The Herbert Conspiracy
From zero to hero, but what really happened?
Needled by world champion Michael Schumacher's pointed comments about David Coulthard's speed, Damon Hill was moved to puzzle why it is that the German's own team-mates mysteriously lose form the instant they got their bottom in the second Benetton?
Finally handed the opportunity his legion of supporters insist he deserves, Johnny Herbert's early form hinted that he would not fulfil the role of Benetton's second class citizen patented by the likes of Patrese. Verstappen and Lehto. Yet, having qualified within half a second of his team-mate in Brazil, the gap went out to three seconds in Argentina, where he was lapped. By now there were mutterings that Herbert had not found out until race day that Schumacher was using a different differential.
In Imola Herbert was again two seconds adrift and it was said that he was denied access to the German's telemetry printout. In the race itself he was at one stage passed by test driver Jos Verstappen, driving for lowly Simtek. With both their contracts owned by Flavio Briatore, speculation flew that before long the Dutchman would return to the fold. Hardly surprising, then, that Herbert's confidence was at low ebb.
But in Spain the plot suddenly went awry. Driving a fine race to achieve the best result of his Grand Prix career, he inherited second place on the final lap. Benetton was presented with only the second one-two finish in its history. It was a remarkable transformation, but what really happened behind the scenes?
Case number one: did Schumacher really have access to another diff?
"It is an open situation in the team, and any information can be passed on," insists Schumacher. "He gets a lot of support from the whole team, and I try to give him as much support as possible. Every driver has little secrets. I have mine and I'm sure Johnny has his too. But in Imola, for instance, where Johnny was in quite big trouble, I tried to help him and when I had a little secret I passed it over to him."
The verdict: yes, he probably did.
Case number two: was Herbert denied access to some printouts?
"It's not an issue," he says, but the verdict is that yes, some of Michael's throttle traces were kept secret. That is no longer the case.
Ross Brawn, Benetton's Technical Director, explains the argument for the defence: "Michael is sensitive about aspects of his driving style. He believes he has a certain approach that gets him results, and he doesn't particularly want other people to know about it, in the same way that we wouldn't want McLaren knowing about the technical details of our car.
"All the data is now available to Johnny, he can look at everything that is going on. They are competitive by nature and Michael, quite rightly, isn't going to explain to Johnny how to go round a corner. That's really what it amounts to, and I don't think there are that many drivers who will."
Case number three: was Herbert left to go his own way on settings?
"It's not down to Michael," explains his team mate. "It's more an issue of me getting hold of the car and doing what I want to with it. I used Michael's settings in Imola, but couldn't make them work. I think that's because I'm much more aggressive on turn-in to the corner. With Michael's settings if you turn-in slightly, the car really goes: if you turn-in a bit heavier, there is no way it will stay on the track.
"I've got to change the car to suit me. I've got to go my way, Michael's got to go his way, but it's not as if we'll have a different floor or wings or anything. It's just a case of steering our cars to how we like them."
One swallow doesn't make a summer, and one podium finish doesn't make a career. It may seem harsh, but the jury probably remains out when it comes to Herbert's future.
"Michael is too strong, and too well integrated in the team for Johnny to suddenly walk in and put up a really strong challenge overnight," explains Brawn. "But he's already settling in and finding ways of making the car work for him. Michael actually used Johnny's set-up for qualifying in Barcelona, and found that it worked pretty well. So we are actually working together as a team. There are some people who like to make more of it than there is..."
"There was no magic," says Herbert's engineer Tim Wright of Benetton's reign in Spain. "I think the other teams were struggling a bit, rather than us being exceptional. But there's no doubt that Johnny's beginning to feel more comfortable with his car."
And the conspiracy?
"Yes. There never was one..."