Motor Racing: Mansell on track to keep on trucking

Click to follow
ONCE they had contrived to beat the truck blockades, airlifting fuel and dragging components along routes you will find only on Ordnance Survey maps, normality was restored to the proceedings. So much so that Nigel Mansell, on provisional pole position for tomorrow's French Grand Prix, and 1.8 seconds quicker than Ayrton Senna, declared himself 'bewildered' by the chasm between them.

Mansell and Williams-Renault were back in the driving seat. Riccardo Patrese, in the other Williams, was second fastest in this first qualifying session, half a second behind his team-mate. Senna was immediately ahead of his McLaren-Honda partner, Gerhard Berger, with Michael Schumacher, in a Benetton-Ford, fifth on the overnight grid.

Senna's pole, Berger's win and Mansell's premature exit in Canada seemed lost in the mists of time. All logic says Mansell will resume his role at the head of the grid, lead the race from green light to chequered flag and take another step towards his world title destiny.

Ron Dennis, the managing director of McLaren, had earlier conceded that, 'under normal circumstances', his team would not be able to retain the championship they had won for the past four years. But this, he went on after some deliberation, was not a 'normal situation'. He elaborated by referring to 'an emotional inconsistency of performance in some teams'. He declined to say precisely what he meant, adding only the suggestion that it came under the category of aiding and abetting, and suggested to the assembled members of the British media that he did not need to expand.

We all took that to mean he felt Mansell was thoroughly capable of throwing away the title.

Now these two Englishmen are not known as the best of friends on this tour, and you are not likely to find them holidaying together at the end of the season. So Mansell, for one, was none too surprised to learn of Dennis's insinuations.

The driver said: 'He's jealous as hell. It's good to see we've got them rattled. They were on top of the world for four years and they don't like it now that Williams and Renault are doing such a magnificent job. We made history winning the first five races this season and it should have been six. He can say what he likes, it doesn't bother me.'

Mansell was more surprised that Williams had scant competition to overcome yesterday. He dominated the one-hour session, registering a best time of 1min 15.847sec in his race car, fitted with Renault's latest engine, the RS4. He was only a tenth of a second slower in his spare car, powered by an RS3.

His only blip was a problem which forced him to park his race car during the morning session. The cause is believed to have been a faulty fuel pump. 'I was very happy and I'm just asking what happened to the oppostiion,' Mansell said. 'They were all over us at Montreal so there's no way these are realistic times today.'

McLaren were, indeed, impeded. Senna was held up on his final run and Berger was struck by Erik Comas's Ligier-Renault as he braked to avoid another car. Dennis said: 'We had an uncharacteristic series of problems which probably didn't influence the provisional grid positions but was certainly reflected in the lap times. '

Martin Brundle, struggling for traction, was seventh fastest, three places ahead of Johnny Herbert, who had an eventful day in the Lotus-Ford. He abandoned his car after it caught fire because of an oil leak during the morning and had to share team-mate Mika Hakkinen's car for the qualifying session.

'It was a hopeless lap, really' Herbert said. 'I wasn't at all comfortable. My left leg was numb as the seat belt mounting was digging into my hip. Mika prefers the clutch pedal close to the clutch foot rest, but I found that I kept catching the rest on down changes. I'd be struggling for a gear and slightly overshooting the corners as a result.'

Damon Hill, driving a Brabham-Judd, also had gearbox problems and was stranded in 29th place.

The Andrea Moda team were stranded somewhere even more distant, unable to circumnavigate the blockades. They missed the meeting and everyone was spared the early morning ordeal of pre- qualifying.

Dennis also had his say on the proposed new calendar, expressing his 'total disgust' with what he believes to be an inadequate break between the end of this season, on 8 November, and the start of next, on 28 February. 'We have no voice on the calendar,' he said. 'There's no breathing space. It's going to be the survival of the fittest.'

Camel, meanwhile, announced yesterday that they will continue to sponsor Benetton next year.

Times, Sport in Short, page 59

(Photograph omitted)