Motor Racing: Brundle's chance to satisfy burning desire

A Formula One veteran must curb his instincts in the Rally of Great Britain, starting Sunday.
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The Independent Online
MARTIN BRUNDLE'S delivery was as candid and concise as his acclaimed ITV commentary: "If I drive the car to my limit I will crash." Then he paused for a moment and sniggered: "It's lunacy really."

Enthusiasts of all ages, calibre and aspiration compete in the Network Q Rally of Great Britain, and Brundle rightly considers himself privileged to have been given the opportunity to drive a pukka works Toyota Corolla, alongside world championship regulars Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol, for the event starting on Sunday.

Toyota are not exactly philanthropists, of course. They and their fellow sponsors calculate the publicity spin-off from entering the former grand prix driver turned television celebrity should more than compensate them for their pounds 100,000 investment.

However, behind the hard-nosed business element - and there are few harder- nosed businessmen than Brundle - rages an amateur's naked desire to tackle one of sport's most enduring challenges, and this time to conquer it.

Three years ago Brundle had his first venture into the forests and survived until the final morning, when his car slid into a culvert and caught fire. He emerged unhurt and evidently undeterred. He returns a little better prepared and with a different perspective, but also with characteristic instincts he knows he has to rein in.

"Fortunately I'm coming into it this year as a commentator, not a grand prix driver," he said. "Last time I'd no idea my grand prix career was over, which it proved to be. I wanted to do spectacularly well. I was actually second fastest on one stage, so I don't have a problem with speed in a rally car.

"But I know I've got to drive with a margin, or the chances are I'll crash again. The top guys in rallying are absolutely on the ragged edge. I've got to come back from that and accept I don't have their experience.

"I've got to hope my competitive nature and my ego allow me to step back and accept I'm going to be slower than they are and enjoy the rally. And finish.

"I'd be thrilled with a top 30 finish and a really special performance from me would be top 20. But if I get to the end in one piece and I've enjoyed it I'll be happy."

He has been given advice by Sainz, practised and reccied and has a co- driving doyen in Arne Hertz, the 61-year-old Swede with 18 world championship victories, four on the British event, to his credit. And yet out on the stages Brundle will be the man at the controls, confronted with the idiosyncrasies of a car and environment very different from his former tools and workplace.

"My instincts are from being a racing driver for 27 years," said Brundle, a veteran of 158 grands prix, and winner of Le Mans and the world sportscar championship.

"In a Formula One car sideways equals slow and dangerous, in a rally car sideways equals fast and safe. If a car starts to slide you correct the slide and adjust the throttle. They turn in and make it slide more.

"There are fewer pitfalls driving a Formula One car. If you make a mistake you run wide, you are in the gravel trap or the wall. In a rally car every corner is a potential danger. In Formula One there are certain corners where you hold your breath. It's every corner on a rally."

That insight has given Brundle a healthy appreciation of rally drivers, although he does not subscribe to the theory that they are more inherently gifted than their racing counterparts.

"No way," Brundle says firmly. "Or vice versa. If you are a world class driver you can drive anything. I'm not coming along thinking I'll have a go at rallying because it's a lark. I've got a lot of respect for the rally drivers and what they do. I've known a lot of them a long time. I'm not coming in thinking I'm going to blow them off, because I'm not.

"These guys are going to be flat out. They are looking to win the rally by a few seconds after three days. I've got the luxury of being able to back off a little."

At the age of 40 Brundle must accept he may never again be presented with an opportunity like this, so "backing off a little" will still have to accommodate the chance of a lifetime.

"How often is a non-rally driver going to get an offer like this?" he asks. "It's a completely self-indulgent exercise. I want to do it because I'll enjoy it.

"I suppose it depends what you want out of life. I know I've got a mountain to climb. The learning curve is virtually vertical. I suspect Arne will have to calm me down at times.

"But I need the challenge. I have to do this. It's my biggest buzz. Live TV is exhilarating and challenging, but nothing compares with driving thoroughbred cars, and competing."