Silverstone at 70: 1990s
British Grand Prix, July 16 1995
Johnny Herbert explains how he won his first GP by fighting through the pain barrier
The carnival mood was standard, the tension a reflection of the times. It was the height of the Damon Hill/Michael Schumacher era, during which few fortnights passed without a hint of Formula 1 controversy. One year earlier Hill had triumphed on home soil, while Schumacher was disqualified after failing to serve a stop-go penalty… and also ignoring the black flags that followed. It was a perfect fusion of nationalistic fervour and pantomime villainy – and 12 months on there was little doubt where the most of the crowd’s sympathies lay.
These were the days of two qualifying sessions, one apiece on Friday and Saturday, and rain rendered the latter largely pointless. As a result of times set on the opening day, Hill (Williams) took pole by 0.273sec from Schumacher (Benetton), while hopes of a strong result for the UK contingent were boosted by strong performances from David Coulthard (Williams, third), Johnny Herbert (Benetton, fifth), Eddie Irvine (Jordan, seventh), Mark Blundell (McLaren, 10th) and Martin Brundle (Ligier, 11th).
Hill led away at the start, but was on a two-stop strategy to Schumacher’s one. The balance of power ebbed and flowed, but there was rarely much in it. They were almost level as Hill exited the pits following his final stop on the 41st of 61 laps, but Schumacher had sufficient momentum to forge ahead through Copse. It was now a straight fight between customarily ruthless defence and a set of fresher Goodyears. After a couple of early passing attempts were repelled, Hill spotted a gap as the pair entered Priory on lap 46… but it had long since been shut by the time he arrived. The subsequent contact pitched both irretrievably into the gravel.
“I’d seen them off the track,” says Johnny Herbert, “but the significance didn’t really occur to me until I was on the Hangar Straight. I clearly recall being aware of the flags starting to wave more than before among the crowd – and as I got closer to the Stowe grandstand I could see the effect more clearly. It sort of dawned that a Brit was now leading and I thought, ‘Crikey, that must be me…’ It was a lovely feeling, seeing that response.
“It was the first time I’d found myself in a potentially winning position in a Grand Prix, but I’d been used to being in that situation in karting and throughout my junior career. I suppose the fact it was the British GP created a bit of extra pressure, but in the car you don’t really think about that because you’re so focused – and there were still about 15 laps to go, so it wasn’t a done deal. DC [Coulthard] was quite close behind, but he’d been given a drive-through for speeding in the pits and Ross Brawn came on the radio to tell me not to worry about fighting him. I didn’t make life straightforward, but defended less vigorously than I might have done.”
Coulthard subsequently moved ahead on the road, but only for a couple of laps before pausing to serving his penalty.
“That left me with a clear lead over Jean Alesi,” Herbert says, “so the biggest thing after that was seeing the build-up of anticipation over the final few laps, with this sea of Union Flags waving. I knew it still wasn’t settled, but the stimulus I got from the crowd’s reaction definitely helped because I felt as though I was almost being carried along. It was nice to be able to ride the wave. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the car, but in those days reliability wasn’t a given and there were always thoughts in the back of your mind that something could go wrong, but the waving flags took my mind off that.”
As he crossed the line, well clear of Alesi and Coulthard, his mind selected reverse.
“I started to savour my first victory – and the fact I’d done it in Britain made it sweeter”
“I was feeling emotional,” he says, “but it wasn’t about winning the race. It was all about the journey I’d been on since my F3000 accident at Brands Hatch in 1988 [when he suffered leg and foot injuries of such severity that it was initially felt unlikely he would race again]: my recuperation, getting back in a car, being able to make my F1 debut with Benetton at the start of ’89, being dropped mid-season, working my way back into F1 and then being in a position to win. Through Copse and down to Maggotts I was just thinking about all the pain I’d been through to get to where I was, and realising it had been worthwhile. And then, as I was going through Becketts, I started to savour my first F1 victory – and the fact I’d done it in Britain made it a little sweeter.”
When he returned to the pits, Schumacher was waiting to give him a huge hug. “I always got on well with Michael,” he says. “Yes, he was there for himself and very selfish – that’s why he won all those titles. But I felt his reaction to my success was absolutely genuine, which was nice. My bugbear was always [team principal] Flavio Briatore, who put all his weight behind Michael and never offered me any support at all – but that was his way and he achieved success for the team, so… He gave me a fake hug after my win and asked for my cap. Foolishly, that nice Johnny Herbert said ‘Yes.’ I wish I’d kept it, but by then I was in another world.
“There was a nice vibe and flow to the day after that, seeing lots of people I knew, and by the time I got home the house was covered in ‘Go Johnny Go’ banners and other celebratory bunting, which my wife Becky’s uncle had rigged up. I didn’t see my parents until quite a while after the race, because they were running a small stall selling my merchandise – I think business was quite good that day, which made them double-happy. They’d been flitting backwards and forwards, keeping an eye on one of the big screens while one of them looked after the stall behind the stands at Woodcote.”
The Hill/Schumacher collision and Coulthard’s penalty might have made things a little easier, but that’s not the same thing as ‘easy’. Particularly in this instance…
“For the last 10 or 15 laps I was quite literally screaming in the car whenever I braked, because of the pain from my feet,” he says. “I was never able to left-foot brake properly and as races progressed I’d have more and more problems with my right. One of my right toes was pretty much sliced off in the F3000 accident and, after they’d stitched it back on, a callus developed. With all the pressure you have to put on during a race – throttle, brake, throttle, brake – my foot just got super-sensitive, so I’d brake with my left foot for a lap, then back to my right until the pain returned.
“Screaming was my way of dealing with it. I had to do this for years but couldn’t tell a soul – certainly not the team, nor even my wife because I didn’t want her to worry. When I look back now, I’m grateful that I had the strength to battle through.”