Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: Brundle breaks through to big time: There is more to home-grown motor racing than Mansell as two of his compatriots set out to realise their potential: Ken Jones on the English driver who is stepping out of the shadows

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The Independent Online
THE experience swirled around in Martin Brundle's mind. On the rostrum after taking third place in the French Grand Prix last week he did not quite know how to behave, what to say. It occurred to him that levity might be out of place, but he could not resist firing off a couple of one-liners.

Brundle had been there before. In Detroit eight years ago he had Tyrrell in second place only for the achievement to be erased by a fuel infringement. 'I'd forgotten what the feeling was like, and everybody seemed so serious,' he said.

The man from Norfolk has taken things seriously enough this year, thrilled by an opportunity to represent Benetton in the Formula One championship, but bedevilled by misfortune while striving to establish parity with Michael Schumacher, his 23-year-old German team-mate who is as quick as they come.

Linking up again with Tom Walkinshaw, his tough mentor in sportscar racing who obtained a controlling interest in the team last year, Brundle brought ability, courage and a gritty resolve to the Benetton colours, the latter quality serving him best when doubts crept in.

Mostly the results of mechanical problems, the front wing knocked off after hitting a bump at 150mph, a water-pump failure, stricken transmission, a sheared bolt.

'Luck is what you make of it,' he said philosophically while preparing for tomorrow's British Grand Prix here, at last attracting the attention his talent deserves.

'Trouble was that every time I took a risk, something went wrong. In Canada, for instance, I really was unlucky. So many things were happening that I began asking questions of myself.'

Through sleepless nights - 'I take the job home with me because you have to give it 100 per cent and if I didn't after getting this chance I'd never forgive myself' - Brundle wondered if he was overdriving, perhaps thinking too much about what Schumacher, the young tyro, was doing, and what people were thinking. It got to him. After all those years driving inferior equipment, would the great chance slip through his fingers? He had worked hard during the winter, and felt the team were coming together nicely, but if it could go wrong it usually did.

Practising at Imola he found himself hurtling through the air after a scrape with Jean Alesi. 'I just didn't know what was going to happen next,' he admitted to a friend. Coming to terms with it all, the frustration and disappointment, he now says: 'When you look at the season I've usually been alongside Michael or not far behind him on the grid. But my strength is in the race, and that wasn't showing in the points.'

Naturally optimistic, drawing on abundant experience, Brundle was less inclined to seek reassurance from his employers than take a positive line. People kept saying he was driving well, that it would come right, but where was the proof? Would he fall victim to Benetton's history of dumping drivers in mid-season, their Napoleonic preference for those who appear to born lucky.

Quick enough, brave and a sound tactician, the man for whom it all began on grass tracks in Norfolk still had to prove himself. Schumacher was in the points, rising fast, in Brundle's mind better at the same age than Ayrton Senna, a great rival from the Formula Three days. 'Michael is seriously fast,' he said. 'He appears fearless, one of the great stars of the future.'

The future for Brundle is inevitably shaped by the remarkable combination of driving prowess and high-technology that suggest another victory procession for Nigel Mansell and Renault-Williams.

'There are two things to aim for,' he said. 'Improved fitness and better qualifying times.' The fitness will come from a rigorous training routine. The times, of course, are partly dependent on Benetton's ability to send out consistently competitive cars. From responses in the pit lane here yesterday, the urgency with which mechanics responded to Brundle's assessments, it was clear that all was not to his satisfaction.

'If the correction can be made I shall be disappointed not get third or fourth on the grid,' he said.

It was in Canada that Brundle first felt like a winner again. He was in second place. The tyres were good. He knew he was quicker than the McLaren. Then the transmission broke. Significantly, he set that disappointment against the realisation that he had come through a cloud. He was no longer thinking like a survivor.

With Mansell quoted at 2-7, the shortest price since odds first were offered about the event in 1961, Brundle will have to show a dramatic improvement on the sixth- best time he achieved in practice yesterday. 'Not one of my best days,' he said. 'I didn't find a very good balance. Sixth is not too bad, but we can go faster - weather permitting.'

From a jaunty step and confident manner you get the impression that Brundle has broken through, entitled now to think himself the equal of all but Mansell and Senna. The disappointment now would be not appearing on the rostrum.

(Photograph omitted)