Motor Racing / Brazilian Grand Prix: Brundle gamble pays dividends

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TEN YEARS ago, Martin Brundle made his grand prix debut for Ken Tyrrell, at the Brazilian Grand Prix. In an underpowered car, he finished fifth, scoring points at the first try.

A decade later, that promise has yet to yield a grand prix victory. There have been world championships in sportscar racing and victory at Le Mans with Jaguar, but real success in Formula One has been frustratingly elusive.

The personal hunger for victory drives him on, and set him on the winter gamble to hold out for the McLaren drive. By any standards, it has not been a situation for the faint- hearted. All along, Alain Prost was the favourite for the seat, widely regarded as one of the best in racing. Even now, with the world champion finally gone, another Frenchman, Philippe Alliot, lurks as the engine supplier Peugeot's favourite.

Brundle is no stranger to gambling, and observes the political machinations with a hard-bitten cynicism. Twice in his career, he has turned his back voluntarily on Formula One, and each time managed to come back again on his own terms. The McLaren opportunity is the product of the greatest gamble of his career, bolstered by the streak of bloodymindedness that saw him beat Ayrton Senna at times during their Formula Three season in 1983. The perception that he cannot repeat such feats rankles with him.

'Martin is a very capable driver. Maybe not the fastest, but certainly fast enough to get the job done in the right equipment,' said Tom Walkinshaw, for whom Brundle drove Jaguar sportscars and the Benetton. 'Qualifying is a struggle for him, but put him in a race and you know what you're going to get. He's consistent, and you know he'll bring the car home in the points. He's a good racer.'

Brundle, with all his worldliness, wore his rose tints only briefly on Friday. 'I sat in the car here yesterday, and had to pinch myself to convince myself it's true,' he admitted. But even without the spectre of Alliot, he is well aware of the pressure to perform. Despite problems with the McLaren's throttle, which sent him off the track at high speed on both days of qualifying, he remained sanguine. 'I'm relaxed and I'm confident, although I can tell you it's hairy going off course at the speed we're doing. We're braking so late that there's no margin left if things go wrong.'

Secretly elated though he may be with his drive, the quiet Briton knows full well that the way he performs this weekend will be crucial to this final chance to fulfil the high expectations he has of himself.