Brundle fuels old passion

Derick Allsop meets the commentator back on track for the Le Mans 24-hour
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The Independent Online
Martin Brundle's return to Le Mans has triggered tragic and traumatic reminders that indulging a love affair in racing can come at a heavy price. The former grand prix driver, seemingly destined to become a distinguished television commentator, lines up in the 24-hour race tomorrow for the first time since his victory at the sports car classic in 1990.

The romance never faded but memories of the perils did - until he was back at La Sarthe last month for pre-qualifying. Brundle said: "It was quite a shock when I went round the circuit after seven years and, having been around sanitised Formula One circuits, to suddenly remember how fast and how dangerous the place is.

"I was intimidated to start with, and then a 21-year-old lad [Sebastien Enjolras of France] was killed in flames. It reminds you this is a man's race. A terrifying race."

It always was and the purists, many of them disenchanted with modern grand prix racing, will tell you it must remain so. The purist in Brundle came to terms with the dangers to the extent that he hustled his Nissan around the 8.43-mile circuit substantially faster than any other driver. "It thrills me to drive quickly and get the best out of a car," he said. "I am doing Le Mans because I need to drive. I've been a racing driver for 25 consecutive years. I just can't give that up. And fun races wouldn't satisfy me. I am a competitive person and I'm seriously quick at the moment."

Question marks about Brundle's pace effectively led to his switch this season from the Jordan-Peugeot cockpit to the ITV commentary box. As well as the Le Mans programme, Brundle has occupied his time through taking an advisory and testing role with TWR Arrows, involvement with Silverstone and thriving car dealerships.

But relinquishing his Formula One seat has been a painful experience. "I was, to a certain extent, railroaded into the TV job," he said. "In hindsight I should have taken the Jordan drive whatever the financial deal was. But it was a trigger point to say `if that's the best you can get, then stop'.

"I am hurting a bit, though. When I watch the cars and drivers out on the track now I honestly believe I am a better driver than half the field. Maybe that means I stopped too soon; maybe it means I stopped at just the right time. I need to get over that urge for Formula One, I'm afraid. I am 38. How do I get back from here? The average age of a Formula One driver at the moment must be about 25.

"I've surprised myself with the TV because all I'd done was two or three guest appearances. But I find it very easy. I'm incredibly relaxed about it. I am fresh out of the cockpit and all I'm saying is what I'm seeing, and what I'm seeing is what I know.

"So many people have come up to me and said they'd been watching Formula One for years and thought they knew about it, but having listened to me they understand it so much better. That is the ultimate compliment.

"It's just that I have serious concerns my Formula One career was 12 years' apprenticeship for my TV career. It's very annoying but I think I've got more kudos from the little TV work I've done than from all my time racing grand prix cars.''

Brundle is particularly proud of his maiden television interview, a one-to-one with Michael Schumacher. The German opened up with an insight into his braking and cornering techniques. What Brundle does not know is that Schumacher was unaware it was his former team-mate's debut as an interviewer and he is kicking himself for missing out on a heaven-sent opportunity to wind him up.

This weekend Brundle hands over the microphone to another ex-partner and now IndyCar driver, Mark Blundell, for the Canadian Grand Prix, while he heads TWR Nissan's three-car, nine-driver assault on Le Mans.

Brundle said: "If we finish the race untroubled, I think we can win it. The reality is the programme has been so short I think reliability will bite us. But there's no point in compromising your racing strategy just to finish. If you want to win Le Mans, you've got to drive flat out from start to finish. Somebody will, and win it. Nobody ever remembers who finished second. Who cares?

"Also, to win Le Mans you've got to beat Porsche. I think the McLarens will be fast, but I suspect they will be a bit fragile, as we are," he added. "One of the sports prototypes should win but they don't have the works effort behind them. I would put my money on a works GT1 Porsche."