Motor Racing / French Grand Prix: Mansell drives his rivals to a standstill: Britons are on the right track as the world championship leader shows the challengers a clean set of wheels

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NIGEL MANSELL materialised through the rain, the spills and everything but a truck blockade to equal Jackie Stewart's British record of 27 grand prix wins and take a still firmer grip on the Formula One world championship here yesterday.

His only racing obstacle in an eventful French Grand Prix was the early resistance of his Williams-Renault team-mate, Riccardo Patrese, who took the lead from the grid and was still there when a steady drizzle forced a temporary halt to proceedings. From the restart, Patrese again went ahead only to allow Mansell through after a further lap of intense pressure. Order, even in the heavy rain towards the end, had been restored.

The pair earned Williams their fifth one-two success, and Martin Brundle's third place, in a Benetton-Ford, was due reward for his determination and self-belief at the half-way point of a year which threatened to collapse about him.

Mansell, who drove his spare car, and Brundle gave Britain two podium positions for the first time since the 1976 French Grand Prix, when James Hunt and John Watson were the country's standard- bearers. That season one of them - Hunt - went on to be champion. It seems inconceivable that a similar conclusion can be denied Mansell this year.

He now has a 32-point advantage over the second-placed Patrese in the drivers' standings. It would take the Italian a minimum of four races from the remaining eight to unseat Mansell, while Michael Schumacher is 40 points back and Ayrton Senna 48 points adrift. Senna, champion three times in the past four years, is within three races of losing his title.

The Brazilian's dwindling prospects of retaining the crown effectively disappeared when his McLaren-Honda was hit by Schumacher's Benetton-Ford as they hurtled into the hairpin for the first time. Senna retired there and then and although Schumacher, who admitted responsibility, limped back for repairs, he went out after tangling with Stefano Modena along the same stretch of road following the restart. It was left to Brundle to carry the Benetton flag, a task he fulfilled splendidly, riding some long overdue luck when the rain helped him cope with an electrical problem, to secure what the record books show to be his best result in Formula One. He actually finished second in Detroit eight years ago, but that was wiped out along with the rest of Tyrrell's points because they were found guilty on charges of fuel irregularities.

Mika Hakkinen presented resurgent Lotus-Ford with fourth place, Erik Comas took an encouraging fifth for the local team, Ligier-Renault, and Johnny Herbert completed an outstanding day for Lotus and Britain with sixth place.

All this just seven days before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, where patriotic fervour is likely to reach new levels. Mansell is out and out favourite to win there and pass a landmark Stewart reached in 1973. The omens indicate nothing else. Mansell has now won four French grands prix, and followed up each of his previous successes in this country with victory in Britain.

Patrese made him work yesterday, defying his attacks on a track which offers scant opportunity for overtaking. They began the second part of the race - in dry conditions - on the 19th lap, separated by less than a second. Patrese managed to fend off his partner at the hairpin but as they came on to the pit straight, the Italian waved him through. He might as well have been waving away his thoughts of the championship, too.

Mansell confirmed the gesture made by Patrese, who was reluctant to discuss the thorny subject of team orders. Patrese eventually said: 'Let's say that Nigel was pressing me very hard and I thought it was the best thing for the team to let him go.'

Frank Williams, managing director of the team, declined to expand. He said: 'While we are trying to win the championship, the way the team is run is our business and no one else's.

If Patrese was not told to make way he may have been warned not to obstruct his team-mate's course. Mansell, as he went on to prove, was considerably quicker and he clearly represents the team's best chance of a drivers' title for the first time since 1987. The constructors' championship appears assured already. Williams have 100 points, McLaren, in second place, 36, just one more than Benetton.

Mansell, assisted by a lightning tyre change, sustained his magnificent command as the rains returned and won by 46 seconds. He said: 'Riccardo drove brilliantly at the start and we had some fun. He waved me through, but won't tell me why. Equalling Jackie's record hasn't quite sunk in yet. I'm so happy not only for me but also for Martin. It should be a record- breaking grand prix at Silverstone in every sense.'

Brundle, who recovered from a late slide, unaware that his only threat for third place, Jean Alesi, had just retired his Ferrari, said: 'I had a bit of luck today because I was going to pull out until it started raining again. I was able to go on because it meant fewer g-forces. I want to thank the team for sticking with me when things weren't going so well at the start of the year. It's a pity we aren't given champagne here (in deference to the drink- drive campaign) but hopefully there'll be another time - and soon.'

Despite Lotus's two places in the points, managing director Peter Collins voiced his displeasure with Tyrrell driver Olivier Grouillard, who was given a stop- start penalty for jumping the restart.

Collins said: 'His blatant jump- start and behaviour when being lapped is totally unacceptable and really not deserving of a super-licence. What concerns me most is that he is going to cause somebody a very serious injury one day and I don't want it to be either of our drivers.'

Mansell is among those who have had problems with the Frenchman, but his prime concern is that Williams and the rest of the teams manage to get their trucks through the French lorry drivers' blockades to Silverstone in time for his home race.


FRENCH GRAND PRIX (69 laps, 293.250km, 182.222 miles) 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1hr 38min 8.459sec (ave speed 179.283kph, 111.404mph); 2 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault +46.447sec; 3 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford +1min 12.579sec; 4 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus-Ford, 68 laps; 5 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 68; 6 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 68; 7 M Alboreto (It) Footwork-Mugen Honda 68; 8 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 68; 9 J J Lehto (Fin) DallaraFerrari 67; 10 P Martini (It) Dallara-Ferrari 67; 11 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 66. Did not finish (not classified): 12 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 61; 13 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 51; 14 U Katayama (Jap) Venturi-Lamborghini 46; 15 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 38; 16 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 38; 17 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 25; 18 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 25; 19 A Suzuki (Jap) Footwork-Mugen Honda 20; 20 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 17; 21 G Berger (Aut) McLaren- Honda 10; 22 G Tarquini (It) Fondmetal-Ford 6. Did not start (failed to complete one lap): A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda; M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan-Yamaha; A Chiesa (Swit) Fondmetal-Ford; B Gachot (Bel) Venturi-Lamborghini. Fastest lap: Mansell 1min 17.070sec (198.521kph, 123.358mph).

World Drivers' Championship standings (after eight rounds): 1 Mansell 66pts; 2 Patrese 34; 3 Schumacher 26; 4= Senna, Berger 18; 6 Alesi 11; 7 Brundle 9; 8 Alboreto 5; 9= De Cesaris, Hakkinen 4; 11= Wendlinger, Comas 3; 13= Capelli, Martini, Herbert 2; 16 Gachot 1.

World Constructors' Championship: 1 Williams 100pts; 2 McLaren 36; 3 Benetton 35; 4 Ferrari 13; 5 Lotus 6; 6 Footwork 5; 7 Tyrrell 4; 8= March, Ligier 3; 10 Dallara 2; 11 Venturi 1.

(Photograph omitted)