MOTORING / Me & My Motor: Vaulting into pole position: Daley Thompson is racing again - only now he's in the driving seat. Matthew Gwyther reports

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THE LAST most of us saw of Daley Thompson was a year ago, when he ripped his right hamstring half-way down a 100m sprint during his attempt to qualify for the Barcelona Olympics. There ended the career of probably the greatest all-round athlete ever: he set four decathlon world records, won two Olympic titles, one World Championship, two European titles and three Commonwealth Games titles. 'It's like a car,' he said of his injury, after he had limped off the Crystal Palace track. 'There was a mechanical failure and that was it.'

It is hardly surprising Thompson chose that simile; he has been car-crazy for years. Throughout his athletic career, sponsorship deals with car-hire companies provided him with a new model every month, and Thompson collected his own classic cars. Now his amateur passion has become his new business. Horrified at the prospect of giving up competitive sport, he has exchanged his spikes for a crash helmet. Tomorrow he can be seen at the Castle Combe circuit near Bath in the latest round of the National Saloon Car Cup.

Thompson, now 34, drives for the Peugeot team, which means lots more free samples. As a result, the gravel apron of his huge riverside house in west London resembles a Peugeot dealer's forecourt. The car that Thompson uses most is the manufacturer's current flagship - the 605 24-valve SVE. It is a slightly anonymous executive Euro-cruiser that you are probably more likely to see whisking members of the French cabinet at high speed around Paris. The model is not conspicuous in Britain, where Peugeot has tended to fare better in the small and medium-sized car market. Styled by the Italian house Pininfarina, the 3.0-litre V6 engine gives 200bhp and will take Thompson to a top speed of 145mph - if he can find somewhere legal to test it.

Even if the 605 is not really him, Thompson seems fairly happy with it and did not have to fork out the pounds 27,000 it would cost to buy one. There is plenty of room inside, lots of leather and dozens of switches to fiddle with on the dashboard. 'I'm surprised you don't see more of them on the road,' he says. 'It's got all the bits and pieces and it's very comfortable . . . The worst thing is the gearbox, which isn't as smooth as it could be.'

As we head off for a spin, Thompson goes straight past a No Entry sign and the wrong way down a one-way street. 'The easiest way to get out,' he grins. He is a fairly assertive driver: pushing on, changing lanes, bobbing and weaving. Nothing to make a passenger nervous, though. He seems well in control.

'Ask me what are my two worst driving habits]' he demands.

'OK, go on.'

'Well, for one thing I don't show enough courtesy to other drivers. Second, I always leave five minutes late. I'm always hurrying along. I'm definitely trying to cure the second.'

Hurrying was never easy in his first car, a Triumph Herald - 'I bought it for pounds 50 before I'd even passed my test. It ran and had an MOT but it was more rust than metal. Sold it for pounds 75, though.' Next came an Alfasud, a popular model for impecunious young men in a hurry during the Seventies and Eighties. Then he became successful. Once he had the financial means to accumulate, the cars came thick and fast. 'I used to go out with my friend Julius and buy them all,' he recalls. Two Maseratis, a Bora and a Khamsin: 'You had to be very careful with that baby (the Khamsin). Just look at the brakes and it'd do an emergency stop. They looked the business, though.' A couple of Ferraris: 'Every time you took them out, they needed servicing.'

His favourite, however, was German, the Porsche 959, one of the meanest machines ever to tread tarmac. It was a 197mph, Kevlar-coated beast with a state-of-the-art suspension management system that welded it to the road. The list price for the 959 was pounds 180,000, but in the heady, speculative days of 1987-88, some went for double that in Britain. With Porsche euphoria at its height, in Japan a 959 changed hands for dollars 1m.

Thompson was immediately tempted when the car was launched, and was one of the few amateur athletes with pockets deep enough to do more than just gaze from the pavement. 'I was at a big athletics meeting in Stuttgart, which is where Porsche is based. So I went along to see if I could buy one. They said provided I did well in the competition, they'd see me all right. I won. They let me buy one.' Those were the days when Porsche chose who it would sell to.

All these fancy machines have now gone. 'I had to get more practical,' says Thompson, 'so I sold them all to get a bigger house. But I'll start collecting again when I get some spare money.' In the meantime, his other car is also a Peugeot. It's the 106 he drives on the race track. There are five classes in the championship and, as a beginner, Thompson competes in the smallest - Class E. All classes start on the same grid, however. For Thompson, this means the unusual experience of not having a clear track in front of him. Indeed, he is normally lapped by the bigger racers. Thompson is already pushing to be allowed into a more powerful car next season, so that he will not have to suffer this indignity.

Racing is not just another way of passing the time for retired sporting stars - like pro-celebrity golf or opening supermarkets. 'I wouldn't do it if there were other celebrities involved,' he says. 'I'm trying to tell everyone I'm a good driver.' He remains ferociously competitive. (Of Thompson's will to win, even his friend Sebastian Coe once said: 'He has a Stalinist attitude. It wasn't enough to beat somebody; you had to destroy them, destroy their system, their reasoning, their belief.')

Already Thompson has had two sizeable spills. At Silverstone he hit a barrier at 80mph, and at Donington he rolled the car. 'My mechanics tell me that if you're not crashing, then you're not trying hard enough,' he says. 'Crashes happen in slow motion. You think: 'I'm going to hit it any second . . . NOW,' - and you smash. Then you check the parts of your body and make sure they are OK.'

Thompson has yet to win a race, however, being normally beaten into third place by Suzuki Swifts. 'If Daley has a problem,' says his racing team manager, Mick Lindford, 'it's that he is over-enthusiastic.'

One suspects that, much as he enjoys applying himself to racing cars, nothing can match the experience of what is now history. He admits it - 'I enjoy acquiring the skills of motor racing. It's exhilarating, but nowhere near as exhilarating as athletics used to be. I guess athletics mattered a lot more, and what I liked most was winning.'-

(Photographs omitted)