Brundle's drive on wild side

Derick Allsop watches a veteran of the Formula One circuit warm up for the forthcoming RAC Rally
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The Independent Online
When you have competed in 157 grands prix, won the world sportscar championship and Le Mans, you are entitled to believe you know pretty well all there is to know about driving, and yet there was Martin Brundle, sitting attentively behind the wheel as the instructor delivered his lesson.

But then the Network Q RAC Rally demands respect, and for all Brundle's experience on the track, he is acutely conscious he is about to enter an entirely different competitive arena, a labyrinth of tight, slippery, dark forest tracks.

The realisation struck him moments after putting down the phone and receiving the call that invited him to fulfil one of those ambitions that most just fantasise over. A summer run with Colin McRae had sharpened his appetite and here was the opportunity to drive a Group A Ford Escort Cosworth in the biggest event on the British rallying calendar.

"It was something I'd always wanted to do," the 37-year-old Brundle said. "As the Formula One season had ended early I had the time. We were planning a holiday in Mauritius but my wife Liz knew how much this meant to me and we called off the holiday. Then it suddenly began to dawn on me what I'd let myself in for. Not just a three-day event, but a two or three- week commitment. And I'd got to learn how to drive a rally car!"

The learning began yesterday, at Silverstone Rally Centre, under the tutelage of that most respected sage, Roger Clark, twice winner of the RAC in the Seventies. Brundle was guided through the basic principles of the left-hand-drive car, let loose on the rally stage, coaxed again, then let loose again.

He will have a session at another driving centre in Yorkshire on Thursday, test in fabled Kielder on Friday and then set off on his recce before embarking on the three-day rally from Chester on Saturday week. By that point, he hopes to have as much faith in his navigator, Roger Freeman, as in the knowledge imparted by Clark.

"I'm going to be relying so heavily on my co-driver," Brundle said. "He's given me a book of pace notes and it looks Chinese to me. As with most things, the more you get into it, the more you discover there is more to it than you realised. What intimidates me is that I won't be able to do it instinctively, I'm going to be very mechanical.

"It's going to be very difficult to go flat out, right over the crest when I'm told to by my co-driver. It's not like a grand prix circuit, where I know every corner. But I've got to do it, haven't I?

"And we go straight into one of the toughest stages in the world. My biggest fear is going off on the first stage and having people say, 'What do you expect of a Formula One driver?' I don't want to let down Formula One."

Brundle soon became acquainted with some of the essential differences between Formula One and rallying. "I normally have 14 men to change my wheels but I know I could have to do that for myself on a foggy, muddy track somewhere. You've even got to do up your own seatbelts here. It's a culture shock.

"But I have to say I've sensed no resentment from the regular rally people. In fact, I've had lots of offers of help from guys like Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen. They are genuinely pleased to see me. Not that Juha is expecting me to breeze past him in the forests. Even if I did, I honestly believe he would help me."

Sainz and McRae are among the notable absentees this year, the RAC having taken its turn to be excluded from the world championship. The test, however, remains daunting enough for the new boy. "It's still the RAC and if I get to the end I'll be elated," he said. "A bit like Le Mans. Also like Le Mans, I'm sure there will be times when I'll be thinking, 'What am I doing here?' But if I can finish in the top 20, that would be fantastic."

Clark, who also instructed Jim Clark and Graham Hill, was suitably impressed with his latest pupil from Formula One. "He's got to remember there can be logs and rocks on these tracks, but he's a natural driver. Jimmy was the most natural driver and Martin's not far behind."

This sabbatical has enabled Brundle to turn his mind from fretting about his future in Formula One. He fears he will lose his place at Jordan-Peugeot to Jean Alesi, who is thought to be facing the axe at Benetton-Renault. "I can't understand why they would want to pay Alesi a lot of money instead of me," Brundle said. "But I've got a few things up my sleeve."