The other man of Benetton

As a new grand prix season dawns, the man who backs up the champion seeks to rise from the shadows Richard Williams meets Johnny Herbert, a driver aiming to emerge from the slipstream
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WHAT'S THE worst job in Formula One? Driving the Benetton with the number 2 on its nose, probably. The best equipment in the field, according to the form book, but the fact that you're driving it makes you Michael Schumacher's team-mate. And while Schumacher is quoted at odds of 4-7 at Ladbrokes to win his second world championship in a row, your presence in an identical car makes you a 25-1 outsider.

What you know for sure, if your name is Johnny Herbert and you are indeed the driver of Benetton No 2, is that Schumacher, less than four years after his first appearance in grand prix racing, already has a reputation for destroying his team- mates. It's just one of the qualities that encourage people to compare the 26-year-old German with the late Ayrton Senna.

A racing driver's first job, it is often said, is to beat his own team- mate: the only man against whom he can be directly compared. After sharing a motor-home with Senna, things weren't quite the same for a bunch of talented drivers: Johnny Cecotto, Elio De Angelis, the Earl of Dumfries, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger and Michael Andretti were among those who suddenly found their talents being assessed from a new and less flattering perspective.

Something similar is happening with Schumacher, whose sheer speed and seemingly impregnable self-confidence have already cast a dark shadow over the aspirations of Andrea De Cesaris, Nelson Piquet, Martin Brundle, J J Lehto and Jos Verstappen. In terms of building a viable career as a grand prix driver, to add your name to that particular list might seem an act of culpable foolhardiness. But that's where John Paul Herbert finds himself today, as he flies to Sao Paulo for the start of the 1995 season with the following statistics next to his name: six years in Formula One, 63 grands prix, no wins, no second places, no thirds, no pole positions. And, last season, not a single championship point.

This is not the way it was supposed to be. Not in the late Eighties, anyway, when Herbert was clearly - as some still believe him to be - the quickest of Britain's active Formula One drivers, and a good bet for the world title. His natural speed had carried him gloriously through the junior categories and into the top level, where he was due to join the Benetton team for the start of the 1989 season. The story of his accident at Brands Hatch at the end of the 1988 season, of the injuries which shortened both his legs by an inch, and of his tortuous comeback, is a familiar one. Five seasons at Lotus ended last autumn in dissatisfaction and recrimination - but whereas Lotus promptly went bankrupt, Herbert moved on first to Ligier and thence, by a stroke of good fortune, to Benetton, Formula One's current class act, for the last two races of the season. The team renewed his contract for the coming season, and now, at 30, he faces the challenge of becoming the first man to partner Schumacher without forfeiting his own identity.

"Well, that's not how I look at it at all," Herbert said last week, talking at the offices of Mark McCormack's International Management Group shortly after returning from a test session at Estoril. "It's not like, `Oh, it's Michael Schumacher, my God, what am I going to do against him?' I know I can do a good job. But I know I've got to work hard at it. That's what I'm trying to focus on. It's not going to be easy. I accept that. If I have a bad day and he blows me away, I'm not going to give up. It's going to be a big hard slog. And it's the same for him. He's trying to defend his world championship. So if I can have some good strong performances against him, maybe push him, then it's going to do us both good."

But are you, on the right day, capable of blowing him away?

"I don't think you can blow away somebody like that. He's beatable, yes. But it's not a question of just getting into the car and beating him. It's three things. One is the driving, one is the physical fitness, and the other is the mechanical side. I think I'm good at first of those, and I've worked hard at second." Herbert has spent the winter on a rigorous training and dietary programme, intended to bring him up to Schumacher's fitness level. "Now I've got to work hard on the third thing. I've got to concentrate on getting the right information for me to use, like he does, like Ayrton always did. That's where the top drivers have an advantage. They do get every bit of information they can."

So how, from a rival's point of view, does Schumacher rate, compared with Senna?

"He does things in a similar way, as far as his dedication is concerned. But they are different. I always looked up to Ayrton. For me, first it was Gilles Villeneuve, for the way he kept going even when everything was hanging off the car, always giving 110 per cent. Ayrton was from a similar mould, but he probably got more from the car - and that's the way Michael is, which has helped me, because I know that I've got to work at it like that."

In Formula One, knowledge is speed. But Schumacher, like Senna, also benefits from an unusually high level of self-confidence.

"That's what I've got to build up, because I was on such a low last year. But I want to take it gradually. I'm not going in there saying, `I'm going to blow him away.' I'm going to get in there, learn how the team works and how the car works, and then try to build on that. And eventually get up there and do some good races with him."

The sceptics warn that Schumacher will get the team's best equipment, and that Herbert is there merely as a reliable back-up man to score the extra points that will please Renault by carrying the team to the constructors' championship - which, thanks to the failure of Lehto and Verstappen to support Schumacher, they conceded to Williams last season. Are there orders to that effect?

"No, there aren't at the moment, and there's nothing in my contract that says anything about that. If it comes to the point that either of us have a chance of the championship, then obviously that would change. You have to be realistic."

So far, Herbert's experience of life at Benetton has done nothing to discourage realism. His first test, at Barcelona last autumn, saw him turning in lap times within half a second of Schumacher's. In practice for the next race, at Suzuka, he qualified third, with his team leader in pole position, and might have finished on the podium had he not spun off in a cloudburst. But at Adelaide his performance was much less impressive: he qualified seventh, spun on the opening lap, and retired with a seized gearbox. In tests with the new car over the past few weeks, he has been between one and two seconds a lap slower than the German: a thought to dampen the blithe optimism with which racing drivers approach a new season.

"Well, I haven't really had a proper go at it," he said. "It's been wet, and I haven't done any proper mileage. I've got to look at the engineering side, work out what the car is doing and and then take that information and put it on the car. That's what I've got to do, given that we've had all these gremlins."

By which he meant the problems experienced during testing with the team's new engine and gearbox - problems that have given fresh heart to Benetton's rivals, who feared that Schumacher and the Renault-engined B195 would pick up where he and the Ford-powered B194 left off last year. Unsurprisingly, given the degree of secrecy within Formula One, not to mention the implications of his status as the junior partner, Herbert would not be more specific about the nature or extent of these gremlins.

"Gearbox? Not really. Engine? Not exactly. Nothing really major, anyway . . . and even with having to find out about the new engine, I think we've got the edge."

In testing at Estoril over the past fortnight, the leaders of the two Renault-powered teams swapped fastest times. Herbert predicts that although the new regulations, intended to promote safety by reducing speed, will make the cars slightly more pleasant to drive, they will not significantly reduce the lap times, or do much to alter the natural order of the teams. "It's going to be much like last year," he said. "Obviously Williams are well prepared. The McLarens aren't looking good at the moment. I haven't seen much of Ferrari. They were out in Estoril, then Berger had a big crash and they went home to test. The Jordan doesn't look too bad. With the Peugeot engine and a bigger budget, it'll probably go better. The Tyrrell was looking OK. The Saubers didn't start very well, but they're supposed to have gone quicker. Other than that, it'll be the normal lot. But even if the same teams are at the front, I think the racing will be closer this year. We'll find out in Brazil."