Being 2nd driver in an F1 team sucks the energy out of you: Johnny Herbert

“Valtteri Bottas is tired of the being the guy who has had to play second fiddle – just as it was for me”

Johnny Herbert


Just as I did in 1996, Valtteri Bottas will leave a Championship-winning team next year for Sauber – or Alfa Romeo as it is known today. In that situation you’ve still got the desire, you still want to better yourself. But Valtteri is tired of being the guy who has had to play second fiddle, just as it was for me at Benetton with Flavio Briatore and Michael Schumacher.

It’s a frustration that sets in, in contrast to the optimism of when you first joined the team. In my case Flavio had said, “It’s important we have you, we really want you in the team, we want to work together and give you the best chance.” The main thing for him was the Constructors’ title because they hadn’t won it before. But as soon as we started it was completely different. At my first test at Jerez it was supposed to be two days for Michael, then two for me. He did his two days and Ross Brawn said Michael hadn’t quite finished his programme, so he’d do the third day and that I would do Friday. In the end I got Friday afternoon.

Then at the second race in Argentina, I was blocked from seeing all the data. That ain’t working together! I only did the one season at Benetton, but as time goes on you do feel alienated. Ross tried hard to help me with that sticky position and the decision-making that was coming from Flavio. Now I understand why it happened.

Valtteri has been in a similar position at Mercedes-AMG: you get your running shoes on, think everything is OK and then the direction slightly starts to shift away from you. One of you is always going to get damaged, unless you are a character like Nico Rosberg who had that extra fight in him and made it awkward for Lewis Hamilton in 2016, and for Toto Wolff who hated that time. I wasn’t that type of character and neither is Valtteri.

“He’s always given Mercedes what they needed when asked”

Damon Hill has told me how it felt when he was at Williams finding out through the press he was being replaced for 1997. You’re shaken up that they hadn’t the testicles to tell it to you straight, that you had to find out second-hand. Valtteri heard those same whispers, that it was going to be George Russell next year. It’s not nice. You get to a point where you think, “Sod this, I’m off to somewhere I’m wanted and appreciated,” – and that’s what he will get at Alfa. They’ve got a nice family mentality that has carried over from Peter Sauber’s time, and I can understand why he has chosen that route. He still enjoys his racing too and that’s a big part of it. I always thought when I lost the enjoyment that was the time to stop and it happened to me at Jaguar. Not everyone does that. Kimi Räikkönen hung on too long. He won the World Championship, but at the end of his career we don’t really think of him as a world champion.

In Turkey, Valtteri proved he’s still got the speed. The criticism is it’s not shown consistently enough. But the majority don’t know what it’s like in that environment, how it can chip away at you and suck all the energy out. The team automatically focused on Lewis Hamilton because they knew he’d do the job. It’s not in the front of their minds, but it’s been there at the back – and you feel that. It’s a horrible thing: as humans we can always sense ‘they are not really for me’. Toto has tried not to give that impression, has tried to make it as fair as possible, but it’s human nature. Try as you might, you can’t fully support both because you know it’s going to harm the end of the journey in that given year.

Over his five years at the team Valtteri has improved massively and he’s worked hard to achieve that. He’s up against the best of the present time – and when you are up against the best it always looks worse than it is. He’s not Lewis Hamilton but he’s still a bloody good driver and has always given Mercedes what they needed when asked, when others might not. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

Beating your team-mate is never a question mark at the time: Valtteri always thought he could beat Lewis, or in my case that I could beat Michael. But now I look back and realise I could never have beaten Michael, even though when I was racing I thought, “I can, I will, I will keep trying.” It doesn’t happen, because they are better. When Valtteri strings it together he can beat Lewis, but it just goes back to that consistency. He’s done a good job, but like me, maybe Valtteri will understand when he hangs up his boots why the team focused on the other guy.

Johnny Herbert was a Formula 1 driver from 1989-2000 and a Le Mans winner in 1991. He is a regular contributor to Sky Sports F1
Follow Johnny on Twitter @johnnyherbertf1