Features - Interview
JULY 1, 1995
BY JOE SAWARD
As darkness fell at Silverstone, hundreds of voices joined in Johnny to sing "Go Johnny Go" and everywhere people talked about what a great result it had been.
Part of the affection felt for Johnny comes from the fact that he might never have made it to F1 but for the work of good surgeons and trainers. In August 1989 both his lower legs were smashed during an enormous multiple accident during an F3000 race at Brands Hatch. Johnny had been fighting for the lead with Swiss driver Gregor Foitek when the pair speared into the barriers. The front of Johnny's car was ripped off in the first impact but then his car was hurled across the track and into another barrier, with Johnny's legs sticking out of the chassis in front. It was a horrible crash.
It was a miracle that within a few short months Johnny was driving again and had been signed up by the Benetton F1 team. That extraordinary decision was made by team boss Peter Collins, who reckoned that Herbert would recover and regain all his former movement.
Johnny could not walk when he made his F1 debut in Rio de Janeiro in March the following year but he finished fourth, just 11secs behind the race winner Nigel Mansell. A new star, so it seemed, had been born. The Benetton deal, however, turned sour. The team was in a political ferment with Flavio Briatore forcing Peter Collins out. Herbert failed to qualify in Canada and Briatore forced Collins to drop Johnny. Peter followed Johnny out of the team within a matter of weeks.
Both men found themselves in the Grand Prix wilderness. Herbert went to Japan to race sportscars and F3000 and Collins spent a year planning a takeover of the Lotus F1 team. Herbert made a couple of appearances with Tyrrell late in 1989, but he was not really ready for a full-scale Grand Prix comeback, so for 1990 he stayed in Japan, although he was signed up by Lotus as a test driver.
In September that year after Martin Donnelly's accident in Jerez, Johnny took the Ulsterman's place in the last two F1 races of the year. But the Lotus team was fragmenting, following the loss of Lamborghini engines and Camel sponsorship. For 1991 Johnny decided to stay in Japan. By the midsummer, however, Collins had taken over Lotus and Herbert made a comeback in Mexico City. A few days later he won the Le Mans 24 Hours sharing a Mazda 787B with Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler.
But since those heady days Herbert's career stagnated. When Johnny finished second to Michael Schumacher in Spain a couple of months ago it was his first podium finish - after six years of trying.
The men who started their careers at the same time as Johnny have almost all gone from F1. Jean Alesi is still there, late-starter Eddie Irvine has only recently arrived, Mark Blundell and Gachot are hanging on, but the rest of the generation born in the mid-1960s have been and gone: Donnelly, Ivan Capelli, Mauricio Gugelmin, Nicola Larini, Stefano Modena, Alex Caffi, Luis Sala, Olivier Grouillard, Eric Bernard, JJ Lehto and Gabriele Tarquini. Today the bright young hopes are men who were born in the 1970s.
And yet this summer has seen the boys of the Sixties finally beginning to win Alesi won in Canada and - at home in front if his home crowd at Silverstone - Johnny finally won his first GP. It could not have come at a better time because throughout the Silverstone weekend there were strong rumours in the F1 paddock suggesting that Johnny was to be replaced at the German Grand Prix by Benetton's test driver Jos Verstappen. The Dutchman has been out of work since Simtek Grand Prix closed its doors just after the Monaco GP.
Verstappen briefly visited Silverstone - where he was spotted wearing Benetton team gear - before flying out to Spain for an intensive six-day testing programme. Now Briatore can hardly dare to fire the new F1 hero.
After so many frustrations Herbert must have felt that F1 was passing him by a little.
"There is always someone going to come along," says Johnny. "Once I was the new white hope but then, shortly afterwards, I was dumped and Alesi popped up. From a British point of view Damon Hill came along and has had a couple of good years at Williams and now David Coulthard is coming up. Things change, don't they? Benetton has changed a lot since I was last with them. They've moved up the ranks a bit! And it's nice because it's a top team and all the guys are pretty happy-go-lucky."
The problem has been that Johnny was being measured against World Champion Michael Schumacher.
"Sure," says Johnny, "It's a tall order to beat him but, in a way, it is good because it gives me something high to aim at. I have got close to his pace on a few occasions and there is no reason I cannot get closer as I get more experience."
Even though the team seems to be focussed on Schumacher?
"They are bound to be behind him more because he is the number one and the World Champion," says Johnny. "I came to Benetton knowing that. When someone has been in a team for a long time it is very difficult for someone new. Michael is a very very strong character and he demands a lot from the team. A win is the best thing you can get in F1 so hopefully it will make me a much stronger force in the team. I have to try and make it work for me as well within the team."
Whatever the case, it is a make or break year?
"It is an important year," he smiles. "But then it always is an important year. When Martin Brundle joined Benetton everyone said "Oh dear, it's make or break for Martin" but he did all right and he's still around in F1. As far as I am concerned it's an important year for me because if I can get something going maybe I can be OK."
Johnny has never been very lucky in F1, except perhaps that his career continued despite the setbacks.
"I guess I've probably had more bad than good luck - although, yes, I've certainly been lucky in a lot of ways. I don't really believe in luck. You have to make it change. You either do it or you don't. I think it will come eventually. I know I can do the job, I just have to make it work for me. If it's Fate then there is nothing I can do about it."
Fate dictated that Johnny would win at Silverstone and he was quick to remember those who have helped him through the hard times.
"When I crossed the line I was thinking about my wife Becky," he says. "She has given me so much support through all the bad times. She has been a tower of strength. Sometimes I would get down and she pushed me and was very good that way. I felt it was worth all that hard work."
Johnny also paid tribute to Peter Collins, despite the fact that the two fell out last year when Collins refused to release Johnny from Lotus when Herbert received offers from other teams. In the end Johnny's contract was bought from the legal administrator of the team by Tom Walkinshaw of Ligier. The move, effectively, destroyed Team Lotus and ended Collins's career as a team manager. The pair did not speak for some months but recently Johnny rang Collins to chat.
Herbert also paid tribute to the British fans, who have maintained their support for him throughout his up-and-down career.
"It was such a good feeling the last couple of laps of the race," he says. "I saw all the flags waving around the track and I knew they were cheering for me. That was a nice feeling. To be honest it hasn't really sunk in yet."
At the finish, Herbert thrust both arms into the air in delight.
"Whenever I won a race I always used to stick one arm out of the cockpit," he says. "I always said to myself that if I ever won a Grand Prix I would wave both arms and that is what I did! It's great to achieve that."