F1's Great Drives: Johnny Herbert - 1999 European Grand Prix

F1

Starting from 14th at the Nürburgring, Johnny Herbert claimed victory for Stewart with a smooth, measured drive and brilliant decision-making. His 1999 European GP win at the Nürburgring is one of F1's great drives

Johnny Herbert on the podium at the Nurburgring 1999

Grand Prix Photo

Johnny Herbert led a career defined by triumph over adversity. At one point facing the possible amputation of his feet after a horrifying F3000 smash, he fought back to make his F1 debut less than a year later.

His three F1 victories came in dramatic circumstances too.

Whilst driving for Benetton, Herbert triumphed at Silverstone in ‘95 after Damon Hill nerfed Michael Schumacher off at Priory. Later that year, Hill then pulled out another Schumacher sabotage to hand Herbert victory at Monza also.

After that promising ‘95 season, three subsequent years at Sauber brought no more victories.

“I said, ‘Yes we can win a race but we’re gonna need a little bit of help from the others.’ In reality, that’s what happened.”

However, it all came good again at the 1999 European Grand Prix, held that year at Germany’s Nürburgring.

This time, it was a race won more on Herbert’s superb skill as a driver and the quick-thinking of his dynamic Stewart team as opposed to the misfortune of others.

The twilight of Herbert’s F1 career is intertwined with the incredible rise of Stewart Grand Prix, which won its first race within three years of first entering F1.

Then-Stewart Technical Director Gary Anderson told Motor Sport that the team’s season had been one thus far of unfulfilled potential: “The car was reasonable everywhere, but we probably didn’t get the best out of the season that we should have done, especially earlier on. The other teams out-developed us – it was limited by our reliability problem.

“We’d been quite adventurous with the gearbox design and that needed a little bit of work, and the new Cosworth engine, though very good, was a bit fragile.”

The team had come oh-so close to victory already in 1999, but the aforementioned reliability and design problems halted progress.

Rubens Barrichello leads at the start of the 1999 French Grand Prix

Strong run in France put Barrichello on the podium – but not the top step

Pierre Verdy/AFP/via Getty Images

“We probably should have won at Magny Cours,” Anderson says. “But because of the size of the fuel tank in the chassis, we were very limited to our pit stop window and that’s really what caught us out.

“In Brazil, I think Rubens Barrichello could have had a brilliant result but for an engine problem. There were lots of little ‘nigglies’ that kept us from getting that big result.”

The Ford Motor Company was investing in Stewart, as it was to become a works operation under the Detroit manufacturer’s Jaguar brand in 2000. Anderson had in fact prophesied a victory to Ford bigwigs – if all the pieces fell into place.

“Just after I started in November ‘98, we were having this ‘99/’00 briefing with Ford about the potential. I had my turn to say what we’re doing to the car. Jacques Nasser (Ford CEO) said to me ‘Can you win a race this year?’ and I replied, ‘Yes, we can. But we’re gonna need a little bit of help from the others.’ In reality, that’s what happened.”

The final season of the ‘90s was already dramatic, with Michael Schumacher suffering a Silverstone leg-break, Mika Hakkinen going off to cry in the Monza woods and Jordan becoming a factor in the championship for the first time.

Heinz Harald Frentzen leads into the first corner in the 1999 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring

Frentzen started from pole at the Nürburgring and led away

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The year hadn’t seen anything yet though. The Nürburgring‘s changeable conditions usually throw up an unusual result and that year’s European Grand Prix was no exception.

This was the year that Heinz-Harald Frenzten finally began to live up to his early career promise, and he continued this ‘99 form by putting his Jordan on pole at the ’Ring – 0.26sec ahead of McLaren’s David Coulthard.

Where was our hero Johnny Herbert? Down in 14th place, while his team-mate Barrichello lined up just behind in 15th. The Stewart team had elected to play the long game strategy-wise:

“We qualified on the harder tyre so we were struggling a little bit [for pace], but we knew we could go longer [in the race] with it.” Anderson notes, “We tried to do the best job you could on Sunday as opposed to being just a flash in the pan on a Saturday.

“I think Johnny and Rubens were both professional enough to understand that and buy into it.”

While qualifying was held on a wet track, race day was slightly better. It started dry, but ominous dark clouds loomed over the circuit.

Pedro Diniz is flipped by Alexander Wurz at the start of th 1999 F1 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring

Horror crash for Diniz at the start of the race

Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images

After a false first race start caused by WilliamsAlex Zanardi parking in the wrong grid slot, the second try was an improvement – up to Turn One.

Damon Hill’s Jordan gave up the ghost after one corner, with Benetton’s Alex Wurz swerving to take avoiding action.

In doing so, the Austrian inadvertently hit the Sauber of Pedro Diniz, catching him at such an acute angle that the Brazilian’s car was pitched into a barrel-roll.

The Sauber landed upside down, with its roll-hoop alarmingly torn from the chassis. He was, miraculously, unharmed.

“Fastest man on the track by a country mile is Jean Alesi in 14th place – I don’t really know what’s going on.”

Serenely passing through the middle of this carnage was Johnny Herbert. Emerging unscathed from a typical midfield accident, he stuck to the plan.

By lap 15, Herbert was 12th and the race had started to take on an unusual air. The front four cars of Frentzen, Hakkinen (McLaren), Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher (Williams) were running line astern, at what appeared to be limited pace – all competitors seemingly in anticipation of something about to happen.

“There’s a lot of inconsistency,” commented Martin Brundle during ITV’s live coverage, “fastest man on the track by a country mile is Jean Alesi in 14th place – I don’t really know what’s going on.”

Anderson himself found it similarly unusual: “As it was sort of unfolding, it was quite bizarre, you might say, people falling off the road, silly things happening here and there – we were able to muster through”.

Dark clouds over the Nurbirgring at the start of the 1999 European Grand Prix

Dark clouds loom over the Nürburgring

Grand Prix Photo

The predicted rain eventually fell on lap 17, and as it intensified cars began to wriggle their way round corners, struggling to keep on the road. Two laps later, race-leader Frentzen slid across the grass at the final chicane, and Hakkinen pulled into the pits to take on wets.

It was Herbert’s first big decision to make. Should he stay out and weather the storm? Or react to the rain and take on wet-weather tyres?

Whilst others bowed to the meteorological pressure (or lack of it), Stewart’s man stayed out, stuck to the plan and moved up the field as a result.

“These situations can leave you with a nervous affliction for the rest of your life.” opined Brundle, “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Herbert showed nerves of steel though, and keeping his car out on dry tyres meant he found himself in the box seat. Whilst others dropped back as a result of pitting for wets, the Stewart man held fast and improved his track position.

Moving to ninth by lap 20, eighth on lap 21 and seventh on lap 22, the rain had actually accelerated the Stewart gameplan. Tip-toeing round a wet track on dry tyres, was massively aiding their ascendency through the field.

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Anderson says that in such situations, storms (metaphorical and literal) have to be weathered. “You have to survive that sort of thing. If you give it all up, then everything you’ve done for the weekend goes down the pan.”

In coming through the adverse conditions, Herbert utilised not only his experience of driving F1 cars but also his crucial knowledge of the circuit’s idiosyncratic weather patterns.

“At the Nürburgring, it rains generally at one end or the other,” Herbert said in a recent Sky feature, “There was a massive, strong wind coming up the straight. We always know the weather will come in that direction. That was something I was able to use to my advantage later on.”

As the track dried, drivers on wets were forced to make another stop to swap back to slicks. The Stewart driver continued his progress to move up into sixth when Prost’s Jarno Trulli pitted on lap 29 – Herbert was now in the points.

As if the race hadn’t been chaotic enough up to this point, all hell was soon to break loose – again.

On lap 31, Frentzen pitted from the race lead. As he exited the pitlane, he forgot to disengage a secret anti-stall system the Jordan team had on their car. It was the same problem suffered by Hill, and the second stricken Jordan came to a juddering halt in almost exactly the same spot.

“I went ‘that cloud there, she’s gonna come over the whole circuit. It’s worth a gamble – Wets, Wets, Wets!’”

Herbert had now risen to fifth and team-mate Barrichello was third. On lap 34, the rain came back with a renewed vengeance.

It was the Brit’s second big tyre choice to make. Ride it out on drys again or fit the right tyres for the job? Herbert again used his knowledge of the circuit’s geography and weather patterns to make the call.

“By the time I got to the far end of the circuit, it was bucketing down,” said Herbert, “I went ‘that cloud there, she’s gonna come over the whole circuit. It’s worth a gamble – Wets, Wets, Wets!’”

Anderson had his own failsafe method of tracking the weather. “I have a piece of blue paper roll on the back of my clipboard. Based on that, I made some decisions. I used that for many years: stick it out in the rain, see how quickly it gets wet. It gives you a good indication as to how big the drops are and gives a good indication to where you really are.”

It just so happened that the deluge coincided with Herbert’s scheduled stop – and blue roll would combine with driver judgement to make the call for wet tyres.

“Every race is just a reaction to the situation,” says Anderson And that was a reaction to a situation, opening an opportunity and because of others not getting it, not being able to survive, we ended up being able to benefit from that. Johnny had to pit then, it wasn’t a case of doing another five laps and then ‘we’ll wait and see.’”

As others dived into the pits too, Herbert maintained track position and remained in fifth.

Here Barrichello made a fatal error, one which would massively benefit Herbert. The Brazilian had prayed for rain prior to the race, thinking that that would be his big chance to take his debut win.

When the heavy downpour arrived though, Barrichello went against his original instinct. Convincing himself it was just another passing shower, he took on slicks again.

Anderson says the team offered their Brazilian charge the chance to move onto wets: “There’s a little bit of controversy about that because Rubens was offered the same opportunity to come in by myself. I said to him ‘I’m pretty sure it’s gonna piss down.’ And the answer was ‘No, no. We’ll be okay on slicks.’”

In a recent F1 interview, Barrichello said: “I had been wishing for more rain and more rain and I was asking for something that came my way – but I kept the slicks. For two laps, I was so slow on the slicks, I lost the race because of that. It’s fundamental that whenever you ask for something, you are ready to grab it and I wasn’t.”

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Where Barrichello lost out, Herbert capitalised.  Coulthard, Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella decided to stay out on slicks too, all thinking they could manage their cars through this downpour and keep ahead.

Meanwhile, after a cautious few laps on his new wet tyres, Herbert was now rocketing forward. The Stewart driver reckoned he was gaining “5-8sec a lap” on the leading group during this period, helped by his smooth driving style.

“It was a matter of being very careful at the beginning of the stint, because it wasn’t wet enough,” says Anderson. “With the (wet) tyres you wanted to get them through that first lap or two laps, so you didn’t destroy them, because it would be very easy to do that, and Johnny did it very competently.”

The first of the leading pack to pay the price for risking dry tyres in the wet was Coulthard, whose right-rear wheel caught a painted white line on lap 37, sending him into the barriers. At the same time, Herbert got past his team-mate Barrichello, who was driving painfully slowly on his slick “tyres”. Stewart’s British ace was now up to third.

Herbert moved up to second when Ralf Schumacher pitted from the first on lap 45, and found himself within 3sec of the slick-clad race leader Fisichella, who had once been 20sec clear of the Brit. The cars remained in position for two laps before Herbert took his second stop, this time for dry tyres. He had made another call of perfect timing.

Giancarlo Fisichella running off the track at the 1999 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring

Fisichella made wide use of the run-offs during the race

Grand Prix Photo

The order was now Fisichella from Schumacher from Herbert. The former two had never won a grand prix, the latter hadn’t won in four years.

It was soon to all change again. Fisichella, who with several offs had been threatening to crash all day, finally made good on his promise. Spinning off at the Ford curve, he stalled his Supertec engine and was yet another retiree.

Schumacher was now in the lead – but for only half a lap. As the Williams headed into Turn Four, a right-rear puncture sent him skating off the circuit and hobbling back to the pits. He was crawling out of the Dunlop-Kehre hairpin when Herbert swept past – and into the lead.

Now out in front on his own, Herbert’s immaculate drive combined with brilliant pit calls had left him with a margin of over 20sec on his nearest rival – Prost’s Trulli.

Johnny Herbert Jackie Stewart and Rubens BArrichello on the podium after the 1999 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring

Jackie Stewart back on the podium at the Nürburgring

DPPI

Coming through the chaos, he now had the race in the palm of his hand. The only thing that might stop him from winning this race now was himself.

His aforementioned injuries left him in constant pain. Towards the end of GPs, this would become almost unbearable.

“I would alternate braking with right and left feet to ease the pain,” Herbert has previously said. “When I won at Silverstone [for Benetton in 1995], I was screaming in the car for the last 13 laps, so bad was the pain, so this wasn’t so bad!”

Whilst the British driver was managing the gap on track, TV pictures showed the usually sanguine Stewart joint-team boss Paul Stewart biting his nails in a nervous frenzy. Sat on the pitwall next to him was rockstar Phil Collins. As a guest of the team, the Genesis frontman looked on bemused.

They needn’t have been worried, as Herbert put in an assured final few laps to reach the finish and take an incredible win.

Along with Herbert claiming victory, Barrichello finished third, bringing in a remarkable double podium finish for a Stewart team that wasn’t yet three years old.

It had been a display of sheer driving brilliance from Herbert, along with making the right tyre choices and the time with his team.

“Johnny, from the red lights going out to the chequered flag, drove impeccably really, in a situation that was unfolding every four or five laps,” says Anderson. “He was part of a few people that had to do it from red lights going out to the chequered flag. Johnny did a great job.”

After a number of near-misses earlier in the season, the full package of driver, team and car had finally delivered.

The sense of history present on that day wasn’t lost on Anderson: “The big thing for me was it was the Nürburgring, Jackie Stewart and Stewart Grand Prix – with Jackie going up on the podium. He was incredibly successful around that circuit in its old form.

“It was quite amazing seeing him on the podium at the Nürburgring then [in 1999] – 26 years on [from his last win as a driver there].”

Two races before Stewart Grand Prix became Jaguar Racing, the team had become race winners. It was also a final victory for Herbert in the penultimate year of his F1 career.