Then came victory at Le Mans and a genuine chance in Formula One with Lotus-Ford; and now, in his first full season at this level, the world is beginning to take note.
Peter Collins, the managing director of Lotus and the man who gambled his reputation on Herbert by signing him for Benetton six weeks after a huge accident in 1988, is entitled to a self-satisfied smile. 'People are now recognising Johnny's talent and talking about his potential,' he said. 'The fact is that there was never any doubt about Johnny's ability. In my mind he's unquestionably world champion material.'
There were, though, doubts about his fitness. That crash, in a Formula 3000 race at Brands Hatch, smashed his feet and, as he admitted the following season, caused him severe problems braking. He lasted barely half a season before Benetton 'rested' him. This season they talk not so much about his feet as his future and the second coming of Lotus.
'I am lucky that Peter Collins had faith in me and gave me another chance,' the 28-year-old Herbert said. 'I never had any fears about my fitness and at Lotus I've been able to start my career properly. I've been in and out of Formula One and never really felt a part of it. Now I do. We've scored a few points this season and we're aiming to score consistently in the second half of the season. We have the team, the car and now we're getting the sponsorship.'
Herbert is also getting healthy in-house competition from his Finnish partner, Mika Hakkinen. 'The good thing is that I have a good yardstick in Mika. He's quick and if I am quicker I know I'm doing the job. We push each other but we genuinely get on. That's the thing about Lotus. We're all pulling together. We'll have a laugh and a joke and yet when it comes to the business we're serious. I've always felt I could eventually be world champion and now I feel I'm at last going in that direction.'