Johnny Herbert 30 years on – a study in what might have been

A horrific crash at Brands Hatch three decades ago was a pivotal moment in Herbert’s racing career. It impacted him in more ways than you might think

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‘Things could have been so different if not for that rather spectacular F3000 crash at Brands. I will never know.’ So tweeted Johnny Herbert earlier this week, 30 years to the day from the Brands Hatch Formula 3000 crash cited.

A certain generation may think of Herbert as a Formula 1 TV pundit. Many slightly older may think of him as driver who bagged three grand prix wins and was a decent trier, but perhaps little more. But, as Herbert noted, things could have been so different.

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No exaggeration. As to quote Matt Bishop, to whom Herbert was responding on Twitter, prior to the accident mentioned ‘he was as quick as any man, any place, any time’. Herbert’s story, then, was an archetypal one of the very brightest of rising stars.

After Herbert had impressed in the 1987 Monaco Formula 3 race, Benetton boss Peter Collins invited him to an F1 test at Brands Hatch. Immediately he went three-tenths quicker than incumbent driver Thierry Boutsen, as well as was close to the times of even more haughty figures such as Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell who were present that day. It was enough for Collins to take Herbert under his wing, and Benetton agreed an option for him for 1989, with Herbert completing an F3000 (the rung below F1 at the time) season in the meantime.

The following summer Collins leased Herbert out to do a Lotus test at Monza, alongside reigning world champion Nelson Piquet. ‘We were doing race simulations for most of the day, and I managed to outpace him on every lap and in every situation,’ Herbert says in his autobiography.

As he left the Monza garage, things moved up another gear. ‘I was stopped by the assistant to the Ferrari team boss Marco Puccini,’ Herbert continues. ‘“I’ve got a message from Marco,” he said. “He’s been talking to Enzo [Ferrari] about you and they’ve agreed that you and Marco should have a chat about next season.”’

Then at the F3000 round at Brands Hatch, things moved up a gear further. ‘The last person I spoke to before we began qualifying at Brands was Frank Williams,’ Herbert recounts. ‘“I heard about your test with Lotus, Johnny,” he said. “The moment you finish this race, would you come and see me? I’ve a proposition for you.”’

Herbert some years later would liken his situation, with everyone fighting over his signature, to that of Max Verstappen…

Herbert’s F3000 campaign, though, struggled to take off. He’d won the Jerez season-opener, but crashed out of round two at Vallelunga after an altercation with someone who would become familiar: Gregor Foitek. Herbert describes him as ‘an overly aggressive, erratic and occasionally dangerous racing driver… I think he must have modelled himself on Nigel Mansell, but what use is aggression if you don’t have the finesse and judgement needed to turn it into a successful style of driving?’ Worse, concussion from the crash meant Herbert had to sit out the following round at Pau.

He returned at Silverstone, but finished out of the points – the Eddie Jordan team, itself debuting in F3000 that year, was struggling to get pace from the car. Yet at the next round at Monza Herbert showed what he was about – after dropping to the back when his car wouldn’t fire up at a race restart, he came through to finish third with considerable flair. In Enna next time out, though, Herbert spun off early.

Yet as he sat before the Brands round mentioned, Herbert’s chutzpah was undiminished. ‘Trevor [Foster] and the boys had managed to solve the speed problem once and for all,’ he notes, ‘so to all intents and purposes the next round would be like starting the season from scratch. I was still only a few points behind the current F3000 leader, Roberto Moreno, and was confident, nay adamant, that we’d be back winning races soon.’

The Brands meeting, however, not unlike that at Imola in 1994, developed an atmosphere of creeping dread from early on. On the opening day there were two serious accidents, and in the case of Michel Trolle the injuries were extensive. Indeed, that F3000 season was already a bad one for accidents and injuries.

Herbert took pole and in the race built a lead of 12 seconds. Yet on lap 22 the red flag flew – that man Foitek had nudged Moreno off. Moreno was fit to be tied at Foitek’s driving.

At the restart Herbert, not positioning his car ideally, had a poor getaway and found himself third with Foitek alongside; still nibbling as they got to Pilgrims Drop. Then it happened. Foitek pitched Herbert first into a steel girder at the base of the bridge. This ripped off the front of Herbert’s car, and worse – with his feet now quite exposed – he rebounded front-on into the opposite barrier.

His foot injuries were fearsome. Amputation was only just avoided, but his surgeon, having saved his feet, said: ‘I’m afraid his sporting days are over.’ Even walking again seemed a stretch.

Collins remained true to his option, though. Indeed, he had Herbert in a Benetton seat for the 1989 season-opener in Brazil – barely six months after the accident – after the racer had demonstrated passable fitness and testing pace following an intensive recovery programme.

Herbert impressed on debut, finishing fourth close behind Alain Prost’s McLaren. But it was a false dawn. His major weakness was not having the leg strength for heavy braking. The Rio track didn’t show this up particularly, whereas the next few – Imola, Monaco, Mexico City, Phoenix and Montreal – could hardly expose it more.

In Montreal Herbert didn’t qualify, and then new and notorious Benetton boss Flavio Briatore euphemistically ‘rested’ him. There was indignation, but Briatore’s logic was hard to argue with.

‘I see that every driver in F1 has two legs. Johnny has only one… if you know what I mean,’ recalls Briatore. ‘So what do I do? Do I keep him? No, because it was a danger for him. It was not a question of being nice or not nice. I maybe saved him from another accident.’ And Herbert came to agree with him.

In time, he rebuilt his F1 career as described. Yet even with this time it wasn’t the same.

There was physical impediment as well as pain. But as Herbert noted, too: ‘The legacy of the crash at Brands went far beyond the injuries I sustained on the day. In addition to having two very badly damaged feet, I was minus the two qualities that had set me apart from the rest of the field.

‘My feeling of invincibility. It just evaporated after the crash, and regardless of what I achieved it never came close to returning. Prior to Brands I always said I could beat anyone, anywhere, on any track and in any conditions, and I believed it. What’s more, so did many of my opponents.’

The second factor was harder to anticipate. Herbert lost the sort of skill you’d associate with the sport’s most instinctive talents; Herbert, indeed, has associated it with Lewis Hamilton for one.

‘I remember qualifying for a Formula 3 race once, and for some reason I just couldn’t place the car properly and everything felt just a little bit disjointed,’ Herbert explains. ‘It used to happen in karting on occasion, and what I’d do – which is what I did at the F3 race – was park up and go and grab five minutes somewhere. Then, when I got in the car or kart, everything clicked back into place again.

‘Until the accident I’d only ever had to do it once in a blue moon; after it, everything reversed and that feeling of slight disjointedness became the norm. The work I had to put in trying to compensate for this loss was draining to say the least, and although I just about managed it, nothing would ever be the same again. The fact that it was no longer natural took away much of its shine and effect.’

There was one occasion when he got it back, near the end of his F1 career in the round after his final grand prix win in a crazy wet-dry race at the Nürburgring in 1999. This was F1’s first visit to the Sepang track in Malaysia, the penultimate round that season.

‘It was the only time since the accident that I experienced a sense of complete oneness with a racing car, that feeling of effortless synergy,’ Herbert says.

‘Both qualifying and the race itself had this kind of ethereal quality to them, almost as if I’d been taken over by the old me. There was no pain in my feet or ankles. I was free, for the first time in over 11 years.’

The feeling, sadly, was fleeting: ‘By the time we got to Japan [for the final 1999 round] the synergy and oneness had gone, never to be seen again.’ His fourth place at Sepang – indeed, coming within three laps of getting on the final podium step – leaving team-mate Rubens Barrichello as he did so, was a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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