Motor Racing: Mansell primed to rise above the blockades

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The Independent Online
THE phrase 'captive audience' has taken on a new meaning here this weekend. Nigel Mansell is expected to win his sixth grand prix of the season today, and afterwards will presumably be taken by helicopter from the area without trouble. Indeed, Mansell probably will be finishing his meat and two veg on the Isle of Man tonight before most of the Formula One circus has left the track. Outside the barricades will be up.

The talk here is of points, but not the world championship kind. Rather, it is the consequences of the points' system for France's controversial new driving licences which has dominated conversation. You start with six points' credit, lose them for sundry driving offences, and lose your licence when you get to zero.

In a pose of manifest self-condemnation, the French truck drivers think this unfair. They are on the roads more than most, they argue, and should be allowed a bigger 'kitty'. A large number of them are holding France, including its Grand Prix, and presumably, in time, Le Tour, to ransom.

If these were students, cynics murmur, the CRS would be in on the act, cracking heads in traditional style. But many of the truckers have baseball bats in their cabs, which imposes a degree of circumspection. One English team principal here suggests the issuing of machine guns; the idea is not without support.

The French Grand Prix was always a likely target for the hard men, being not only the major sporting event of the moment in this country, but also situated near Nevers, the home town of Francois Mitterand. A sell-out last year, today's event will understandably be poorly attended. Throw in that an anti-smoking lobby has prevented TF 1 from televising the race here, and you come to understand that not too many French people will get to see their own Grand Prix.

Of more immediate interest on the other side of the channel, however, are the possible repercussions for next weekend's British Grand Prix at Silverstone. In normal circumstances, it is a major slog for the teams to undertake races on consecutive weekends, but if, as is feared, the circuit is entirely blockaded tonight, the problem takes on a new perspective.

The people of Formula One are a resourceful bunch, however, and have their own plans to defeat the truck drivers and farmers by means of an airlift. This, they say, would at least enable the cars to be transported back to England, even if some of the spare parts and equipment might necessarily have to stay for the moment. That would mean problems for the teams next weekend, of course, but at least there would be a race.

There will be one today, too, despite the militants' best efforts, and Mansell is the heaviest of favourites. After the glitch in the Williams-Renault team's season in Canada, and Mansell's extraordinary behaviour afterwards, all is back to normal. In both qualifying sessions for today's race, he and team-mate Riccardo Patrese have dominated. Nothing but a Williams-Renault had a realistic shot at pole position, and Mansell consistently maintained an advantage over Patrese.

McLaren-Honda, having won at Monaco by good fortune, and in Montreal by virtue of Mansell's impatience, have Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger on the second row of the grid here, but neither is optimistic about the race. Berger, the winner in Canada, was a second and a half away from Mansell's time. 'And that,' he shrugged, 'was absolutely as fast as I could go.'

Senna's best hope is of a wet race. The weather has been capricious for the last day or so, with several showers, and more predicted for today. While a superior car remains so in any conditions, rain does make for unpredictability, and Senna's ability in the rain is unsurpassed.

Mansell's immediate prospects look good, however. He should win today, and over the bumps of Silverstone his Williams-Renault, 'active' suspension and all, could well be in a race of its own.

For the longer term, though, there is less certainty. At present, no driver is contracted to Williams- Renault beyond the end of this year, and there are strong suggestions here that Patrese has been informed his services will not be required in 1993. He is expected to move either to Benetton or Ferrari.

Mansell, as the likely world champion this season, is currently negotiating with the team for a renewed contract, but Frank Williams may be in no hurry to finalise contracts. He is known to be interested in signing Alain Prost, the three- times champion who is on sabbatical this year, and while Mansell is known to be opposed to the idea, Renault is emphatically not.

At the top, though, of Williams's shopping list must be Senna, who may leave McLaren, should Honda decide not to continue in Formula One next season. If Senna, the reigning world champion, should quit McLaren for Williams, Prost would replace him. It is unlikely that Mansell would want to partner Senna, and even more so that McLaren would hire him. In that event, the only top team available to him would be Ferrari, for whom he drove in 1989-90.

For now, however, his thoughts will be concentrated on today in France. He almost won at Monaco for Renault; the significance of winning for them in France will not be lost on him.

Christian Fittipaldi, the 21-year- old Brazilian driver, was flown by helicopter to hospital in Nevers yesterday after crashing his Minardi during qualifying for the Grand Prix. Fittipaldi suffered a suspected fracture of the fifth vertebra, and was fitted with a surgical collar before leaving the track. He was able to walk but was clearly in severe pain.

FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours, 4.25km, 2.64 miles) Final qualifying times: 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 13.864sec (207.1372kph, 128.709mph); 2 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:14.332; 3 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda 1:15.199; 4 G Berger (Aut) McLaren- Honda 1:15.316; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:15.569; 6 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:16.118; 7 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:16.151; 8 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 1:16.443; 9 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:16.806; 10 E Comas (Fr) Ligier- Renault 1:16.938; 11 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus- Ford 1:16.999; 12 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:17.257; 13 B Gachot (Bel) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:17.442; 14 M Alboreto (It) Footwork- Mugen Honda 1:17.508; 15 A Suzuki (Jap) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:17.548; 16 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:17.667; 17 J J Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari 1:17.677; 18 U Katayama (Jap) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:17.709; 19 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:17.868; 20 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 1:17.901; 21 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 1:17.937; 22 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:17.989; 23 G Tarquini (It) Fondmetal-Ford 1:17.993; 24 M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan-Yamaha 1:18.337; 25 P Martini (It) Dallara-Ferrari 1:18.586; 26 A Chiesa (It) Fondmetal-Ford 1:18.701. Failed to qualify: 27 P Belmondo (Fr) March-Ilmor 1:19.354; 28 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:20.062; 29 E Van De Poele (Bel) Brabham-Judd 1:20.139; 30 D Hill (GB) Brabham-Judd 1:21.412.