The scene at the Circuit de la Sarthe in the afternoon of the 23rd of June would be absolutely chaotic with the crowds of international reporters pushing and fighting to get a clear view of the brightly colored orange and green Mazda 787B driven by Volker Weidler, Bertrand Gachot and England's Johnny Herbert. It was a truly historic moment and everyone wanted to capture the moment as the first overall win by a Japanese manufacturer at Le Mans had produced a great amount of pandemonium up and down the pitlane and in the grandstands. And one of those at the center of the pandemonium was Herbert.
Born June 25th of 1964 in Romford, Essex, it would be just ten years later that Johnny would begin his racing career in karts. Then, just four years later, Herbert would show early signs of his racing talent when he became the British junior karting champion. He would then claim British senior honors in the 135cc category winning in 1979 and again in 1982.
The racing world was beginning to take notice of this young man from Essex who, by 1982, was just eighteen years of age. This success would lead to Herbert making the move to Formula Fords in 1983. This would culminate in victory at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch at the end of 1985.
By the end of 1986, Herbert was racing in Formula 3. While driving for Eddie Jordan in a Reynard-VW during the 1987 season, Herbert would go on to win five races and would earn the British Championship as a result. In fact, the 1987 would see Herbert dominate and win the championship with ease. The success Herbert was able to achieve while driving for Eddie Jordan would cause the twenty-three year old to have the ultimate experience.
Before the end of the 1987 season Herbert would find himself being fitted down inside a turbo-powered Benetton B187 for a test session. Racing again for Jordan in Formula 3000, the 1988 season would see only more success come Herbert's way. Armed with the new Reynard chassis, Herbert would be a formidable competitor and would only go on to earn another test session opportunity. This time it would be with Team Lotus. The test would take place at Monza with their 100T.
It seemed Herbert was destined for the upper echelons of motor racing and was being considered amongst the elite of motor racing history before he had even ventured onto the big stage. This was a lot of pressure the Englishman had to contend with. The question was whether he would stand up under the load or collapse under the strain. Ironically, it would be his legs that would bring the star crashing back to earth.
Many of motor racing's circles were considering Herbert one of the brightest stars. He was considered one of the next ‘great' drivers and had a lot of expectations laid out before him by others. But just as soon as people were claiming him to be the next equivalent of Prost, Senna and others, Herbert's world would come to a crashing halt and all of those expectations would mean very little. Perspective would be righted.
Earlier on in the 1988 season, Herbert had a run in with the Swiss driver Gregor Foitek. At Vallelunga, Foitek would push Herbert right off the road and would cause Herbert to sustain a concussion as a result. Unfortunately for Johnny, this would be light contact compared to the next time he came close to Foitek. Herbert's star was definitely on the rise and many Formula One team managers were looking at Herbert to join their teams. However, during a Formula 3000 race at Brands Hatch, Herbert would have another run in with Foitek. However, this time, Herbert would be left with two shattered feet and one very close to having been amputated.
The contracts and the achievements now meant nothing. Herbert's greatest success would be just being able to walk again. Still, Johnny would show his fighting spirit and what he truly could achieve when he put his mind to something. Despite nearly having lost one of his legs to amputation, he would recover remarkably quick and would be back the following year. And when he returned, he would find himself in the greatest opportunity of his racing career to that point.
After just seven months, and merely lucky just to be walking, Herbert would head into the 1989 season with a new ride. A mentor and friend of Herbert's, Peter Collins, had moved to Benetton and kept a seat open for Herbert. He would join Alessandro Nannini driving a B188. All would be amazed, and yet, not surprised, by his debut performance.
On March 26th, 1989, Herbert prepared to take part in his first Formula One grand prix. It was the Brazilian Grand Prix held at the Autodromo Internacional Nelson Piquet near Rio de Janeiro and Johnny would start the race from the 10th position on the grid. The race would only fare better as he would manage to bring his B188 home in 4th place. Just like that, in his first Formula One race, Herbert would leave with 3 championship points. Once again, the expectations would begin to pile back on the Englishman.
Unfortunately, the early result would not translate into the type of success many expected. The quick return to racing was proving to be too much for the ailing foot. The pain would cause him not to be able to brake hard enough at times. And this fact would not be lost on Flavio Briatore, who had been brought into the team to help turn in into a winning entity. As a result, Herbert would be ‘rested' by Benetton after the first six races and would only compete in two more grand prix by the end of the season, but these would be with Tyrrell. This would leave Herbert heading back to Formula 3000, but in an entirely different setting.
Often, decisions will be made that seem entirely innocuous. Only later does it become realized that the one decision was actually part of a larger series of events that play out days, months or years later. And when Herbert made the decision to drive Formula 3000 in Japan he likely had no idea how the decision would pay huge dividends in just a couple of years. All that Herbert knew was that he still wasn't enjoying much success. It seemed all of the promise had left with that shunt at Brands Hatch.
Enter Team Lotus. Exit Team Lotus.
Martin Donnelly experienced a massive shunt that would leave him still in his seat lying in the middle of the track without the car within five feet of him. This scary sight would end up with Donnelly escaping with his life but Lotus without a driver. They would turn to Herbert. Herbert would oblige by coming to the team and performing strongly at times right from the start. He had another chance at Formula One and he wasn't going to go out again without a fight. Unfortunately, Lotus itself was going out of Formula One without a fight. The next four years in which Herbert would be with the team, Lotus would be bleeding to death. It would be a slow death in which Herbert could not contractually avoid.
Still, Herbert would have moments where he showed the promise everyone believed would happen years earlier. As a teammate with future double World Champion Mike Hakkinen, Herbert would go on to out-qualify the Finish driver, but he just would not enjoy the reliability Hakkinen seemed to get out of his car.
Despite his perseverance and his clear ability to outperform an obviously talented teammate, Herbert would still be left without much of an opportunity in Formula One when Lotus finally left the series. Deep down, Herbert still believed the unfortunate accident at Brands Hatch had forever etched bad thoughts and notions in the minds of team managers. But his performances wouldn't go entirely unnoticed.
Throughout the frustrating years with Team Lotus, Herbert would still manage to achieve some incredible success, but it would not be in single-seater grand prix cars. The bigger picture surrounding Herbert's move to Japan would come to be seen for all its grandeur on the 22nd and 23rd of June in 1991.
Prior to the 1991 season Johnny had signed to drive with Mazda. This would prove to be a genius masterstroke as he would pair with Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler to win the 59th 24 Hours of Le Mans. This would be the first, and only time to date, in which a Japanese manufacturer had achieved victory in the famed French classic. With something perhaps to prove, Herbert would drive like a machine in the race. Often doing numerous stints in a row, Herbert would be so worn out when he pulled the car through the incredible throng of photographers and well-wishers that he would collapse on the car and would actually miss the victory ceremony.
Opportunities continued to present themselves and the early part of Herbert's career would be marked with second chances, and the end of 1994 would see yet another opportunity for Johnny. Flavio Briatore needed a back-up driver for his Benetton team, and so, Herbert would find himself, once again, with Benetton. Briatore, due to the internal politics of the time and Herbert's performances, had been the one to ‘rest' Johnny back in 1989. But now, he would be back. Still, Johnny wouldn't necessarily have a ride in Formula One, at least were it not for Ligier.
Herbert would finally find himself free of Lotus but with just three races left in the 1994 Formula One season. Still, he would at least have a ride for the next race on the season as he would drive for Ligier in the European Grand Prix. Then, in the final two races of the season Herbert would find himself with the team that had given him his first taste of Formula One, and his first firing.
Heading into 1995, Herbert would find himself in the best and worse possible situation of his Formula One career. He undoubtedly was with the best team in Formula One at the time, that being Benetton. However, he would have a World Champion as a teammate, a man by the name of Michael Schumacher. So while it was a great opportunity, the team absolutely revolved around Schumacher. Therefore, the situation would not be as conducive for Herbert to achieve the success he would have liked.
Johnny wouldn't let that stop him. Despite obviously being bested by Schumacher at just about every turn, Herbert would still go on to earn an emotional victory in the British Grand Prix and would later follow it up with yet another victory in the Italian Grand Prix. The British Grand Prix was certainly a special moment for the beaten and bruised Herbert. Not only was the race his home race, but it was also his first Formula One victory. What an absolutely special moment for the man from Essex.
The 1995 season would see Herbert finish the World Championship with 45 points. That would be good enough for a 4th place result in the standings, but it would not be good enough to remain with the team for the following season.
Over the course of the next three Formula One seasons, Herbert would find himself driving for Sauber. While the team was improving, it was clear Johnny would not have the opportunity he had in '95 with Benetton. Still, he would gut it out and would come away with a 3rd place result on the streets of Monaco in 1996 and would earn yet another 3rd place at the Hungarian Grand Prix the following season. However, the three years with Sauber would be a rather disappointing time for Herbert after scoring his first two victories in 1995 with a car that was the class of the field.
Just when it seemed like Herbert's Formula One career was well and truly on its downhill run, he would manage to pull out one more surprise before he exited the stage.
Driving for Stewart Ford in 1999, Herbert would again find himself in a tough situation. Johnny's teammate would be Rubens Barrichello and it was clear the team focused around the Brazilian. Herbert had been through this before four years earlier at Benetton. And while Barrichello would outperform Herbert throughout the majority of the season, Johnny would still have an ace up his sleeve and would do something that not even Barrichello would manage to do at Stewart.
In a crazy wet and cold European Grand Prix held at the Nurburgring, Herbert would manage to hold on through the driving rain and would come through to take Stewart's first, and only, Formula One victory. In fact, Herbert would headline what was a stellar day for the team as Barrichello managed to finish 3rd in the same race.
When Ford bought out the team for the following season and rebranded the team as Jaguar Racing, Herbert would be back with the team but would have Eddie Irvine as his new teammate. Unlike the previous season, Jaguar would struggle and the best result Johnny would garner throughout all of 2000 would be a couple of 7th place finishes in the Austrian and Japanese grand prix.
After more than a decade in Formula One racing, Herbert would retire. But the retirement would only lead him to his next phase in his racing career. His success in Formula One and his overall victory in the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans meant prototype sportscar racing would be the obvious direction in which his career would head. And, once again, Herbert would come into endurance sportscar racing at the right time.
The last time in which Herbert would take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans would be in 1992 with Mazdaspeed. Despite claiming a 4th place overall finish in the race, Herbert would not return again until 2001. But when he returned, he would come back with one of the best teams up and down the pitlane.
Audi would start its incredible run at Le Mans and right there in the middle of that successful campaign would be Herbert. Despite an early retirement while driving an Audi R8 for Champion Racing in 2001, Herbert would enjoy a string of 2nd place finishes in the famed French race. Two of those 2nd place results would come with Audi Sport in 2002 and 2004. In 2003, while driving for Team Bentley along with Mark Blundell and David Brabham, Herbert would again finish in 2nd place making it three-straight runner-up performances.
It was clear the fighting spirit was alive and well within the heart of Herbert. And despite those damaged legs, he would go on to win Le Mans Series Championship in 2004. All throughout his time with Audi Johnny would go on to win a number of races and would consistently be a challenger at many others. It seemed as though endurance racing was the perfect fit for him.
Still, Herbert wasn't too far away from Formula One throughout this time. In 2005, he would be named Sporting Relations Manager at Jordan Grand Prix. Unfortunately, and as with numerous times throughout his career, Herbert would come into a difficult situation. Jordan Grand Prix would later be bought out and would become Midland F1 for the 2006 season. However, by September of 2006, the name of the team would change again. Spyker Cars would purchase the Midland F1 team and would rename it Spyker MF1. The most unfortunate aspect of the name change would be the fact that they would end Herbert's contract at the same time.
Despite having had his contact dropped by Spyker, Herbert just could not be away from Formula One for too long. And, in 2012 Herbert would be working for Sky Sports as a commentator alongside one time competitor Martin Brundle. One year earlier, in 2011, Herbert would take on a role of an advisor to Formula One race stewards at a number of grand prix races.
While his Formula One racing career may have come to an end, Herbert could still be seen at tracks throughout the world. In 2007, Johnny would make yet another return to Le Mans. This time it would be with the Aston Martin team racing in the GT1 category. And, despite being 42 years of age, he would help the team earn a 9th place overall finish and a 4th place result in the GT1 category.
Herbert just can't stop racing. Besides taking part in the lower formulas of single-seater racing, Formula One and Le Mans Series racing, Herbert would go on to take part in British Touring Car Championship races and would even compete in the Speedcar Series in 2008.
Despite serious injury that not only hindered, but also, shortened his career, Herbert would go on to pack a rather short racing career with some truly noteworthy performances. Rightly so, Herbert would become recognized as one of the great 'all-round racing drivers in the history of motorsport'. And while to many his career may have come up short to the initial expectations, it is clear with his performances in Formula One and in sportscar racing that such a view is clearly not justified. It is well and truly a matter of him being unduly burdened with unreasonable expectations.
Herbert's fight and drive in the face of great pain and politics certainly places him amongst a truly select club of successful motor racing drivers and is not a career filled with disappointment but of great fortitude in the face of those great and many challenges.