Johnny Herbert: The Inspiring Superhuman F1 Comeback Driver

Johnny Herbert in the Benetton at Rio in 1989.
Herbert at Rio de Janeiro for his first race in 1989. Copyright: Rex features Ltd 2012/All Over Press

Johnny Herbert is the 56 year old ex-F1 driver, now Sky F1 pundit, from Brentwood in Essex, UK. He’s a popular bloke in the paddock thanks to his sense of humour and personable nature.

His F1 career doesn’t stand out much. Three wins. 161 race starts.

But behind those stats there’s an often forgotten story of incredible resilience and recovery on the scale of Niki Lauda, which we’ve wanted to document for some time.

The Story of Johnny Herbert’s F1 Career

Born in 1964, Herbert was racing from an early age and had remarkable success in lower formulas.

He blitzed the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 1985, which got the attention of F3 team owner Eddie Jordan.

The pair teamed up in 1987 and Herbert effortlessly won the British Formula 3 title. F1 teams took note and he began having preliminary tests.

He was so blindingly fast, at one test F1 legend Ayrton Senna stopped what he was doing to take note of the young Herbert’s times.

The young Brit was self-effacing… and still is to this day!

A happy-go-lucky genius with a sunny personality and alarming natural talent (we also think he looks at bit like Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor).

F1 wins and world titles loomed on the horizon. And given what he achieved in F1 despite what happened to him, it seems they would have been inevitable.

Racing in Formula 3000 in 1988, on 31st August he had a life-changing accident at Brands Hatch. Gregor Foitek hit the back of his car, causing him to spear violently into a concrete barrier—a shocking pile-up followed.

Now, we don’t normally like flagging up accidents in motorsport as it’s usually gratuitous.

But in this instance we feel it highlights just the staggering extent of what Herbert went through in the years ahead.

Caution with the below—viewer discretion is advised.

Most crashes in motorsport aren’t usually serious. But sometimes, as with Romain Grosjean‘s accident in November 2020, the enormity of an incident sends shockwaves through the sport.

In the crash, Herbert’s legs were shattered and his feet pulverised. Rushed to hospital, the main concern was whether he’d have his feet amputated and if he’d ever walk again.

Here’s a recollection of his crash from the man himself.

For years afterwards, he noted bits of grass and mud would naturally come out of his ankles and skin as his body exfoliated.

Despite his devastating injuries, he was able to rehabilitate. Like most racing drivers, his immediate reaction was to get back racing again as soon as possible.

It’s just something you either have or you don’t. A sort of fighter pilot mentality and fearlessness.

Almost beyond belief, he was on the F1 grid for the first race of the 1989 season in March.

Benetton picked him up as their No.2 driver, but he outqualified the more experienced Alessandro Nannini on his debut (on a side note—the latter lost an arm in a helicopter crash in 1990, ending his career).

Herbert started 10th at the Rio de Janeiro track Jacarepaguá in Brazil. The same circuit where, months earlier in testing for the AGS team, Philippe Streiff crashed and was paralysed.

The risks were more than obvious. Herbert raced anyway.

To stress here, he’d recovered to some extent but still couldn’t walk properly. Footage and pictures from the time show Herbert riding around the F1 paddock on a bike. Not for fun—he just couldn’t walk.

The result of this is he’s since classed himself as F1’s first disabled driver.

To get to his car on the grid, his mechanics had to carry the 24 year old to his Benetton. There’s footage of him with his crutches at the 55 second mark below.

In the dramatic race, he promptly finished in 4th place—an incredible achievement and debut.

Unfortunately, the nature of his accident meant he didn’t have the physical strength to manage the incredible braking forces in F1 on a long-term basis.

For those who think F1 is “just driving” and anyone could do it, what’s involved with braking is as follows:

  • An F1 car can brake at 322km/h for 1.6 seconds to slow to 148k/mh.
  • This takes only 48 metres.
  • That leads to 4.7g deceleration and a force on the brake pedal of 161kg.
  • This means F1 drivers have to apply 350 lbs of pressure with one foot when braking through a whole race. And that’s pretty much every single time they brake.

Make no mistake, F1 drivers are extreme athletes at the absolute peak of human endeavour.

For Herbert back in March 1989, the muscles in his feet and ankles had wasted away. As the season went on, completing full race distances became increasingly difficult and a distraught Herbert eventually failed to even qualify.

This also meant, unfortunately, Benetton had to remove him from his contract mid-1989.

What was obvious from that point is Herbert couldn’t hope for any sort of normal F1 career. He had to totally adapt his style of driving to accommodate for his injuries, which meant he was never as good as before his crash.

It took several years to recover to the point he could race in F1 competitively again, during which time he won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1991.

This opened up opportunities in F1 again and he was snapped up by the struggling Lotus team.

He managed some strong results in 1993 (several 4ths) and that was enough to convince Benetton to give him another go in 1995.

At the time, it was the second best team on the grid. But the problem was he was teammate to one Michael Schumacher. And the car was very much built around the German legend.

Despite that, Herbert won two races in 1995. Although ended the season barely on speaking terms with the notoriously difficult team manager Flavio Briatore.

From 1996-2000 he drove for midfield teams, gaining a reputation as an often standout midfield driver. Snatching podiums whenever he could. And even taking a shock third win at the Nurburgring in 1999.

But the legacy of his accident remained—even with his final win, he admitted he’d struggle with pain and immobility from his feet and ankles in the later stages of a race.

In 2000 he announced it would be his final year. But one of the big ironies of his F1 career came in the final race at Malaysia in October 2000.

After a major suspension failure, he crashed violently and damaged his legs.

So as at the start of his F1 career, when he was carried to his car, 11 years later marshals carried him from it.

Throughout all of his physical struggles, Herbert’s sense of humour and positive attitude have been infectious and humbling.

Never a hint of self-pity. He just got on with it and did what he could with the way things developed. He took it all in his stride.

Even to this day where, apparently, he can’t run.

As he’s acknowledged, he could have won world titles and many more races but for his accident. Yet he still enjoyed a competitive F1 career all the same—a better outcome than most drivers can expect. Most don’t even make it to F1.

The pictures of him in Brazil 1989 on his bicycle, in the paddock of Rio de Janeiro, show him as a grinning and cheeky young upstart.

Almost as if the accident hadn’t happened at all.

And you can see him now on Sky Sports presenting, or with his close friend and fellow driver Damon Hill (who he’s just completed a book with), and you’d be forgiven for not knowing his history.

Well, we want to read that book. And we also put this post together to celebrate the man and his positivity.

Herbert’s story is often forgotten. Partly because he doesn’t go around discussing it at random and only talks about his issues when prompted by others.

He even had current F1 driver Fernando Alonso dismiss him as “just a commentator” after his supposed failed racing career.

This is why it’s always important to stop and think for a second before judging. As you don’t always know what someone has been through.

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