Today we also celebrate the 48th birthday of Formula 1’s ‘cheeky chappie’, three-time Grand Prix winner Johnny Herbert.
Considered one of the hottest British prospects in motorsport in the 1980s, Johnny’s meteoric rise to Formula 1 was rudely interrupted by a shocking Formula 3000 accident in 1988, which many believe robbed his career of the impetus that might have seen him become a Formula 1 World Champion.
After starting out in karts at the age of ten, Herbert claimed numerous national championships before he moved into Formula Ford, winning the Brands Hatch Festival in 1985.
It was around that time that he met Eddie Jordan, who took him under his wing and into the British F3 championship in 1987. Herbert duly won the crown and earned a Benetton F1 test drive, which led to the team signing an option on his services for the 1989 Formula 1 season.
After making a strong start at the F3000 race at Brands Hatch, Johnny was involved in a shocking multi-car accident that left him with badly smashed feet after he was sent steaming into the barriers at full speed.
After months of painful recovery, he sensationally made his F1 debut and – although barely able to walk the car – finished an heroic fourth on debut. Over the course of the season, however, it became apparent that he’d still some way to go to fully recover, and the Benetton team management sought fit to drop him mid-season.
Undaunted, Johnny headed east and competed in Japanese Formula 3000, biding his time in the hope that another F1 call-up would come knocking. His connections. meanwhile, earned him a drive with Mazda at the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours, and he took the rotary-engined car to a famous victory.
F1 hadn’t left him behind, and it was his old Benetton mate Peter Collins – now devoted to reviving the fortunes of the Lotus F1 team – who called him up as a mid-season replacement for Julian Bailey. Many promising drives went unrewarded, but he plugged on, and earned the odd points finish in 1992 and 1993, while compatriot Damon Hill rapidly became the new darling of the British F1 fanbase…
By 1994, Lotus’ fortunes were in dire straits, and a despondent Johnny was left to plug away with no hope of a points’ finish in the underfunded car. A split was inevitable, and it was some relief that he was bought out of his contract to spend the final races with Ligier and then Benetton, with whom he would remain full-time in 1995 as Michael Schumacher’s team-mate.
While undoubtedly blessed with the most competitive package of his career, Johnny was a distinct number-two in the team, although he earned plenty of smiles and cheers when he inherited wins at Silverstone and Monza. But he undid his cause with repeated complaints to the press about his subordinate role, and his services weren’t retained for 1996, when Schumacher went off to Ferrari.
Herbert joined Sauber, with whom he would remain for three seasons, occasionally achieving a half-decent result, but once again stymied by a lack of in-season development.
Frustrated, he quit the team at the end of 1998 and joined the Stewart team for the 1999 season, where he continued to suffer the most extraordinary run of misfortune until he claimed a fortunate, and well-deserved, win at the chaotic European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
Staying on with the team following its buyout by the Ford Motor Company, Herbert largely struggled in the uncompetitive Jaguar R1 and opted to head into retirement at the end of the year.
Over ten years later and Johnny is still very much involved in the sport, having served as the sporting director for the Spyker F1 team, as well as being a repeat member of the FIA Stewards’ Panel.
[Images via Flickr, Johnny Herbert, The Cahier Archive]