to 15 seconds quicker than anybody else,” he recalls with a grin.
Then came the disaster known as Jaguar Racing – arguably the most expensive flop in F1 history. Its tartan predecessor took fourth in the 1999 championship, but once painted green the squad sunk to ninth a year later despite a substantial increase in budget.
“Yeahhhh,” he says, stretching the word for emphasis. “It was probably one of the most uncomfortable times I’ve had in Formula 1.”
The 2000 car “was better than what we had in ’99, but only just” he remembered. “The engine was still working as good as it had been, but the chassis and aerodynamics hadn’t moved forward.
“Then there was all the politics, everybody started sort of protecting their own backs, then Ford got involved from overseas, throwing in different people. People took their eye off the ball which was to produce a full-blooded Formula 1 car. That just was never ever going to happen because it turned into a muddy field with no trees or grass.”
The net effect was no points for three-time grand prix winner Johnny Herbert, whose career ended after suspension failure pitched him into the barriers during the season finale in Malaysia. “It really shouldn’t have happened, but it happened all year long,” he says, his voice serious for the first time in a chat which spanned over an hour and a half.
The Jagaur episode “was just shocking, really embarrassing, in many respects, because it should have been a lot better [given] there was a lot more budget involved.”
After the shunt in Malaysia, Herbert was carted off in a stretcher, and therefore left F1 as he had arrived. But given the life-changing injuries he suffered in 1988, he harbours no regrets about a career which yielded victories in his home grand prix and the Le Mans 24 Hours. “I feel proud that I achieved what I achieved with a blue badge stuck on the back of my car,” he grins.
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