Having waited 71 Grands Prix for his first win, Johnny Herbert needed only a further four to pick up his second
Johnny Herbert’s second Grand Prix win was as timely as it was fortuitous. Not wanted by the team in 1996, the 31-year-old had just broken his silence to explain his Benetton nightmare in a bid to secure alternative employment. “I don’t want to become a whinger, but I’m a quicker driver than my results suggest,” he complained, citing the Enstone operation’s one-car test team as one of the reasons he has struggled to come to terms with his team-mate. “I feel frustrated and disillusioned. This was the year in which I was finally going to fulfil my potential.”
From the moment the words left his lips you could probably guarantee that the top five cars running ahead of him would all retire!
The carnage notwithstanding, Herbert’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked, stresses Ross Brawn, Benetton’s Technical Director. “I think his performance in Italy has been underestimated,” he says. “It’s a shame people don’t really understand what he was doing, because his victory was very well deserved. If you look at his position when everything had settled down, as it were, he was only seven or eight seconds behind Alesi who apart from Coulthard’s retirement was leading the race virtually on merit. If Johnny hadn’t pressured the Ferrari, its wheel bearing might never have failed.”
Nor should the team’s contribution be overlooked. Having started with a heavier fuel load than his rivals, Herbert was behind both Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello in the early stages and either man could have been there to pick up the pieces when Alesi retired eight laps from the end. That they weren’t revolved around a four-lap spell in the middle of the race.
The surviving Benetton was the last car on a one-stop strategy to pit for fuel, coming in on lap 30 where Barrichello and Hakkinen had come in on 27 and 28 respectively. When his opponents rejoined the circuit, laden with enough fuel to reach the flag, Herbert was running at his lightest. He immediately stamped in his fastest lap, the second quickest of the race, to snatch six seconds from the Brazilian, five from the Finn. He stole a further three and a half seconds at his own pit stop by dint of having less fuel to take on-board.
How could that happen?
Time and again this season, Benetton has out-manoeuvred opponents, and the suspicion lingers that the B195 was designed with a larger fuel tank than many of its rivals, thus conferring a greater deal of tactical flexibility. At Monza, as at Montreal earlier in the season, its car was clearly able to run far deeper into the race than its rivals before making a refuelling stop. Schumacher in particular has looked relatively at sea in qualifying, only to shock the Williams duo with his pace on full tanks come race day, and it could be that Benetton not only has the ability to run more fuel but profits from a better centre of gravity by virtue of its positioning.
Consequently, there was nothing wrong with Herbert’s positioning when the cards fell in his favour. Here, as at Silverstone, his was the perfect rearguard action: ideally placed to pick-up the pieces when his team-mate retired, once ahead he never looked likely to throw it away.
Herbert has now been rejected twice by Benetton. For a ‘failure’, two wins in five races isn’t so shabby…