1999 European Grand Prix
: 1999 European Grand Prix: The First and Last By Jeremy McMullen
When Johnny Herbert signed with the brand new Stewart-Ford Racing team many believed Herbert to have missed out on his opportunity at success in Formula One. In fact, many would see a great divide between him and the obvious number one driver Rubens Barrichello. However, on the 26th of September Herbert would show he still had some fight within and would actually be the one to earn a very important first for the team.
Herbert's Formula One career would go through something of a renaissance after a dismal few years with Team Lotus. Flavio Briatore of Benetton had hired Herbert back during the late 1980s when Herbert's good friend Peter Collins was the team manager with the team. Collins and Briatore would be about the only ones that would give the Essex man a second look after he suffered a terrible accident that would leave him in serious doubt, not just about racing, but just about being able to walk again. Amazingly, Herbert would push hard in rehabilitation and would be back in a car only about seven months after the frightening accident.
However, though Herbert would go on to score a 4th place result in his Formula One debut with incredibly sore feet and legs, the next few races would see the Briton struggle. Circuits that required heavy braking were particularly difficult as he could not apply the necessary pressure through his damaged feet. This, combined with internal politics, would lead Briatore to 'rest' Herbert, which just meant Herbert would be left without a ride for the remainder of the season.
Then would come a time in the wilderness. Besides an improbable victory in the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans with Mazda, Herbert would flounder in Formula One with the ever-failing Team Lotus. Fighting just to get out of the team, it seemed Herbert's chances of a great career, or at least doing something special in Formula One, were all but over.
But then came Benetton, round two. Michael Schumacher was very much the focus of the Benetton team, especially as he would lead the World Championship throughout much of the 1994 season. Therefore, Benetton really was only interested in a warm body filling the second seat on the team. And after more than four excruciating years with Lotus, Herbert was more than willing to be that warm body.
Herbert knew where he stood in the Benetton team, but his second chance in Formula One was with the dominant team of the time; he was not going to miss this opportunity whether he played second fiddle or not.
Having the best team, car and equipment for once, success would almost come naturally for any driver of the B195 and Herbert would ride the chariot to a cherished victory in the 1995 British Grand Prix and would be doubly-blessed taking victory at the famed Monza circuit later on in the year. Just like that, Herbert's career goes from being dead to having new life breathed into it all over again.
Yet, despite earning two victories for the team over the course of the season, Benetton would drop Herbert for the following season. Still, Herbert would find a ride with the new Red Bull Sauber team. Unfortunately, numerous retirements would more than overshadow the faint glimmers of hope he would achieve over a three year period with the team. And Johnny's Formula One career would never seem more over than after the end of the 1998 season when he would score but one championship point and would end up 15th in the driver standings.
It seemed fairly obvious that whatever Herbert was going to do in Formula One he had already done it. And as the 1999 Formula One season headed to the Nurburgring, the 14th of 16th rounds on the season, the assumption that Herbert was on his way out of Formula One certainly would not have been challenged by too many.
Herbert had been signed by Jackie and his son to be the number two driver at the Stewart-Ford Racing team that had first been founded in 1997 with Jan Magnussen and Rubens Barrichello as its drivers. Besides a 2nd place by Barrichello at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1997, the Stewart-Ford Racing team would still struggle with an incredible string of early retirements and would only earned a combined 11 points between the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
Heading into the 1999 season it was clear the Stewart team was improving. If it could find some reliability there would be a chance at some success. And this would be a draw for the wandering Herbert. However, the Stewart Racing team would be putting pretty much all of its eggs in the basket of Brazilian Rubens Barrichello. Still, it was another opportunity for Herbert to show everyone that he still had it, despite playing a secondary role. Therefore, he would sign to drive with the team for '99.
Having been in this secondary position before, Herbert would get along with the task in hand. Unfortunately, he would find the car wasn't to his liking and he would be routinely, and rather easily, outclassed by Barrichello race after race. However, as the year went on, Herbert would soon find the car a little more to his liking and though he would still find the going difficult, it was clear he was able to challenge his teammates and the competition once again.
Herbert's competition in 1999 would be the Jordan Team and Williams as McLaren-Mercedes and Scuderia Ferrari would be the class of the entire field. The rest would be fighting it out for the last few championship points available at each and every race.
But the 14th round of the 1999 Formula One Season would take place at a location notorious for strange and unpredictable weather patterns. Situated in the Eifel mountains of western Germany, the Nurburgring was once synonymous with danger due to its 14 mile long epic Nordschleife. But while the circuit may have changed to a much safer and reasonable 2.83 mile circuit, the weather would remain an ever-present variable.
Sure enough, rain would fall on the circuit just prior to qualifying. This meant the qualifying times early in the session would be quite slow. However, the rain would stop and the circuit would slowly begin to dry out. The question was whether or not it would dry out in time for teams to post their best laps.
Many of the teams would not take the gamble and would try to set their best lap times on a circuit that was still quite damp. This would see the final qualifying order all jumbled up as the circuit would dry out in the last seconds of qualifying. Therefore, it would be Heinz-Harald Frentzen that would claim the pole for the surprising Jordan Team. Frentzen would beat out McLaren-Mercedes' David Coulthard by a mere two-tenths of a second. The wet conditions of the circuit would play havoc with the lap times of Barrichello and Herbert. Herbert would manage to best his teammate by a little more than a tenth of a second and would claim the 14th starting spot, which would be the second position of the seventh row. Barrichello would find himself starting from the eighth row in the 15th position.
Unlike qualifying, all twenty-two cars would around on the parade lap with the sun shinning and the track quite dry. This was going to make for a very interesting start given that some of the faster competitors were starting further down on the grid due to the wet weather in qualifying the day before.
And without fail, the combination of the dry track and the mix of slower and faster competitors on the grid would eventually lead to a huge accident on the very first lap of the race. Frentzen, Hakkinen and Coulthard would be well away at the front of the field but there would be a problem with Damon Hill's Jordan that would lead to a chain-reaction accident that would leave a number of cars out of the race due to contact and one Pedro Diniz of Sauber lucky to have escaped without any serious injury after his roll-over bar failed when he barrel-rolled off the circuit.
A number of laps would be completed under the control of the safety car as the track was cleared of debris from the early accident. As the race restarted, Frentzen would manage to hold onto the lead over the two McLarens of Hakkinen and Coulthard. Irvine in the Ferrari would be on the move early on and the strategy was falling into his hands as he had harder compound tires with a full load of fuel. If everything stayed dry, he would be in a good position for the end. Jackie Stewart would make it clear before the start of the race that his team was also following the same strategy with the tires and fuel. But they would need the weather to cooperate.
But then the weather would seemingly not cooperate. Stewart and Ferrari needed the track to stay dry for their strategy to work the best. Stewart's drivers were running in 10th and 11th place just biding their time. Unfortunately for them, the clouds would begin to build and by lap 18 of the 67 scheduled laps the rain would begin to fall.
And when the rain began to fall around the circuit, all chaos would break out. The question would be whether or not to stop for wet tires. While Frentzen would stay out in the lead, Ron Dennis would call Hakkinen in for wet tires while Coulthard would remain out with dry shoes. In the wet, Ralf Schumacher would absolutely shine and he would overtake Coutlhard and would begin to challenge Frentzen.
It would be a passing shower that would see only half of the circuit get wet. Soon, the sun would come back out and the track would dry. This would lead Hakkinen to stop again for dry weather tires. Meanwhile, all the jockeying because of the weather would allow Barrichello and Herbert to move up the running order. While Frentzen continued to hold on over Ralf Schumacher and Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello would move up to 5th place while Herbert would make his way up to 8th place in the running order. By nearly everyone's admission, Herbert's 8th place in the running order was truly something surprising, but it would only get better from then on.
Just a few laps later, after some stops by some of the competitors, Herbert would be up to 6th place not all that far behind his teammate Barrichello in 5th place. Still, it seemed Herbert would play the role of the best supporting actor within his own team at the halfway mark of the race. But then, Herbert would receive another boost up the running order when Frentzen's Jordan came to a halt right after having left the pits for his stop.
Just as Herbert began to challenge for 4th position the rains came back once again and even heavier than before. This would make things very interesting. Barrichello would find himself in 3rd position as Herbert would make his stop.
Coulthard would soldier on in wet conditions with his slick tires, but just when it seemed Coulthard would hold on he would lose it off the circuit. And this would be just one aspect of the chaos that would break out once again as the Stewart cars would be running well inside the top five with Herbert, the broken and mostly defeated veteran running a strong 4th. With wet tires, Herbert would continue to make his charge. He would quickly get by his teammate for 3rd place and would keep carrying on running 5 seconds a lap faster than the leaders just waiting for Providence to bring him even further forward.
After Schumacher's stop Herbert would find himself in 2nd place behind Giancarlo Fisichella, but he was still on wet tires with a drying track. For sure, the race was far from over. And as the sun continued to shine and the track began to dry out even more, Herbert would make a stop for dry tires and would find himself still in 3rd place after his stop.
This would be the final year of the Stewart Racing team and with 20 laps remaining the team would have a car clearly on its way to a podium finish, but Providence would have more in store for the team run by the famed Scot.
Events would continue to unfold in a matter of a split second and while everyone was getting used to the idea of Fisichella scoring victory he would lose control of his Benetton in the wet/dry conditions and would be out of the race from the lead. This would make the German faithful go absolutely crazy as the German Ralf Schumacher would take over the lead. But those celebrations would be short-lived.
The amazing moments would just keep coming as Ralf Schumacher would find himself in the lead once again, but would immediately suffer a puncture and would be drop him out of the lead. Just like that, the aged and largely forgotten about Brit would be in the lead of the race aiming to score his third World Championship victory and first for Stewart Racing before it would become Jaguar Racing the following year.
Not even in the picture or even on the minds of people at the start of the race, both of the Stewart-Fords would be in a position for podium finishes and the man leading the way would be the very one that many had thought was a mistake by Stewart to hire.
But as the though and gritty Herbert headed off on his final lap of the race, it was clear this man from Essex still had some fight within him and that he still had what it took to hold on, avoid mistakes and best even those considered more competitive than he. Rounding the final right-hander, the scene couldn't have been more beautiful. Jackie Stewart would be hugging members of his team, draped in a Scottish flag and Herbert would be pumping his fist in the air.
On the podium, the disappearing Stewart Racing team would finally have its moment in the sun in nearly the best possible fashion as Herbert would take the victory and Barrichello would follow closely behind Jarno Trulli for 3rd. In the victory celebrations it would be Stewart that would be drenched in champagne by all three drivers on the podium, but the day truly belonged to Herbert.
Carrying the weight of not only those that believed his career to be over, but also, the weight of being the second driver in a team and the 'what could have been', Herbert would fight courageously to take just one more victory. In the fading careers of both Stewart Racing and Johnny Herbert it would be fitting that Johnny's final victory, in the face of great opposition, would be Stewart Racing's one and only.