Born in Romford in 1964, Johnny Herbert took his maiden victory at Silverstone in 1995 driving for Benetton, just one year after Damon Hill had an emotional win for Williams. The victory wasn’t expected in the lead up to the race but it was enjoyed and celebrated by just about everybody in the paddock; Herbert was a popular driver who against all the odds had managed to get himelf into Formula One and a relatively competitive car alongside world champion Michael Schumacher.
Perhaps part of Herbert’s popularity was his remarkable comeback after a fearsome accident in Formula 3000. At the Brands Hatch circuit in 1988, Johnny was involved in a serious accident and impacted the barrier very heavily. His legs were badly broken and his feet were shattered; it was feared that Johnny – a much praised driver who was regularly compared to Jim Clark at the time – may not ever drive again, let alone race.
However, Herbert’s incredible determination saw him come back to racing just one year after his accident and the British driver tested for Benetton in the winter of ’88-’89. Despite the fact he could barely walk, Herbert impressed on-lookers and he was given the race seat. And even though Johnny scored on his debut for the squad, his career would once again go on hold as internal politics at Benetton and a lack of race pace saw Herbert let go partway through the year. According to some, braking the Formula One car into a corner was causing Johnny considerable pain and many feel this was the reason for his lack of pace at some circuits, particularly his last for Benetton that year – Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
Towards the end of 1990 though, Herbert was back and this time in a Lotus. The occasional point would fall Johnny’s way but it was hardly the success story he had wished for. After moving around a few teams Herbert found himself in a Benetton once again at the end of the 1994 season. Although Herbert retired in the final two races of the season, he was given a contract to partner Michael Schumacher for 1995. The car was pretty competitive and although it wasn’t the best, it was enabling Schumacher to win races and the 1994 title. The team had also secured Renault engines for ’95 and everything looked quite promising.
By the time the British Grand Prix came around though, it was clear to Herbert that the Benetton team revolved around Schumacher and Johnny was having a tough time in the second car, not even being allowed to see Schumacher’s telemetry. But never one to get down, Herbert continued to give the squad his best and in front of a home crowd at Silverstone, Johnny took his first career win.
Damon Hill had taken pole position, and Herbert’s team mate Schumacher was alongside in second. Herbert qualified down in fifth for the race and as such, all eyes were on Hill’s Williams for a repeat win. At the start, Hill got away well from the line but the surprise was Jean Alesi in the Ferrari who managed to go from sixth to second by the time the field passed through Copse. Hill then proceeded to edge out a 20 second lead while Alesi held everybody up behind him.
Eventually the field started to get past Alesi and the pit stops helped in this situation, although it was now clear that Hill and Schumacher were on different strategies. The Williams driver was pitting twice while the Benetton of Schumacher just once. This meant that Hill was faced with chasing down and passing his rival later in the grand prix. On lap 46 and with a faster car, Hill followed Schumacher through Bridge and as Michael braked for the Priory left-hander, Hill made an ambitious move up the inside. Schumacher turned in on his racing line and the pair collided and retired from the race.
This left Herbert, who was also on a good strategy, in the lead. However, Hill’s team mate David Coulthard was behind and in a very fast Williams. The Scot would eventually get by Herbert but the following lap receive a ten-second stop-go penalty for speeding in the pitlane. This handed the lead back to Herbert who had the slower Ferrari of Alesi in second. On lap 61 Herbert took the win with a margin of 16 seconds to Alesi.
It is what I have always wanted. Winning here is special. Johnny Herbert.
Herbert would go on and take another victory that season and finish fourth in the championship. However, it was clear that the Briton was not happy in the team and Johnny left at the end of the year. Herbert moved around teams once again before finding a home at Stewart Grand Prix. The chirpy chap would manage his third victory and Stewart’s first in difficult 1999 European Grand Prix at Nurburgring. The weather was the cause for a problematic but very entertaining race, and with a well-timed change to wet tyres, Herbert won for the final time.
To read more in this series of articles, click the tag ‘British Winners’.