Johnny come lately

In 1989 he was F1’s blue-eyed boy. Five years down the road, things may finally be happening for Johnny Herbert . . .

In Hungary, Johnny Herbert reached rock bottom. Looking back now he probably finds it hard to believe that his fortunes could have taken such a radical upturn since, but the dark memory of that race weekend will not fade for a while yet.

“Hungary was the lowest point,” he confirms when the discussion turns to the erratic path of his F1 career. There, in the Lotus motorhome, he had just been totally deflated, a man gone almost beyond conventional despair. It was at least two hours before the normal Herbert exterior reappeared, and more before the clowning with a cucumber began, but inside the man whose cheerfulness is taken for granted, the damage was almost irreparable. Herbert, finally, wanted out, and he didn't care who knew about it.

"I had no motivation to do it, none at all," he says of stepping into the Lotus 109. "I didn't want to drive it. I didn't want to get in it at all."

He even began to talk of retirement from F1, if that was what it would take to get out of his contract. Of, perhaps, looking for a Touring Car drive. As he prepared to do the final two Grands Prix of the season for Benetton, it seems laughable that he had sunk so low. But Johnny was no longer laughing.

"That was semi-seriously. I talked to Becky about it, and she said she would do whatever I wanted, and would be behind it. Basically, I just wasn't enjoying Formula One. I've never been a driver who wanted to do it just to be a Formula One driver. I did it because I wanted to win a World Championship, which is what I've always wanted to do."

In 1992 Lotus had laid a strong foundation for its recovery, although whenever one of the 107s broke it tended to be Johnny's and when one finished, it tended to be Mika Hakkinen's. At the end of that year there was interest from Williams for both of them, and for Mika from Ron Dennis. For Johnny in 1993, there was only a false dawn.

"The 107B seemed to go very well in testing at Paul Ricard, Silverstone and Snetterton. I raved about its turn-in then mainly because of the way it went at Ricard. It was the best it had been. But then we went to South Africa and we were in all sorts of trouble..."

Despite that, the rot with the troubled Lotus team really started, he felt, after a couple of races in 1994. "Perhaps even during the testing in the winter, at Barcelona. That was when I felt it started. I thought they were dicking, at the end of the day, because they were just doing damper stuff. They were stiffening the chassis a bit, and maybe that was the only way they could do it, but it seemed all they were doing for the whole winter was fiddling around with damping. I thought.

"I went to see PC at the beginning of the year and said that we've done all this testing, and yet we'd done absolutely nothing. He said that wasn't true, but I said it was. I said I hadn't seen anything that was going to make the car go quicker. When you're six to eight seconds off, you know, it's going to go better. It can't go any worse. But..."

Peter Collins, then Team Lotus' Managing Director, was his usual positive self, firm in his belief that the team had learned from its tests and that wind tunnel work was ready to yield further improvements. Herbert was unconvinced. The threads of tetchiness that had already begun to weave their way into their relationship at times the previous year were now beginning to take on a definite pattern.

There were other sources of tension within Lotus at that time, over and above the ever present spectre of financial crisis that was a hangover from the debts that had had to be incurred just to save the team at the end of 1990 and get it thus far. And further complicating those issues, predators were circling the camp. Ron Dennis was pushing hard to take over Herbert's contract, to have him drive alongside old Lotus partner Hakkinen who'd jumped ship the previous year. An offer of sorts was made by Dennis to Collins, and rejected. Herbert continued to get restless. The frustration with progress aside, he was also beginning to realise that, as far as his own career was concerned, he was being left behind. Worse, he had made a major error of judgement in signing a lengthy contract at the end of 1992, one that tied him until 1997.

The real kick was that he had done so against the advice of his wife Rebecca and their lawyer. If he was in a predicament, he had only himself to blame. Many drivers would have kept that bit to themselves, but it is worth pointing out that the source of such information was Herbert himself.

"I was in Adelaide still, with Peter, and I called Becky and both she and my solicitor said don't do it. Don't sign yet. But I did it for the team. Peter said he needed it for the sponsors, because Mika had left for McLaren, more or less, and the sponsors were getting worried. And at that time they didn't have a driver.

"PC would argue that he put my money up, but it wasn't down to money at the end of the day."

Looking back on his Lotus days, which had begun with such hopes and ended on such a sour note, that remains his only source of regret.

"Signing that is the only thing I regret. I was told there were certain things that, when we got back, we could change. It was for five years at that point and I didn't do anything. With a solicitor it could have been cut down to two years or a year with an option or whatever. My option. I was in the driving seat at that time, to negotiate."

Clearly, his forte is handling racing cars rather than driving contract negotiations. On this occasion it would appear that he had a self-induced spin into the gravel.

"Yes!" he concedes. "When I was in that room there were just me. PC and Guy Edwards. I spoke to Becky and the solicitor an hour before, and then left. But there was no need for me to do it there, none at all."

The relationship between Collins and Herbert had been deep and enduring, based on mutual respect and, in Johnny's case, a certain amount of gratitude. Collins had begun to take close interest in him at the 1986 Cellnet Super Prix F3 race at Brands Hatch, when he himself was still running Benetton. And as Herbert's career developed the following year as he dominated the British series with a Reynard entered by Eddie Jordan, Collins engineered a test at Brands with the Ford turbo V6-powered B187. Herbert was very quick immediately, easily outpacing regular pilot Thierry Boutsen and prompting Nigel Mansell, who was present testing for Williams, to pull into the pits and enquire: "just who is driving that thing?"

It was Collins who lined Herbert up as part of Benetton's nascent junior team for 1988 as Johnny graduated to F3000 with Jordan. As that season unfolded Johnny took Nelson Piquet apart when they both tested the recalcitrant Lotus 100T at Monza, to the point where the team had to start adding fuel to the car when Johnny drove it, just to placate the reigning World Champion.

Everything changed at Brands Hatch's F3000 race in August, however, with the accident that would smash Herbert's ankles and threaten his career. It happened when Gregor Foitek, a Swiss renowned for his excesses of speed and other things, put wheel inside Herbert's left-hand pair as they fought for the lead going down to Hawthorn's Bend, the fastest part of the course. The huge accident that ensued caused the race to be stopped, and very nearly ended Herbert's career.

Distinctly, he remembers one thing.

"A marshal came to the car and was talking to me. I knew it was bad, but he kept saying, 'It's okay, you're fine. You'll be okay.' Then he walked to the front of the car, and when he saw the state of my feet he was sick..."

One of the things that helped him most as he struggled through months of pain, was the promise of a Benetton F1 drive for 1989. Collins had made the promise, and was putting his neck on the line at Benetton to keep it.

When he finally came back to the cockpit Johnny was gaunt and pale, his eyes sunk into his skull and edged with black. He hobbled, and it would be months before he able to walk without a distinctive swing which stuck his bottom out. And even longer before bits of grass stopped working out of the fragile envelope of skin that encased the mass of damaged bone and gristle that had been his feet. Most of the time – in public at any rate – Johnny laughed.

It’s typical that, in his first run, he pulled into the pits and nearly gave Collins heart attack by slumping in his seat, his face etched with defeat. A moment later he giggled, swept back out on to the track, and set his fastest time.

Together the pair of them were close to tears when Herbert finished fourth on his debut at the Brazilian GP, one of the highest placings ever by a rookie, and they shared concern after Johnny had bravely dragged the B188B home fifth in Phoenix, as great a triumph of courage over pain as we had seen for a long time.

By this time, however, Flavio Briatore had finally been installed at Benetton, and when Herbert was 'rested' prior to the French GP the writing was on the wall for both of them. Within weeks of Herbert's dismissal, Collins too had gone.

When Collins and Peter Wright rescued Lotus in December 1990 it was only ever going to be a matter of time before Herbert was recalled to F1, and he duly took up station as Hakkinen's team-mate in the Canadian GP in 1991.

All this lay behind the two as their relationship ground towards its unhappy conclusion this year.

As Lotus’ problems continued, the arrival of the 109 became the great focus of attention, a beacon of desperate hope that its puny development budget could never allow it to realise. Initially, it was powered by the old Mugen-Honda engine. When he had first seen the powerful but bulky unit when penning the Tyrrell 020 in late 1990, designer Harvey Postlethwaite had reportedly thrown up his hands in horror. With this engine the 109 was never going to be capable of running quickly without using some sort of active suspension – now outlawed, of course – that could override the natural laws of physics to offset its archeitectural shortcomings, the way Footwork had managed the previous year. Hope sprang eternal in some quarters, but competitive lap times were as rare as steak tartare.

”It was always ‘Wait until we get the new car.’ Then it was ‘Wait till we get the new engine.’ When the engine did come and made a difference, it was ‘Look now, boys.’”

Nonetheless, Herbert was very impressed with the new Mugen-Honda engine when he first ran it at Silverstone, and then he qualified it fourth at Monza. By contrast with Lotus’ previous performances in 1994 that was Laurence Olivier to Stan Laurel, but whatever hope there was that the relationship might somehow be patched up died, crushed in the ever-decreasing gap between Herbert’s gearbox and Eddie Irvine’s nose cone as the field braked for the first chicane and Johnny was pushed inelegantly out of third place. The Lotus might have been a genuine contender there, and given reliability certainly had the pace for a podium place, but fate decided otherwise. Impossible though it seemed, from that depth it was downhill all the way.

Prior to that first Benetton drive back in 1989, Johnny Herbert had never been in a category that didn't eventually surrender him victories; he'd won in karts, Formula Ford 1600, Formula Ford 2000, F3 and F3000. F1 was to prove a very different proposition.

In the past Herbert has been like the Super Mario character who, at one stage of the computer game, is literally stepping off into space, but each time gets rescued by either a rising or falling stepping stone until he reaches terra firma once more. Up until F1 Johnny's career went that way too, with somebody there at each new stage to guide him upwards. There was Mike Thompson in the Quest Formula Ford days, then Eddie Jordan for F3 and F3000, then Peter Collins with F1. He never started to worry that there might not be further salvation around the corner.

When the real trouble started this year, he says he was happier when he was away from racing, "because when I was away from the circuit I just didn't think about it at all. There was nothing to look at. I began to dread going to the next race.

"I was supposed to be the happy-go-lucky Johnny Herbert. But if I was going around with a dull face, I was the spoiled brat. 'Look at him, just because he hasn't got a good car.' So I could see it from that point of view, but it was getting so bad that I couldn't see it really mattered because I wasn't going anywhere anyway. I was locked into something that wasn't going to let me out, so it didn't really bother me, and that's why I thought of the Touring Car bit because it's silly being in something when you feel like that."

Worse, he began entertaining doubts about himself. "You always doubt yourself when things are going so bad. You do doubt yourself, yes. You begin to think sometimes, 'Should I have done better?' If I get the chance in the Benetton I'll always think, 'I should have done better.' But that's just the way that I work.

"You know, I've never done a perfect lap yet, I don't think. But I'm never happy. Everybody talks, 'Oh yeah, that was my perfect lap,' but I'd be very surprised if you actually do it. I'm hard on myself, but I think that's the only way to be if you really want to get on. If you think, 'Oh, that was a good one,' you've almost beaten yourself before you've done it."

Going to Ligier for the European GP at Jerez, then, was like going from prison to a remand home prior to the full release of Benetton. He drove the French car well, outqualified and outraced the impressive Olivier Panis, and set himself up for the Benetton situation. Whether partnering Michael Schumacher was always the plan. Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw aren't saying, just as nobody is yet voicing thoughts whether Flavio and Tom might indulge in a tug-of-love if the latter goes away with Ligier to run for 1995.

"Ligier was a relief," Johnny states flatly. It wasn't entirely what he wanted, but he was happy to go there because it was the best slot available at the time. Thus he became perhaps the first driver ever to step in three stages from the back to the front of the grid, via three different F1 cars in three consecutive races.

It's too early to say if he will partner Schumacher in 1995 as well, but if, as the rumour mill continues to insist, the German does head for McLaren-Mercedes in 1996, that could leave Johnny very nicely placed.

Running the final two races as Schumacher's team-mate clearly held no fears, and in a remarkably candid moment Herbert opened up on his thoughts about other drivers. First there was David Coulthard, who shares the same management. ,

"David hasn't outqualified Damon yet but I think he's quicker than him in a race. But at the end of the day, how quick is Damon? Or even David? No-one really knows.

"It's like Michael. People say, 'Oh, he's fantastic, no-one can drive that car because it’s made for Michael and his style and nobody else...' It's an absolute load of rubbish. If anybody is good enough, they will beat him. Same with Ayrton. He was fantastic, but he was beatable. He was difficult, but he was beatable, and so is Michael.

"It's like myself. People always say, 'Well how good is he?' No-one knows. 'He's never had the results,' which is totally true. I must have had a four-litre engine in Formula Three..."

The usual laughter breaks through.

"But it's true. At the end of the day I haven't had any results. All right, a series of fourth places. That's it. And at the end of the day a lot of people look at that. This year there must have been about 20 drivers who've scored points, and I'm one that hasn't. You can look at it so many ways. At Monza I did very well, but then that was put down to the engine being very good and everything else. All right, I drove it and I got it to fourth, but I didn't do the race so it gets forgotten.

"I had a good test with Benetton in Barcelona. I think I did very well" he did, turning in a lap only four tenths off Schumacher's best despite taking it relatively easy through the tyre wall chicane that he described as stupid "but I haven't seen much written to tell me I did well."

His inclusion at Benetton creates the supreme irony, given his 'resting', but he takes the long view. "In Formula One we all know that people can be pushed out. A team can claim mental injury, or whatever. They did it with me quite easily! All right, it was easy with me, a lot easier because it was true!"

He reflects on that situation. "It was the best thing, to be honest, looking back. I mean, if you could look at it, knowing what's going to happen in the future, I should have stopped after Brazil, or Imola..."

Right decision or not, at the time the way in which it was done sucked.

Johnny Herbert is at times an odd little fellow, in some ways a child who hasn't fully grown up until he climbs into a racing car. It's hard to find people in F1 who dislike him, such is his larger-than-life personality, even though at times he has been known to launch himself playfully at somebody and bite their nose, Hannibal Lecter-style. His most endearing aspects are his naiveté and his candour. He speaks as he sees, without political subterfuge. Being honest with himself comes easy. He is defensive of that Benetton decision, even though it cost him the best part of his career, and not because he is sucking up to Briatore.

"Flavio is like that. He's one of those that, if you're not good, if you haven't done the job in your last race, you're no good. Which probably, at the end of the day, if you want to succeed, is the only way to do it. It's no good having someone in who does a good race every now and then.

"It's like Alesi. He only seems to go well every now and then. Maybe he doesn't know how the car works, but though he may be quick he's going to have a problem in the future." Alesi is an interesting choice to raise in conversation, because their initial career paths were so similar. Quick in F3 and F3000, they pounced into F1 too. But where Schumacher was underrated by all but Mercedes-Benz and a handful of present sportscar journalists before Spa in 1991, and then simply maintained an upward curve on his F1 debut, Herbert and Alesi soon ran into trouble and their careers stalled at crucial stages. Johnny, in fact, substituted for Jean in the Tyrrell team in 1989, during the latter's F3000 days, running at Spa and then failing to qualify in Portugal due to food poisoning. If nothing else, he learned the hard way what to eat and what not to eat on important occasions that weekend.

"If you don't do the job, people won't want you," he continues. "Especially the way Formula One is at the moment. Or, I would say, the world in general. If you're not good enough, you're out."

I reminded him that the things that incensed his friends so much back in 1989 were that Benetton brought in Emanuele Pirro, who manifestly never looked remotely like getting close to his performances on tracks such as Rio that didn't require heavy braking, and that Johnny was never recalled to the team despite promises to that effect. His response was untypical of the majority of F1 people, and suggests that he is not one to bear grudges.

"That was the Italian bit. But they have brought me back... It just took five years!"

In his Benetton test at Barcelona in October, he put many things into perspective, for himself and for others. "Now that I've driven it, it's no surprise at all that it's been so dominant this year. I've known in the past that if you get in a car that's good, it's a hell of a lot easier to be quick.

"The car is different to anything I've driven, big time! It's a stage better aerodynamically than the Ligier, and it has masses of traction. You can brake mega-late and just turn in. Normally, you would feather the throttle, turn in, wait for the back end to stop pattering and then accelerate out of a corner. But with the Benetton you just floor the throttle and come straight out. You don't lose any time.

"This is what a Formula One car should be like. I've always thought they should be like big karts, and this one is just that. It's much, much better than anything I've driven in F1, even those other cars with their full aerodynamic floors and everything.

"All of that helps your confidence. The fast corners feel miles better. It's been really good to have a go in a car that you can actually do something with. You feel you can properly go quicker; by that I mean you can set a time, and then set another limit with the car when you really start to push it.

"I'd heard that it's twitchy, and it is. But you have to push beyond that. And when you do it becomes quite stable."

In Suzuka and Adelaide Benetton had arguably the strongest driver pairing in F1 since Senna and Prost in their days at McLaren. But where Schumacher is close to his peak, Herbert may have more to come as his confidence rockets again.

Katsuhisa Homma, Managing Director of the Le Mans Company, was, until the Japanese GP, the only man to have run both men in the same team, for each drove a Ralt for him in their Japanese F3000 days. "I would say that Johnny is the more natural driver," he said on his first visit to Spa this year, "while Michael is a more technical driver."

Which of them will get the upper hand? We must wait to see if they are indeed paired together during a full season in 1995 before we may know an answer. Right now, Johnny Herbert is just relieved at last to be in a position where such a comparison can be made. D T