Motor racing: Herbert signs on for Stewart

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The Independent Online
By Derick Allsop

JOHNNY HERBERT was given the fresh start he craved yesterday when he joined the Stewart Ford Formula One team in a two-year deal.

The 34-year-old British driver decided there was no future for him at Sauber after three seasons in the Swiss camp. His relations with them have been strained of late, and his form has suffered.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for me," Herbert said. "The team have already made a big impression in Formula One. I believe, with the car improvements planned for 1999 and Ford pushing ahead the engine programme, I have a great chance to help the team to the top of the Formula One tree."

Stewart, too, need new impetus after two years in Grand Prix racing. The team's chairman, Jackie Stewart, said, "As a British team it's very nice for us to have a British driver who has so much experience and has proven that he is a winner."

Ford, anxious for signs of progress from their flagship team, are equally encouraged by the signing. Martin Whitaker, Ford's European director of motor sport, said: "Johnny is a Grand Prix winner and his experience and talent will be valuable assets to the team. Our goal is to return to the front of the Formula One grid."

Herbert has never fulfilled the expectations of his followers and received little credit for his two Grand Prix wins, with Benetton, in 1995. He opened this season with a point in Australia but has not scored since, and in recent Grands Prix has been outpaced by his team-mate, Jean Alesi.

The turning point came at the British Grand Prix, two months ago, when Herbert was involved in a row with Alesi and the team principle, Peter Sauber.

Alesi, who insisted at the time: "It's him or me next season", and Sauber have endeavoured to dismiss that as a heat of the moment incident, but Herbert made up his mind he had to move on. After failing to talk his way into Williams, he looked to Stewart.

His team-mate next season is almost certain to be Rubens Barrichello, despite the Brazilian's attempts to join Williams. His contract at Stewart is for another year and it would cost pounds 2.2m to buy his release.

With Damon Hill due to be confirmed for another year at Jordan, the United Kingdom will again have four drivers in Formula One next season. David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine have already been retained by McLaren and Ferrari respectively.