Motor Racing: Mansell reaches half-time with the goal in sight

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The Independent Online
NIGEL MANSELL was holding court when his Williams-Renault team-mate, Riccardo Patrese, politely but pointedly interrupted and asked for a minute of the Englishman's time. Was this the eruption of the rumbling volcano? Was this where any semblance of camaraderie would be unceremoniously dismantled?

A little more than a minute later, Patrese was gone and Mansell was back, his satisfied countenance unaffected. No, there was not a problem between them. Far from it, maintained Mansell. What is more, he wanted the pair of them to stay together for next season.

Patrese's reluctance to discuss his surrender to the hounding world championship leader during Sunday's French Grand Prix here suggested the Italian had been put under pressure by the team to give way. Patrese's expression also indicated as much. According to one source, he had been told on the radio he could win if he wanted to, as long as he did nothing detrimental to the team's cause.

Patrese duly waved Mansell through to collect his sixth win of the season and extend his championship lead to 32 points at the half-way stage. For Patrese, the title chase was surely over. We wondered whether it was the end of their relationship and the beginning of the end of Patrese's association with Williams.

'Not at all as far as I'm concerned,' Mansell said. 'We're fine and Riccardo just wanted to discuss one or two technical points. He's a great team-mate and on his day he's very quick, and next year could be his turn. He conceded, though, that he didn't know how long he would be able to keep me off here. I seriously hope we can stay together for next year.'

Mansell has been offered a two- year extention of his contract with Williams but clearly does not relish the prospect of sharing No 1 status, which he would have to do if Alain Prost or Ayrton Senna joined the team. 'We're still talking, but until I know who the second driver is going to be I don't want to commit myself.

'My feeling is that we shouldn't break up a winning team. I can trust Riccardo and he can trust me. We had a big fight here and got close a couple of times. And I mean close. But he wasn't going to stick a wheel in and neither was I'

Mansell's more immediate concern is to follow up success here with victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday, a feat which would take him past Jackie Stewart's British record of 27 grand prix wins and give him an almost unassailable lead in the world championship.

The Englishman said: 'I realise I've got to be clear favourite for Silverstone. I know the circuit like the back of my hand and we went very quickly there in testing, although fate can have a hand in everything.'

McLaren-Honda's wretched race - Senna was punted off by Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger had to retire - has left them stranded 64 points behind Williams in the constructors' championship and they do not anticipate being able to close the gap this coming Sunday.

Ron Dennis, managing director of McLaren, said: 'I'm not sure whether to take a stopwatch or a calender to Silverstone. That circuit magnifies our problems. The high nose configuration brings the ability to generate more down- force but to the detriment of balance.

'Having said that, we are not at the back of the grid and with us there's a tendency to say that when we go well it's the engine, when we're going badly it's the chassis. We're wrestling with the problems but some things take time. I think you'll see a significant step forward following the British Grand Prix.'

That improvement will not, in the short term, be achieved by the introduction of an active-suspension system but by underbody changes. Dennis said: 'The active car is marginally quicker but still not where we want it to be.'

Right now McLaren are just a point ahead of Benetton-Ford, and Martin Brundle's excellent third place here underlines the strength of their team. They expect to go well at Silverstone and perhaps better still at the following races, in Germany and Hungary.

Brundle said: 'I promised I'd make it to the podium and now I've done that I'd like to do so again. We have the team, we have the car and we have the drivers to get a lot more good results. It's obviously a relief to get a result like this but then I genuinely felt I needed only a little luck and that the rest would fall into place.'

Lotus-Ford are sharing those sentiments after having both their cars finish in the points here. Mika Hakkinen's fourth and Johnny Herbert's sixth confirmed a potential Castrol have recognised with a major sponsorship deal.

Brabham, meanwhile, remain the focus of much speculation. They have had talks with a possible French buyer, while Julian Bailey has had further discussions about being a driver.

Damon Hill, uncertain of his future, hoped to be considered by Minardi as replacement for the injured Christian Fittipaldi, but the Italian team say they need another Brazilian driver to satisfy sponsor's requirements. Roberto Moreno and Maurizio Sandro Sala were obvious immediate contenders.