F1 Spotlight - Johnny Herbert

This week we take a look back at one of the sports favourite drivers.

42w ago
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Johnny (John Paul) Herbert was born in Brentwood, Essex, England on 25th June 1964. From an early age, Johnny wanted to be a Racing Driver and dreamed of being in Formula One.

Johnny began his racing career in 1974, racing karts when he was just ten years old. His talent was immediately obvious and by 1978, he was the British Junior Karting Champion. Johnny won the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 1985, beating over 100 drivers in the process, and in doing so caught the attention of Eddie Jordan. After progressing through the ranks, he moved into Formula 3 racing. His speed and obvious talent led to Eddie Jordan speedily signing him up for the 1987 season. That year he won the British Formula 3 title and the world of Formula 1 was his next destination. In fact, it was during the 1987 F3 season that Benetton offered him the chance to test their turbo-powered car at Brands Hatch.

"Those cars were very different animals but I'm glad I had the opportunity to drive one."

Johnny Herbert

He impressed a lot of people during his F1 test debut, beating regular driver Thierry Boutsen and forcing Nigel Mansell to ask, ""Just who is driving that thing?"

Johnny moved up to F3000 with the Jordan team in 1988 and, first time out, he won at Jerez. In August that year, Johnny was asked by Team Lotus to stand in for its regular F1 drivers during tyre testing at Monza, where he immediately outpaced the reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet. That’s a great way to make a memorable impression on everyone.

Unfortunately, Herbert suffered career-threatening injuries in 1988. As a championship hopeful in International Formula 3000 racing at Brands Hatch, Johnny was caught up in a major accident there, being hit from behind by Gregor Foitek, which led to Herbert’s car slamming into the wall cockpit-first, sustaining severe ankle and foot injuries after multiple collisions with the barriers.

Johnny recalled later; “A marshal came to the car and was talking to me. I knew it was bad, but he kept saying, ‘its okay, you’re fine. You’ll be okay.’ Then he walked to the front of the car, and when he saw the state of my feet he was sick…” I’m sure that was the kind of reassurance he needed at that time.

"If I'd had my crash five years before, I probably wouldn't be here today and if I'd had it five years later, I probably would have just brushed off my overalls, stepped out of the car and walked away."

Johnny Herbert

Johnny remembers everything about that accident, from the start of the race to the collision itself and the aftermath - "There was a tiny little tap then the car was turning and aiming straight for where the bridge was. I ploughed straight into the bridge and my head was rolling around a lot. I was spinning around and then hit something else. Then I was spinning around again and, finally, I stopped.

He also admitted to having had some dark thoughts about this time, saying; "I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes. I'm certainly no quitter, but at that very moment in time—just for a moment, though—all I wanted to do was go to sleep and never wake up again."

The extent of Herbert's injuries would permanently hinder his mobility, leaving him unable to run and forcing him to change his driving style. The fact that he was even able to go racing again though is astounding and shows that, whilst it was still incredibly dangerous at the time and wasn’t yet what it is today, how much motor racing had improved over the years in terms of safety. For a time after the accident there had been the serious threat of an amputation and Doctors said he would never walk again, let alone race but he went on to prove them wrong and after several surgical procedures and months of physiotherapy, less than six months after the accident, made a stunning F1 debut.

Despite his immobility, Herbert returned to racing and, on the 26th March 1989, made his F1 race debut for Benetton in Brazil. He finished an amazing fourth, behind winner Nigel Mansell, McLaren's Alain Prost, and local hero Mauricio Gugelmin. His teammate, Alessandro Nannini, was sixth, 7.7 seconds behind Herbert. His injuries had not impacted how talented he was behind the wheel. Johnny later admitted; "I was in pain…Once I'd crossed the threshold of pain, I didn't have a problem. During the race, I didn't have any particular problems but I was fortunate that the circuit didn't require any hard braking."

Problems with his legs meant that he could not sustain the same level of performance as he had shown in Brazil and he reportedly found it hard to press the brake pedal, which in turn affected his lap times. The Benetton team had come under the management of Flavio Briatore and, after Johnny failed to qualify for the Canadian Grand Prix (despite a fifth place finish at the previous race,) he was dropped from the team. You can tell why Flavio is a bit of a mustard character in Formula 1.

Although he had several offers for 1990, Johnny opted to take a testing contract with the Lamborghini powered Camel Team Lotus and also to race in Japan, in both the F3000 and the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship where he raced a Ralt in the Japanese series alongside a certain Michael Schumacher. Katsuhisa Homma who ran the team said of the pairing; “I would say that Johnny is the more natural driver, while Michael is a more technical driver.” The Lotus contract allowed Johnny to appear in two F1 races at the end of 1990 but on both occasions he failed to finish.

It was not long before he received another call from a Formula One team looking to use his talents – he joined Tyrrell and throughout 1990 to 2000, stayed in Formula One, including a period at the then dwindling Lotus team, which was then managed by Peter Collins. During the 1991 season he also drove in two rounds of the Fuji Long Distance Sports Car Series, driving a Mazda 787B, finishing fourth both times. His decision at the July round to stop his car and aid a fellow competitor who had suffered a puncture at high speed would earn him the Sportsman Award at the 1991 Autosport Awards.

His experiences in the Fuji series led to his taking part in and claiming a stunning victory at the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours, driving for Mazda alongside Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot. The win silenced many of his critics because if Johnny could last a gruelling 24 hours, he must have been back to full fitness. But after the adrenaline of the race subsided, Johnny collapsed across the bonnet of his Mazda, admitting later that he was exhausted from the race.

Johnny was signed by Lotus for a full-time drive in 1992. He enjoyed driving for the once top flight team in 1991 and 1992. But things soon took a turn for the worse as both 1993 and 1994 were not good years for the team and things deteriorated due to an under-performing car and a lack of funds to improve it.

Frustrated with the on-going dire situation at Lotus, Johnny left the team mid way through 1994 after three years with them and joined Ligier, and later Benetton, for the last few races of the season, becoming possibly the first driver ever to step from the back of the grid to the front, via three different F1 cars, in three consecutive races. That’s certainly one way to do it.

Johnny Herbert driving for Lotus at the 1994 British Grand Prix.

Johnny Herbert driving for Lotus at the 1994 British Grand Prix.

The Lotus team collapsed into bankruptcy at the end of 1994, one of the assets of the business was Johnny’s contract which Ligier, who had at the time, links to his former team Benetton, bought. He was then given another, apparently golden opportunity to return to the team which was to win the next two World Championships. Unfortunately, it was a one-man team. His teammate would be Michael Schumacher.

"I always think that if you have 50:50 in the team, then the best guy wins. Unfortunately, that was never the case with Michael from early on. That's the way he is. I've nothing against him - it's the team that has to control that situation."

Johnny Herbert

From the get go, there were obvious tensions within the team. As it transpired, there wasn't going to be an awful lot of teamwork between both sides of the garage. Speaking of the situation later, Johnny said - "Then, on our first day in Argentina - a Thursday, because it was a new track for us - I was about two thousandths quicker than Michael. On the way back to the hotel, he said to me, 'well, I have a secret about my driving and you probably have secrets about yours, maybe you don't want to see what I do and I don't want to see what you do'. Next day, when I got to the track, they said I wasn't allowed to see the data. So that made it difficult and, from that point on, it wasn't really fair."

Johnny remains tight-lipped about the lack of support from team boss Flavio Briatore in 1995, but, even though he regards Michael Schumacher as his most difficult teammate in F1, Johnny says he holds no grudges against the German superstar.

As it turns out though, 1995 ended up probably being Johnny's best year in F1. He came close to being third in the World Championship, taking two race wins - the first coming at the British GP in July when he inherited the win after Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher collided. Johnny later appeared on stage at the post race concert where he ‘sang’ a version of Johnny B. Goode – with his own lyrics “I’m Johnny, I’m good.” Where, I ask, is the record deal? You know you’d buy it. After another win at Monza he finished the season 4th in the championship but, because of all the difficulties at Benetton, Johnny doesn't see 1995 as his best year in F1.

Driving for Benetton in 1995.

Driving for Benetton in 1995.

He then moved on from Benetton to drive for the Swiss team Sauber from 1996–1998, finishing on the podium at both the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, taking his only points of that season, and also the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix.

Johnny enjoyed his first year with Sauber in 1996 with the highly rated Heinz-Harald Frentzen as his teammate. But things deteriorated mid way through 1998, when team boss Peter Sauber clearly began to favour teammate Jean Alesi. Johnny just couldn’t catch a break when it came to favouritism.

Johnny Herbert -

"I was doing very well against Jean early on and then we had a little bit of an argument at Silverstone. I was being asked to let Jean past when I didn't think I should have been and we had a falling out over that. Then I said, right, OK, I don't agree with what you're asking me to do, but if you ask me again to do it, I will, even though I think it's wrong. So we got to the next race and, in qualifying, it was wet with a drying track. I went out with about 5 or 6 minutes to go, and just as I was going on to the track, Peter [Sauber] came on the radio and told me to let Jean past. I thought, OK, I shall do my job. Unfortunately, I had to wait for a lap and a half before he actually came past because he was nowhere near me. So, by the time I started, my tyres were cold and, of course, he ended up second and I ended up 18th.” Far from an ideal situation and one that wouldn’t be much fun to watch today in Formula 1.

In 1999, a new challenge arrived as he began driving for the Stewart-Ford team (run by Jackie Stewart and his son, Paul). There were difficulties for the team at the start of the season, but things improved for the team in Austria and Johnny was having a decent race until he was hit by Mika Salo which took off his rear wing. Other results were up and down before somehow coming together in time for the round at the Nurburgring. Johnny then went on to take his third win at the 1999 European GP, a race he considers the best of his three F1 victories. Although there were these highs, overall 1999 was a difficult year for Johnny with the team because of the poor reliability and also the rumours that were circulating about both Herbert’s and the team’s future, though overall he still considered it a good year and was happy to have given Jackie and Paul [Stewart] their first and only win.

Johnny racing Mika at Imola in 1996.

Johnny racing Mika at Imola in 1996.

Johnny stayed with the Stewart team as it was bought out by Ford to become Jaguar F1 but was forced to endure another frustrating and pointless season which ended with him being stretchered off in Malaysia at what was to be his last F1 race, after a heavy crash due to a suspension failure.

Johnny was recruited to the development/test driver role with the Arrows F1 team in 2001 but part way through the year Herbert announced that he would leave F1 for the US CART series for the following season. He said he was sad to be leaving F1, but that he hadn’t got that will to be in F1 anymore. Having moved to sports car racing, he enjoyed success in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), where he won several events and was a challenger for the 2003 title.

In 2004, Herbert, along with Jamie Davies, drove an Audi R8 to win the Le Mans Series championship, taking victories at the races at Monza and Spa along the way. Then in 2005, Herbert was appointed to the position of Sporting Relations Manager at Jordan Grand Prix, which became Midland F1 for the 2006 World Championship. However, when in September that year Spyker Cars bought the team and renamed it Spyker MF1, one of the new owners' decisions was to not renew Herbert's contract. As you can tell, that decision was one of many that really worked out for Spyker in Formula 1.

"An absolutely brilliant natural talent"

Eddie Jordan

In 2007, Johnny again returned to the Le Mans 24 Hours with the factory Aston Martin team at the wheel of the Aston Martin DBR9 in the GT1 class. He, along with Peter Kox and Tomáš Enge, drove the 007 numbered car to a 9th placed overall finish and 4th in the GT1 class. The name’s Herbert. Johnny Herbert.

2008 saw Herbert win the first season of the Middle-east based Speedcar Series. In 2009, Herbert made his debut in the British Touring Car Championship at the wheel of a Team Dynamics Honda Civic at round eight of the championship, Silverstone. He qualified seventeenth for the first race and finished in a respectable thirteenth. In the second race, he finished inside the points in eighth place, scoring three points. In the final, reverse grid race, Herbert started from second and was holding fourth place but was forced to retire on lap thirteen.

For many years Herbert hosted a charity event called the Johnny Herbert Karting Challenge where various celebrities and professional racing drivers were invited to compete in indoor go karting races to raise money for a number of charities.

In 2016 Herbert released his autobiography “What Doesn’t Kill You...”

Herbert is now a regular contributor to the Sky Sports F1 channel. He is an occasional presence as one of the insiders in "Sky Race Control" during practices, qualifying sessions, and races alongside Simon Lazenby, Martin Brundle, Anthony Davidson, Damon Hill, Nico Rosberg, Paul Di Resta and 2009 F1 World Champion Jenson Button. As part of his work for Sky, he gets to do fun things like this:

Popular up and down the paddock with everyone from the drivers to team principles and all the important people behind the scenes, Johnny has never let what happened to him impact his love for motor racing. A genuinely nice bloke, it's not hard to see why he's so popular. It's unfortunate that he only got the three race wins as I'm sure had circumstances been a little different, he would have gotten a lot more. But that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

What do you think of Johnny? Let me know in the comments below.

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Comments (4)

  • Absolutely love Johnny. He's such a great guy and I will forever remember his move from 18th to 1st in the virtual Bahrain GP😂

      9 months ago
  • Johnny used to live next door to a former colleague of mine and it was always "interesting" to go anywhere near his house in case Johnny was on the same (single width) road...

      9 months ago
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