Features - Interview


Setting the record straight: Johnny Herbert


When Michael Schumacher wins a Grand Prix he and Benetton boss Flavio Briatore make a great display of hugging one another for the television cameras. They are happy to win, no doubt, but when Johnny Herbert won the Italian Grand Prix for Benetton at Monza, the English driver was greeted with only a smile from Briatore. Up in the F1 press room, however, there were cheers when Herbert crossed the finishing line.

When href="../gpe/drv-schmic.html">Michael Schumacher wins a Grand Prix he and Benetton boss Flavio Briatore make a great display of hugging one another for the television cameras. They are happy to win, no doubt, but when Johnny Herbert won the Italian Grand Prix for Benetton at Monza, the English driver was greeted with only a smile from Briatore. Up in the F1 press room, however, there were cheers when Herbert crossed the finishing line. Everyone likes Johnny and many feel that he has not been given a fair chance this year by the Benetton team, which concentrates all its efforts on Schumacher.

Johnny already knows that he won't be staying at Benetton next year and, because he has nothing to lose and needs to limit the damage this season has done to his career, he has stopped giving diplomatic answers. Now he can tell the truth about being Schumacher's Benetton team-mate, a job which has damaged the careers of Riccardo Patrese, Martin Brundle, JJ Lehto and Jos Verstappen in the past. Gerhard Berger was worried enough about partnering Schumacher that he chose to leave Ferrari and drivers in the F1 paddock who have dreams of becoming Schumacher's partner at Ferrari would do well to listen carefully to what Johnny has to say - because the same may happen to whoever it is driving the second Ferrari.

JH: "People see Michael winning in a Benetton and me lapping one or two seconds a lap slower and so they assume that I am never going to make it as a top driver. All I can say is that I have been made to look second rate. I have been lucky and won two races with a car that is not to my liking, but I've been in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the situation. I could win a lot more if I could develop the car to suit my driving style. I am confident that I can even beat Michael because he's got the car as he wants it to be - and that doesn't work for me. He is a selfish driver, in the same way that Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were selfish drivers. They made sure they got everything around them. I expected it would be a bit like that when I came to Benetton, but I didn't expect it would be that much different. I didn't get any real testing and I probably won't get any more now. I didn't get a chance to try to make the car how I want it to be. Michael likes a car to be very twitchy. He says if it isn't twitchy it is not quick. I have never really been confident in the car at all. I need to calm it down a bit."

Some people say the car was designed for Michael?

JH: "He drives very differently with the throttle. I don't know anyone else who drives like that. When you brake and change down he consistently gets on the throttle early and applies power in stages. Everyone else - people like Jean Alesi, David Coulthard, Damon Hill and I - go into a corner off the power and let the car run in, settle it down and then get on the power. Michael does it on the throttle. It is the opposite way to how I have always done it. With a car like he has it, if you come off the power you get a lot of understeer or oversteer. I've tried to drive like that but it is difficult to change - and I don't want to change. Even if I did you need to test a lot. You cannot afford to experiment like that at the races."

So you are always fighting with one hand behind your back?

JH: "I cannot make progress because Michael is the guy they work with. I know I have the pace but I am not comfortable with the car. I'd rather be pushing hard but all I can do is try to finish. I don't want to drive like this but I have to. I cannot afford to push too hard and risk crashing because I do not want the reputation of shuting a lot."

Johnny's situation was not helped when Tom Walkinshaw - nominally engineering director of Benetton - openly attacked Johnny in an interview which was widely reported. How did Johnny feel about that?

JH: "Walkinshaw said it was all taken out of context. I don't know, but that's what he said. It was very strange. I don't know why he said it. I don't think he understands my situation. Whatever the case it was a tough thing to say. I said to him that if I ask for something I am criticized for running the team down. If I am soft in my approach I am criticized for not trying. It can hurt when people say things like that about you but you cannot say too much back. You just have to take it and know within yourself that you've got what it takes to win. Being a moaner is not the way to do it."

What about the rumours that Herbert does not get to see Schumacher's data from the car, but the German gets all the information from Johnny's car?

JH: "There was a data thing earlier in the year for two or three races. He was seeing my data but I wasn't seeing his. Now when I go well he finds out exactly what I am doing."

And what about the occasions when you have gone well in one practice session but then fail to improve in the next. You have said in the past that you are completely baffled by that?

JH: "Yes, there have been times when the track gets quicker and everyone improves but I don't go any quicker. I had that happen at Magny-Cours, at Monza and somewhere else I can't remember where. I found that odd. I am not saying that there is anything behind this but at Monza, for example, I have always gone well. In qualifying I was down in eighth place and there was no reason why I did not improve on Saturday. It is partly because the car is bloody difficult to drive and that I don't get the car to test but I thought I could maybe overcome the problems I have had this year because I have always gone well at Monza."

Shortly before the Italian Grand Prix, Herbert requested that his race engineer Tim Wright be replaced by another engineer Christian Silk. Why was that?

JH: "Christian has been in the team longer than Tim and he knows how they work. I thought he would be more in the know about what goes on and it would probably be best for me to work with Christian for the rest of the year."

There are also stories that you had to race in the final laps of the Belgian GP with a heavy load of fuel and that dropped you down the order. What happened there?

JH: "I should have finished third but I finished seventh because the team made a mistake and I came out behind the pace car with buckets of fuel on board. I probably had 60 litres when everyone else had 15 or so. It was a mistake but it is an example. I am just trying to show that the result was not just me not doing very well. There were other reasons."

Is it true that the team didn't tell you would not be staying on in 1996 before they announced the deal with Gerhard Berger?

JH: "I phoned up to talk about something and I found out that the news about Gerhard had already been released. It's just of those things. They are just not thoughtful."

What about your relationship with Michael Schumacher. The two of you do not seem like very close team mates?

JH: "At the end of last year - when I joined Benetton - we got on well. It was nothing special but we had a joke and a laugh. At the beginning of this year it was a similar thing but eventually it petered out. Now we don't talk much at all. Even when we get changed in the truck there is nothing said."

What about the future? You have had two wins but this season has not been good for you reputation as one of F1's fastest drivers?

JH: "No, it has not helped my career. People look at F1 and ask why I haven't done better because I'm in the Benetton team. At the end of the day I haven't really been in the Benetton team. I haven't been able to do the testing I wanted. I've had to use the settings that Michael uses because that is all I have available. There is nothing else I can do. People just look at the results and it looks bad, but I haven,t had a fair crack of the whip. I've got a couple of other options and hopefully one of them will come off in a couple of weeks. I'll still be in F1 and probably in a team which has cars in the top 10 which has the possibility of doing better in the future. Winning at Silverstone has certainly helped, but Ferrari haven't come rushing up saying: Sign here! I wouldn't go there now - for obvious reasons. That is not an option. You can say that I have only won races because Michael and Damon have come off but you have to do the best you can with what you have. Winning has to be helpful because very few people are winners in F1."

You are third in the World Championship at the moment. Is there any chance you can win the title?

JH: "If it keeps on going like it has so far I have got a very good chance. Particularly if Damon and Michael keep going off together! That's not very likely, is it? The 10 points I got at Monza have got me a lot closer to them and if I can keep that consistency I could be in there at the end. You knows?"