The one that got away
Johnny Herbert: 1994 Italian Grand Prix
Off the pace and on the verge of bankruptcy, Lotus suddenly came good and there was hope. It didn’t last long, explains Adam Cooper
The nature of these articles means that, more often than not, drivers nominate races that got away from them through some disaster in the closing laps. However, in the case of Johnny Herbert it all went wrong at the start. Or actually before it, since the 1994 Italian GP was red-flagged. His problem, therefore, occurred during that curious statistical anomaly: an aborted start.
Johnny had joined Lotus in the middle of 1991 as team-mate to Mika Hakkinen, and set about rebuilding a career that had been derailed by a huge F3000 crash in ’88 and a miserable introductory Formula One experience with Benetton. He scored a couple of points in ’92 and was a regular top-six finisher in ’93. However, after a switch to Mugen engines, Lotus lost its way in ’94 and budgetary problems meant that development was slow.
“We never really got going that year,” says Johnny. “We never seemed to get the best out of it. The car was a bit of an adaptation of the 1993 model and there was never the jump that we wanted. Things began to look a bit grim from the start of the year: the engine was big and the power wasn’t the best. But it wasn’t all down to that. It was more down to the development of the car; we never really went forward enough when everybody else was making bigger steps.”
There were other problems within the camp. Hakkinen had long since gone on to bigger and better things with McLaren, and Johnny became increasingly frustrated at being tied in to a multi-year contract. At one stage he had a chance to go elsewhere but had been unable to get out of his deal. His relationship with team boss Peter Collins, who had done much to help his career, unravelled.
“I did a silly thing when I signed for too long, and then I asked Peter if he would release me and he wouldn’t. I understood why he wanted me to stay, but unfortunately it wasn’t going anywhere. It was sheer survival. It was frustrating to see Mika doing well, but it also made me feel good because I’d done well when we’d raced together and it showed that, if he could do it, then so could I. In that sense I could look at it in a positive way.”
Mugen came up with a revised and lighter engine before Monza and Johnny tested it very briefly at Silverstone. He immediately felt an improvement in the whole package.
“The engine was a little bit better, but it wasn’t a big step. However, when we got to Monza the car just seemed to go quickly. John Miles was working with us then, and the biggest thing we did all weekend was work on damper stuff, changing the bump and rebound. Every time we did something it seemed to go quicker — and it rode the kerbs well.”
Johnny’s best grid position prior to the Italian GP had been a 15th in Germany, and usually it was a lot worse than that. But in first qualifying on Friday he was a sensational sixth fastest, albeit some 1.7sec off the pace-setting Ferrari of Jean Alesi. It was a great start — but things went even better on Saturday. Johnny was actually quickest for a while, ending the session in fourth place, just 0.5sec behind Alesi. Only Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari and the Williams of title-chaser Damon Hill split the pair.
The timing of this performance was perfect: the financial squeeze had become so tight that receivership beckoned for the once mighty Team Lotus.
“It was good for me because it was nice to be in something competitive at last. For Peter Collins and Peter Wright it was a big boost because the team was close to folding. It was going to be their lifeline: they could show that they had a direction, that they didn’t have to go into receivership. It was a big, big high for everybody. We felt we had a good chance.
“I remember in the Sunday warm-up that we filled up with fuel and were still seventh quickest, ahead of Damon. I was happy with that because I knew the Ferraris were going to go for two stops, and I wasn’t that far off. I remember we went to see the Castrol people in the hospitality area before the race, and everyone was hyper; there was a big buzz about the place. It was all looking very rosy.”
Unfortunately for Johnny, this tale does not have a happy ending. It does, however, have a villain: the man who started five places behind him.
“I got off the line well and I passed Damon on the outside. I was right behind Jean, I think. Eddie Irvine’s Jordan had got an even better start — it’s just a shame that he didn’t stop! His comment was that we all braked early!
“He didn’t hit me hard, it was just a tiny glance, but it was enough to knock me round. I spun very slowly and stopped sideways across a kerb. Some people missed me, but David Coulthard hit me quite hard and damaged the front suspension. I thought, ‘That’s it.”
The race was red-flagged and Herbert dashed back to the pits in the hope that the car could be readied for the restart.
“The floor was damaged and they tried to fix it at the end of the pitlane. But there was too much damage and not enough time. I had to go back into the spare car with the old-spec engine and start from the pitlane. So it was all over.”
The engine failed in any case and Johnny was left to rue a missed opportunity.
“It was really our chance and it had been taken away from us. It didn’t kill Lotus there and then, but it removed the last lifeline.
“After Monza we went testing in Portugal, and we went from fourth on the grid to 20th. It was a four-day test and we thrashed round and were as slow as hell. We were going nowhere, so I said, ‘Why don’t we put the Monza wings on and see what the hell happens?’ I kept on and on, and eventually, on day four, they did it. I think we went a couple of seconds quicker. It was a rocket down the straight and no slower in the corners! It shouldn’t have been that way, of course, but obviously the big wing was very inefficient.”
Johnny, though, never got to race again with that spec. Impressed by his Italian performance, Tom Walkinshaw pounced and Herbert had jumped over to Ligier by the time of the Spanish GP. And for the race after that he was switched across to the sister Benetton team, alongside Michael Schumacher. Team Lotus collapsed that winter, but in 1995 Johnny won at Silverstone and, in a neat turn of events, at Monza.
“Yeah, it did make up for it,” he smiles.