Motor Racing: Drivers on their marques

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WE ARE barely into the second half of the season, but already the contest has been declared over, the serious jostling for positions next year has begun in earnest and McLaren are again struggling to keep pace.

Speculation currently coursing through Formula One features the top teams, drivers and engine manufacturers, and the as yet unconfirmed withdrawal of Honda leaves McLaren scratching for a competitive package. The links with Renault, suppliers to champions-in-waiting Williams, are inevitable. So, too, is Williams's displeasure. They still bear the scars of Honda's defection from their camp to McLaren at the end of 1987.

It has long been thought that BMW might be prepared to join forces with McLaren, but it is suggested here, the stage for Sunday's German Grand Prix, that Formula One does not fit the company's environmentally friendly image. Two other supposed candidates are Peugeot, who are dominating the world of sportscars this season, and Lamborghini, who have scarcely set the grand prix scene alight so far.

Ayrton Senna may also be parting company with McLaren and Ferrari maintain they are hopeful they can lure him to Maranello once they have re-employed John Barnard to pen the car the Brazilian demands.

The focus of the leading drivers' interest, however, is Williams. Nigel Mansell, his first world championship all but secured, naturally wants to stay. Equally naturally, he is reluctant to team up with Alain Prost, a legacy of their soured relationship at Ferrari in 1990. But then, if a long-term alliance with Renault depends on a job for Prost, Mansell may have to accept his days as outright No 1 in the team are over. He also remembers only too well the fruitless year of 1988.

Here, he seeks an eighth win of the season, which would equal Senna's record from that bitter- sweet year of 1988, and will doubtless have further talks with Frank Williams in the hope of clarifying the terms, conditions and equipment on offer.

Mansell said: 'Honda have dominated our sport for years and this is the first year they're getting a run for their money. What's the English saying, 'When the going gets tough . . .' It just shows they're interested only in dominating. I know there are certain things McLaren are trying to do which would totally destabilise this team. They've pinched everything else, but they've not got a chance this time. Frank and I are closer to an agreement, but I want to know what I'm getting in to. I'm told the picture will be clearer next week.'

Mansell was fastest in testing on this high-speed power circuit last week and, given reliability, ought to extend his championship lead to at least 40 points. McLaren, who had endless problems during the test, may again toil to contain Benetton-Ford, so Senna must expect more close encounters with Michael Schumacher, who makes his home debut. The pair clashed off the track last week, the culmination of a series of skirmishes.

Schumacher's team-mate Martin Brundle does not intend to make life any easier for the young German. The Englishman said: 'As far as I'm concerned, only one thing would be better than beating Michael Schumacher and that's finishing in front of Nigel Mansell. I'm not the sideshow.'