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How heroic Herbert beat the F1 pain barrier in Rio debut

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How heroic Herbert beat the F1 pain barrier in Rio debut
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Mar 27, 2020, 6:57 PM

Making your Formula 1 debut is hard enough, but when Johnny Herbert began his grand prix career – which would go on to produce 161 starts, three victories and seven podiums – his whole future in the sport hung in the balance.

Following his horrific FIA Formula 3000 crash at Brands Hatch in 1988, Herbert battled back to be fit enough to make his F1 debut just seven months later. After multiple surgeries on his feet and ankles to ward off the threat of amputation, and months of rehabilitation and physiotherapy, Herbert arrived in Brazil in 1989 ready to start the season with the Benetton team.

His long-time mentor Peter Collins was running the squad – which changed its name from Toleman at the start of the 1986 season – at the time, but Flavio Briatore was just beginning to get his feet under the table via the upper management of the Benetton clothing empire. And he wasn’t convinced Herbert was fit for the job.

“Flavio, who had just come on to the scene at that time, was a bit concerned that I wasn’t able to do it,” says Herbert, who regaled the full story in an interview at this year’s Autosport International Show. “Suddenly, during a pre-season test, which wasn’t in the program, I was asked to do a race distance.

“They filled it up with fuel and off I went. There was nobody on the pitwall, they all disappeared back to hospitality, cos they’d all had a bet that I’d only last about 10 laps. An hour and a half later, I ran out of fuel on the track!

“That was proof, although when I got to Rio for the race itself, I had a meeting with [team owner] Luciano Benetton, Peter and Flavio, and that was to decide – they asked ‘can you do this? Can you drive this car?’ And I said, ‘yeah, yeah, I proved it when I drove that race distance.’ And they couldn’t really come back at me.

“I remember Emanuele Pirro was waiting at Rome airport, ready to be shipped out just in case. But then I outqualified [teammate] Alessandro Nannini in qualifying, and did the race.”

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Photo by: Motorsport Images

On the outside, Herbert was his usually chirpy self, but on the inside he was still hurting badly from his injuries: “I’d been to Austria to do some damn painful stuff to get me into shape. Of course, I still wasn’t normal, and I had a little red bicycle I used to ride around the paddock on. I couldn’t really brake particularly hard, even with my right foot.

“I also had to adapt for Rio, because there was a particular bump at Turn 8, before the left-hander on to the big straight. And it was a chasm of a bump! My left foot was still very sensitive, and the ankle itself was the size of a melon. When I hit the bump, it knocked on the side and it hurt like hell.

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“As the weekend went on, I realised I could only really do it if I went through the pain threshold somehow. So I learned that if I just let it flop in the bottom of the monocoque, when it hit the bump, it thudded on the side.

“It hurt like hell, and I was screaming in the car. But then it never hurt again for the rest of the laps I was doing. I was over the pain threshold, that’s how I got around it. So, before the race, I did it on the installation lap.”

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Herbert qualified 10th, 2.3s off Ayrton Senna’s pole-winning McLaren, but a quarter-second clear of teammate Nannini – and it was no fluke, having outpaced the Italian on both Friday and Saturday. Now all he had to do was run a clean 61-lap race, with some still doubting whether he’d go the distance in the Rio heat.

“In the race itself, my consistency was very good and it went very well,” he says. “As well as me not being expected to finish, neither was Nigel Mansell in the paddleshift Ferrari. He ended up winning the race, which was unbelievable. Alain [Prost, McLaren] had a clutch problem, so he couldn’t do his final [planned] pitstop, and then it was only Mauricio Gugelmin in the March who was ahead of me.

“On what I thought was the last lap, I was on the gearbox of Gugelmin, who had Alain right in front of him. I was getting myself all prepared, and thought ‘this is my chance to be on the podium in my first grand prix’. I was all ready for it, my pit board said one lap to go… and the chequered flag came out! My crew was so excited about how well I was doing, they’d forgotten to change the board on one of the laps!”

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Johnny Herbert, Benetton B188

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Herbert finished fourth, 1.1s behind Gugelmin, and only 10.4s behind winner Mansell. And, significantly, eight seconds clear of sixth-placed Nannini. Although he’d just missed out on the podium, it cemented Herbert’s place in the team – at least until the middle of the season. Following a disastrous qualifying session in Canada, in which he failed to make the starting grid, he was dropped from the race seat.

“What’s amazing to me is nobody forgets that drive, even today people remember it,” he says of Rio. “It honestly saved my career. I could’ve done two years in rehab, raced in Japan, got myself together, but if I’d gone away and come back, things move on so quickly, Jean Alesi came along, Michael Schumacher – all this new blood. I would’ve been seen as damaged goods.

“Fourth position in that race saved my career – it gave me the wow factor of, ‘How the hell did this guy do that?’”

After stints with Tyrrell, Lotus and Ligier, he returned to Benetton years later and claimed two wins in 1995 before moving on to Sauber. He took his final win at Stewart GP in 1999, ending his F1 career with the re-branded Jaguar a year later.

Johnny Herbert runs to help Takao Wada

Johnny Herbert runs to help Takao Wada

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Abnormally brave

And if Herbert’s comeback from injury wasn’t heroic enough, it was an incident in a 500km Japanese Sports-Prototype event at Fuji in 1991 – the same year he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Mazda – that marked him out as a true paragon of the sport.

Takao Wada’s pink Nissan backflipped at the end of the main straight at around 200mph. As it crashed back to earth and somersaulted, the car exploded into a fireball.

Wada’s on-board camera captured the whole incident and, as he struggled to free himself amid the flames in the cockpit, Herbert screeched his Mazda to a halt and did something he hadn’t done since his Brands shunt – he ran.

“As I drove towards Turn 1, I saw his car upside down and totally engulfed in flames,” he recalls. “I could see that he hadn’t got out, and no-one else was stopping, but I thought, ‘I’d better give this guy some bloody help!’ I figured I’d get there quicker than the marshals so I ran over.”

Amazingly, despite the violence of the crash, Wada was largely unhurt and had managed to free himself. He sprang out of the cockpit just as Herbert arrived, selflessly running straight towards the inferno.

“When you see something like that, my instinct told me to stop and help,” says Herbert. “A lot of other drivers obviously didn’t – and perhaps that’s because they couldn’t face what they might find. I don’t have a problem with that. I’d been through my shunt, and that’s probably why I did what I did.”

As Wada ran away as far from his burning car as he could before collapsing, Herbert ran back to his car, strapped himself in, and got back into the race.

What a hero! Herbert deservedly earned the Sportsman Award at that year’s prestigious Autosport Awards.

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Series Formula 1
Author Charles Bradley