Johnny-come-lately

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Why Herbert’s first win exorcised years of anguish

”He’ll be OK, but his sporting days are over.”

The surgeon who shuffled sadly out of the operating theatre to meet Johnny Herbert’s parents, Bob and Jane, on the night of August 21 1988 will have been as surprised as anybody when their son crossed the line to score his maiden Grand Prix victory at Silverstone.

“The last 10 laps were sheer hell,” recalls Bob. “I was with Becky [Johnny’s wife] and she was biting her nails and walking about not knowing where she was. I am so pleased for him and for Becky. She has stuck by him, and he’s been through some lows. It’s so nice to see it come right. I honestly don’t know, with some of the lows he’s had, how he’s stuck it out. I know he’s my son, but I’ve just got nothing but admiration for him.”

With good reason, for victory in his home GP was an astonishing achievement for a man whose career has survived three crisis, any one of which would have been big enough to have finished less determined men.

He made his Formula One debut just six months after the F3000 accident at Brands Hatch which appeared to have left his career, like his legs, shattered. Herbert still recalls the first marshal onto the scene vomiting at the mere sight of his injuries, and remembers his own feeling of despair.

“I thought I’d lost my legs,” he said shortly after the incident. “That was my immediate feeling when the car finally came to rest. I couldn’t see them. That’s why the photos showed me holding my head in my hands. I wasn’t in pain then, but I just didn’t want to look.”

Although he made a remarkable recovery to score points at his first race for Benetton, in intense heat in Rio, Herbert was, by his own admission, unfit to be driving and was soon axed by Flavio Briatore. As he had done after the accident, Peter Collins threw Herbert a lifeline. But by 1994, sucked into the financial vortex which eventually claimed Team Lotus, Herbert was, of his own accord, ready to end the career he had fought so hard to rebuild.

“He wasn’t getting a very good crack of the whip, really,” recalls Bob Dance, formerly Colin Chapman’s right-hand man at Lotus. “We were struggling and he was becoming quite dejected towards the end at Lotus. The one great flash in the pan was Monza last year, where all the ifs and buts still hang. I don’t know what would have happened if he’d kept motoring that day, instead of being taken out at the first corner. That could have been a great afternoon, but we will never know.”

In many respects Monza ’94 could be the anthem for a career that has always promised so much yet, until Silverstone, failed to deliver.

The likes of Peter Collins and Eddie Jordan have always firmly believed that Herbert has what it takes to make it. “He was exceptionally good; very, very quick, and he took it all in his stride,” recalls Trevor Foster, Johnny’s engineer in F3000. “He had a lot of self-confidence. He wasn’t big-headed, he just believed in his own ability.

“When I worked with him, he was a joy to be with, full of self-confidence and nothing was a problem. He just got in the car and was quick and honest. He always blamed himself if he wasn’t driving well, not the car.”

Even after the celebrations at Silverstone, where he became the first of Michael Schumacher’s team-mates ever to win a race, Herbert was candid enough to confess that there is yet more to come.

“The flags were all waving, and it was so, so nice,” he reflects of the moment he took the flag. “The thoughts of the last six or seven years drifted back. All that came over me on the in-lap.”

“I think every driver, whether they win a Grand Prix or they don’t, feels they can do more. If you win 10 Grands Prix, you still probably think it should have been 20, or if you win 20 you think it should be 30. You’re always going to think you can achieve more. Prost always used to say he learnt more every year up until his last.

“I’m still only 31. I’ve got good years left in me. I think I can only get better…”

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