As Silverstone prepares to host the British Grand Prix for the last time on Sunday, Johnny Herbert tells Graham Caygill about his dramatic victory at the track in 1995 for Benetton The British Grand Prix, the eighth round of the 2009 Formula One World Championship, takes place at Silverstone on Sunday and unless their is a dramatic change in circumstances it will be the last one to be held at the Northamptonshire track.
From next year the race is scheduled to be held at Donington Park, but if the Derbyshire circuit for any reason is unable to host the race, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has already said there is no way the series will be returning to Silverstone and for the first time in the championship's history there won't be a British round. Among the people who will be sad to see the departure of Silverstone if this truly is goodbye is The National's Formula One columnist Johnny Herbert.
The Briton claimed the first of his three grand prix wins there in 1995 and he still has a great affinity for the place. Herbert, 44, said: "I always enjoyed racing there and obviously I had my first grand prix win, which is something that will always say with me and I will never forget. "Hopefully this isn't the end for Silverstone, but if it is then it would be great if it finishes with another home victory, which could well happen with Jenson Button driving so well for Brawn."
Looking back, Herbert's path towards July 16 1995, when he would become a grand prix winner, was not easy, to say the least. His Formula One dreams had almost been wrecked when at the age of 24 he was involved in a horrific accident at Brands Hatch in England during a F3000 race that saw him suffer two badly broken legs. He recovered to race for the Benetton team in Formula One 1989 before being dropped as he struggled to fully recuperate from his injuries.
He returned to the series with Lotus in 1991 after a spell in Japanese F3000 and moved to Ligier in 1994 before he was signed by Benetton for a second time for the final two races of that season and 1995. But the omens going into the 1995 British Grand Prix were certainly not good for Herbert. He had suffered a frustrating year with Benetton-Renault, struggling to get anywhere near his teammate, the world champion Michael Schumacher, with the team's energies largely focused on the German's title defence rather than Herbert's attempts to prove himself in the top echelons of the sport.
He had finished second in Spain, but had only 12 points to his name going to Silverstone, and after collisions at Canada and France had seen him fail to get past the first lap at either race, his prospects of a strong result were not looking good. As he recalls: "I didn't really have massive expectations and was just looking to the race and getting a good result. "It was obviously great to be racing in front of your home crowd and I was just looking to put on a good show and qualifying fifth on the grid had given me some confidence."
His qualifying spot had certainly given hope of challenging for the podium, although his race chances looked slim as he was 1.7secs slower than pole sitter Damon Hill in his Williams-Renault. At the beginning of the race Herbert made a reasonable getaway and was able to hold on to fifth coming out of the first corner at Copse, before leapfrogging Ferrari's Jean Alesi and the second Williams of David Coulthard at the first round of pit-stops to move up to third by mid-distance.
He recalls: "I made a good start and the car felt good. I moved up to third quite quickly after the first round of pit-stops. "I was enjoying the race and it was looking very good for a podium so I was just enjoying the race and looking after the car." Herbert pulled away from Alesi and Coulthard and was looking good for his first podium in front of his home crowd, although he was 45secs behind Schumacher and Hill.
His teammate had got ahead of Hill when the Williams driver had made his second pit-stop on lap 41, and the two were now battling at the front. Hill, desperate to win for the second year in a row in front of his home fans, was pushing Schumacher hard, knowing that his fresh tyres after his pit-stop would give him a brief advantage. Schumacher though was looking secure at the front and it looked as if it was going to be a great day for Benetton with two cars in the top three.
But things dramatically got a lot better for Herbert on lap 45. Hill was close to the tail of Schumacher's Benetton coming out of Bridge, and leaving his braking desperately late he lunged down the inside of Schumacher. The only problem was the German was already turning in and contact was inevitable, leading to both cars spinning off into the gravel and out of the race. The crowd went silent for a few moments as Hill and Schumacher got out of their broken vehicles.
But then a roar went around the circuit from excited spectators, clearly audible over the sounds of the engines, as the realisation came that Herbert was now in the lead and just 14 laps away from a surprise victory. It was also a shock to Herbert himself and he admitted it took a few moments to register that he was actually now the leader of the pack. "To be honest it didn't immediately click that I was leading, even went I went past them both and they were getting out of their cars.
"It was only when I went past the pitwall to start the next lap and I saw my pitboard with P1 on it that it hit me that I was now leading the British Grand Prix." Herbert had little chance to bask in the moment though as he was now under heavy pressure from Coulthard, who had got ahead of Alesi at the second round of pit-stops and had quickly closed up to the Benetton. But just as looked as it looked as if it would be a scrap to the end for both drivers, neither of whom had yet to win a Formula One race at this stage of their respective careers, Herbert was able to relax.
Coulthard had been a little too quick leaving the pitlane at his second stop, breaking the 75mph pitlane speed limit as he had done so, causing the stewards to give him a 10-second stop-go penalty for the offence. Herbert recalls: "It was a help that David had got his penalty as he was giving me a lot of pressure. Ross (Brawn, Benetton's technical director) got on the radio very quickly to let me know the situation and not to fight him.
"I let him go past and then it was a relief just to be able to relax and concentrate on bringing the car home." Coulthard passed Herbert on lap 49 at Stowe, but he was soon in the pits for his penalty, dropping to third as a consequence and putting Herbert back in front. With a 20-second lead he was able to cruise through the closing laps, and after 60 laps Herbert exited the final corner at Luffield and charged down the finishing straight to be a race winner for the first time, proving a popular victor as all of the teams on the pitwall celebrated the success of a man who had to battle through so much to get to the top step of the podium.
"It was just relief to have won my first grand prix. To have done it at home at Silverstone in front of the British fans just made it that more special," he says. "I remember at the time thinking that the moment of winning had made coming back from the accident and everything I'd been through over the years feel so worthwhile, it was just a fantastic feeling to know that I had won a grand prix. "Silverstone has so much history to it and to have won a race there was very satisfying. I was lucky that season as my other race win that year was at Monza [in Italy] which was another track with so much history to it."
So with free practice beginning today for the final meeting, on paper, at Silverstone, Herbert admits he will be sad to see the track go if this is indeed the end of Formula One racing there. "It is a great track and has provided a number of great races over the years. "I know a lot of people are very fond of the place and I just hope that if this indeed the last race for now then they have a decent race on Sunday to finish off in style."