The Benetton Mystery

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Why can’t Johnny Herbert match Michael Schumacher? The German gives his opinion…

It is Formula One’s Mission Impossible. Of those who filled the number two seat to Michael Schumacher at Benetton, none has lasted more than a year. Notwithstanding victory at the British Grand Prix. Johnny Herbert’s tenure of the position has proved equally transitory.

The Essex driver’s second spell at Benetton won’t be recorded as an unmitigated disaster. He is, after all, the first man ever to win a Grand Prix as the German’s teammate. In 10 races he had already accumulated eight more points than Riccardo Patrese managed in a whole season, and 18 more than JJ Lehto and Jos Verstappen managed between them. His contribution has also been instrumental in putting the team within sight of the first Constructors’ title in its history.

Only Martin Brundle has got closer to Schumacher, but even he readily admits that back in 1992 the young German was nowhere near the finished article he is as reigning World Champion.

Yet for all the positive things you could say of Herbert, his efforts this year have proved profoundly disappointing insofar as he has rarely come anywhere close to matching his team-mate. In Germany, perhaps more than anywhere else, it would have been asking a lot for Herbert to compete on equal terms, for the nationalistic fervour such as that seen at Hockenheim often brings the best out of the home driver. On this occasion the fireworks were confined to the terraces as Schumacher took up the lead after Damon Hill’s second lap exit, and never relinquished it thereafter. Herbert. meanwhile, ran an unspectacular race to finish fourth. So why does such a huge performance gap exist between Schumacher and his Benetton colleagues?

“It’s a difficult question,” he hedges. “I don’t like to tell you, ‘I’m a lot quicker’: I don’t like to talk this way. What I can tell you is that we have the same cars. The gap is big, but I can’t really explain why that is, whether it is some sort of mental block that he [Johnny] has in this team, or not. I have had a couple of drivers next to me who have been considered very good, but then they came to a top team. I think to come from a very low level outfit like Johnny came from, to then suddenly handle a top team is a different approach and a different pressure. Some handle that and some don’t.”

Of those who don’t, the biggest complaint is that nothing can prepare you for Benetton because it IS simply like no other team, such is its reliance upon one driver.

“I have been working with the team closely for a long time now and I have found a way to set up the car as I like it. as I can get the best out of it,” concedes Schumacher. “Johnny probably lacks the time to have got that sorted. I don’t think my other teammates have had the time either. The other point, of course, is should we expect drivers like Johnny to come in and immediately set times close to me? Or, indeed, should we expect drivers like Herbert to come in and still be two and a half seconds off the pace after half season? Perhaps the best explanation is that the difference is down to confidence.” he ponders. “We have a car which is very difficult to drive this year, and when you don’t have the confidence, you don’t get the best out of it. I don’t have a problem with confidence. Some cars are very forgiving while others, like ours, are critical. If you put Johnny in a Williams. he would probably be as quick as Damon. After all David [Coulthard] got his car going quite well, without experience.”

Dark mutterings of ‘conspiracy’ attended Herbert’s second spell with Benetton right from the start and, given that his confidence has been compounded by a lack of testing perhaps the root of such talk is understandable. After all, how long before mistrust of a car spreads to a mistrust of the team?