Mansell on course for pole position - here in the German Grand Prix - may be nothing unusual but this was a day when he might have been caught out, as so many others were. For instance, the remainder of the British contingent, Martin Brundle, Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill, had seven unscheduled excursions between them. The three chicanes and the first and last corners claimed most of the victims. A slippery track was made more difficult by the sand dragged on by wayward cars, and the session was held up for 24 minutes while stricken cars were retrieved and a clean-up operation organised.
Apart from the obligatory skirmish with Olivier Grouillard, Mansell steered his Williams clear of trouble, content with his early lap time of 1min 38.340sec in the first qualifying session. Ayrton Senna brought his McLaren round in second place, almost two seconds slower. Riccardo Patrese, in the other Williams, was third and Gerhard Berger, in the other McLaren, fourth. They were followed by Michael Schumacher (Benetton) and Jean Alesi (Ferrari).
Mansell, intent on extending his 36-point world championship lead with a record-equalling eighth win of the season in tomorrow's race said: 'The secret for me today was to get out early and put in a time before everyone else got out. After a few minutes there was dust and debris everywhere. It was like a rally-cross out there.
'The conditions were changing so quickly and it was so slippery. The problem is that you run so little wing for straight-line speed here that you have less downforce in the chicanes and can lose grip. If you're not careful, it can spit you out in any direction. I was able to use the second half of the session to do some homework for the race.'
The second chicane here has been reshaped in response to safety calls but the exit remains excessively bumpy, even though it and the first chicane have been resurfaced. Senna, who crashed heavily here in testing last year, has been the chief agitator for action. He spent an hour inspecting the chicanes with Roland Bruynseraede - the safety officer of FISA, the sport's governing body - during last week's test and requested the resurfacing. The Brazilian said: 'It is better than it was but the cars are still jumping too much and it is still too dangerous.'
Senna's tone changed when he assessed his performance, relative to Mansell's. 'Nearly two seconds behind Nigel?' he said. 'It is all down to driving style.'
His quip sums up the apparent helplessness of his, and indeed everyone else's plight while Mansell's car is running. Berger said: 'We were not that far behind Nigel on the split times, but we lacked torque in the Stadium and that's where we lost a lot of time.'
Patrese lost time during practice and will expect to join his partner on the front row if today's second session escapes the threatened storms. He had electrical and chassis problems.
Brundle (ninth in the other Benetton) admitted some of his problems were self-inflicted. 'I was pushing too hard,' he said. Herbert, who was 24th in a Lotus-Ford, complained about the handling of his car, while Hill, 29th in a Brabham-Judd, clipped a kerb. Perry McCarthy (Andrea Moda-Judd) again failed to graduate from pre-qualifying and then had his times scrubbed anyway because he had not stopped when instructed to at the weigh-bridge.
Back on the driver-go-round, meanwhile, Senna said his options were to stay with McLaren, move to Ferrari or Williams, or go fishing. He then added: 'If I leave McLaren it will be because I can be competitive next year.' That would seem to suggest a move to Williams rather than Ferrari, but then this saga has taken so many twists and turns, who knows?
GERMAN GRAND PRIX (Hockenheim) First qualifying times: 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 38.340sec (ave speed 249.481kph, 155.024mph); 2 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda 1:40.331; 3 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:40.501; 4 G Berger (Aut) McLaren-Honda 1:40.869; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:42.183; 6 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:42.563; 7 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:42.930; 8 M Alboreto (It) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:43.574; 9 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:43.614; 10 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:43.696; 11 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 1:43.744; 12 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:43.790; 13 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 1:44.173; 14 A Suzuki (Jap) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:44.359; 15 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus-Ford 1:44.370; 16 G Tarquini (It) Fondmetal-Ford 1:44.661; 17 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:44.689; 18 P Martini (It) Dallara-Ferrari 1:45.099; 19 J J Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari 1:45.132; 20 P Belmondo (Fr) March-Ilmor 1:45.190; 21 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:45.455; 22 A Zanardi (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:45.788; 23 M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan-Yamaha 1:45.941; 24 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:46.164; 25 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 1:46.211; 26 A Chiesa (Swit) Fondmetal-Ford 1:46.362; 27 U Katayama (Jap) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:46.406; 28 E Van De Poele (Bel) Brabham-Judd 1:47.321; 29 D Hill (GB) Brabham-Judd 1:49.843. Did not practise: B Gachot (Bel) Venturi-Lamborghini.
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