1989 Brazilian Grand Prix
: 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix: Dangerous Like a Wounded Animal By Jeremy McMullen
Sunday March 26th, 1989 would break with sunny skies. As the day grew later and later the already warm weather only grew hotter and hotter. It was clear the 18th Grande Premio do Brasil would be absolutely torrid as far as the weather was concerned. But in the Benetton pits, one man would not be thinking about the weather as much as the dream that was about to come to fruition with the start of the race at two in the afternoon.
Ever since he began to race karts at the age of ten, Johnny Herbert would be considered one of the next great talents in motor racing. Anchored with British Senior honors in 1979 and 1982 and the British Championship in Formula 3 in 1987, Herbert was gaining a strong reputation at the wheel of race car. Then, with a great amount of success in a brand new Reynard chassis in Formula 3000 in 1988 Johnny was on just about every team manager's radar in Formula One.
First, Benetton would approach Herbert about a test in their turbo-powered B187. Then Lotus would come calling with their 100T. It is widely believed Frank Williams had even come to Brands Hatch in 1988 fully prepared to offer Herbert a contract. Unfortunately, Johnny would race that day.
While the day at Brands Hatch seemed to dawn with an incredible amount of promise, it would end, for Herbert, in truly horrendous circumstances. In that race Herbert would suffer a terrible and nearly fatal accident. The accident would result in Johnny's feet being seriously injured and barely able of escaping amputation.
The contracts would be stuffed back in the pockets and nearly everybody would agree Herbert was finished. Perhaps the only one that didn't believe that was Herbert himself. Despite the fears he would never even walk again, Herbert would push hard in his rehabilitation. Amazingly, and despite some pain, Herbert would be back walking again and getting ready to get back behind the wheel of a race car, and in only about seven months.
But what would he be coming back to? Thankfully, despite the injuries, Johnny had proven himself in other races, and, had a big supporter within the Formula One community.
Peter Collins had fallen in love with motor racing at a very young age but would have to put his passion on hold when his father passed away. Instead of being able to pursue his passion he would have to provide for his family. Still, by the 1980s, Collins would be working with Frank Williams and Patrick Head at Williams. Collins had developed a strong relationship with Herbert throughout this time and became a champion of the young man from Romford, Essex. This relationship would be very important for Herbert and his first opportunity in Formula One.
Collins had moved on from Williams to Benetton. At Benetton, Collins would take on a similar role as that which he held at Williams. As team manager, Collins would be directly involved with the drivers and other important aspects of the race team. Collins' role as team manager would become Herbert's best source of rehabilitation yet.
Just when it seemed apparent all of the other team managers had put the contracts in their pockets and had given up on Johnny, Collins would make the move to Benetton and would keep a seat open for the young hobbling man from Essex. Amazingly, just when everybody believed Herbert's racing career had come to an end, Johnny would make the trip to South America in March of 1989. In spite of the horrendous injuries, Herbert would be ready to take part in the first round of the 1989 Formula One World Championship.
The 1988 Formula One season had been absolutely dominated by McLaren-Honda. The MP4/4 would go on to win all but one race throughout the whole of the season leaving the other teams and drivers suffering as also-rans. Thankfully for Herbert, 1989 was a new season with new regulations. This would provide him with a great opportunity.
The turbo era in Formula One had come to an end. The 1000 bhp monsters had been retired and the normally-aspirated era would return to Formula One. This would provide a number of other teams with greater opportunity. Still, it seemed like a lock for continued dominance by McLaren.
Aryton Senna would smash all comers during qualifying taking the pole around the 3.11 mile Autodromo Internacional do Rio de Janeiro with a time of 1:25.302. His time would end up being .870 seconds faster than Riccardo Patrese in the Williams-Renault.
Herbert would simply focus on doing as well as he possibly could. And after qualifying, it seemed what was possible was certainly quite a bit better than what many would have imagined. Driving an evolved B188, Herbert would go out in qualifying and would end up a little more than two-tenths of a second faster than his Benetton teammate Alessandro Nannini. As a result, Johnny would start the race from the fifth row of the grid in a rather impressive 10th place overall. In fact, Herbert would start alongside World Champion Nelson Piquet.
Being that it was the Brazilian Grand Prix and Senna was on the pole for the race, the crowd would be immense for the race. Loud cheers and exuberant yelling could be overheard from the crowd as the cars travelled around for the parade lap before lining up for the start of the race. The engines would come up to a roar as the entire field prepared for the start of the race.
Despite being nearly nine-tenths of a second slower than Senna in qualifying, Patrese would get away from the grid better than Senna and would be side-by-side with the Brazilian heading into the first turn. Herbert's first start in Formula One would not go terribly, but it would not go fantastic as well. Although he would beat his teammate in qualifying, Nannini would get away better than Herbert and would even cut across his bow heading down the straight.
In a matter of yards, the poor start would actually become a blessing as Gerhard Berger, Riccardo Patrese and Aryton Senna went into the right-hand first turn three wide. Something had to give, but neither would. Senna would get squeezed and would lose his front wing, Berger would get turned sideways but would manage to hold onto it. Patrese would make out the best as he would depart with the lead of the race leaving Senna to carefully make his way back to the pits for a new nose.
Williams would run one-two at the end of the first lap. Berger would be out of the race in one of the Ferraris and Herbert would find himself running in 8th place looking to settle in and attack his teammate, and others, ahead of him.
Mansell would take over the lead of the race after Patrese led the first 15 laps of the race. Mansell and Patrese (future teammates with Williams) would battle for the lead of the race over the 7 laps. Then the battle would switch and Mansell and Alain Prost would go at it. Prost, driving the MP4/5, with its Honda V10 engine, was certainly a strong contender, especially in the hands of Prost.
The incredible heat and other mistakes were taking a toll on the field. By the end of 10 of 61 laps, there would be seven cars out of the race out of the twenty-six that originally started. Another car, that of the strongest competitor, Senna, would be two laps down due to issues with the car's nose and would be out of contention for the remainder of the race.
But with all of the shake-up at the early part of the race, the Brazilian Grand Prix would effectively become a two car battle between Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. In the battle between Benetton teammates, Nannini would gain the edge at the start and would lead the way ahead of Herbert throughout the early part of the race. However, as the race wore on, Nannini would find himself unable to break away from the Englishman. In many cases, Herbert would look stronger than the Italian, and this despite having two terribly painful legs and feet.
Animals are the most dangerous when they are wounded. And Herbert would prove this fact over the course of the 190 mile race. His dogged determination would see him actually climb the running order as the race wore on. Many believed he would actually fade over the course of the race, but the exact opposite would be true. He would only get stronger.
The first round of pitstops would see Herbert come in first for Benetton while Nannini carried on for another couple of laps. Despite being ahead when Herbert entered the pits for his stop, when Nannini returned to the circuit after his he would find himself behind Johnny. From that moment on, Herbert knew what he needed to do. And he would do it. Aided by poor pitstops by teams like Arrows and attrition with others, Herbert was not only able to stay in front of his teammate but would also manage to move up the running order.
Still, Herbert could not relax behind the wheel. Nannini would do everything he could to make it clear he was the leader at Benetton as he would go out and set the fastest lap of the race around the 20th lap of the race. Boutsen's early retirement along with Berger, Nelson Piquet and Ivan Capelli would all help Herbert climb up the running order. Heading into the final few laps of the race, Johnny was well inside the top five and was well clear of his Benetton teammate.
Throughout two-thirds of the race the battle would be between Mansell and Prost. Each would take turns leading the race in between the pitstops. As each cycled through their stops it would be Prost that would have the lead late in the race. However, Mansell would apply the pressure and would end up getting by Prost down the long straight giving him the lead throughout the final 14 laps. In fact, in the later stages of the race Prost would come under fire from none other than Mauricio Gugelmin in a Judd-powered March driving for Leyton House Racing.
Heading into the final lap of the race, Mansell was still pulling away in the Ferrari 640. Ultimately, Mansell would cross the line to take the victory nearly eight seconds in front of Prost who would just hold off Gugelmin by a margin of just one and a half seconds.
Following along behind Gugelmin just a little more than a second behind would be a great surprise. Hurting with every press of the brake and gas, Herbert would put together an absolutely gutsy performance to finish the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix in the 4th position. Not only would the result earn Herbert 3 championship points but he would beat his teammate Alessandro Nannini by nearly eight seconds and two positions.
This was the kind of debut many drivers only hope for, especially in Formula One. Considering it was Johnny Herbert with his smashed legs and feet, the result was truly mind-boggling. This was a man that shouldn't have been able to walk ever again, and here he was looking like he had no problems at all. Perhaps all of the hype surrounding the young man from Essex wasn't wrong after all.
One interesting side-note to the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix would be the fact that Herbert's two co-drivers in the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans, the year in which Mazda would win the French enduro classic, would fail to pre-qualify for the race. One of the few times in Formula One history, there would be more cars entered than there would be places on the grid. Therefore, pre-qualifying would have to be used to help dwindle the large field down even further. Two of those that would fail to pre-qualify would be Bertrand Gachot driving for the Moneytron Onyx Team and Volker Weidler driving for Rial. However, when the three of them came together in June of 1991, there would be nothing that would stop them.