Motor Racing: Mansell stays calm amid the jostling

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The Independent Online
FOR ONCE Nigel Mansell was the story only on the track here yesterday. Off it, the talk was of continuing, complex negotiations which may yet take Ayrton Senna into the Englishman's seat at Williams-Renault next season.

The domination of the Williams FW14B was absolute in the first qualifying session for tomorrow's Portuguese Grand Prix, Mansell taking provisional pole position with a best lap of 1min 13.041sec. His team-mate, Riccardo Patrese, was second, six-tenths of a second slower.

Gerhard Berger, in a McLaren-Honda, was third fastest, two seconds behind Mansell. Senna, in the other McLaren, trailed by a further three-tenths of a second after a rear-wing breakage hurled him off the circuit at the first corner.

Mansell, his world championship and new job in Indycar competition secured, had an unnerving experience of his own during the unofficial morning practice session. He was approaching a corner at 180mph when a hydraulic pump sheared, disabling the active suspension system and throwing his car into a spin. He came to rest in a gravel trap unscathed.

Both Williams drivers had hydraulic problems at the Italian Grand Prix, a fortnight ago, but this time the consequences were more alarming. 'It's the first time this year we've had a failure like this,' Mansell said. 'It's given my confidence a severe knock.' A couple of hours later, however, he was pushing himself and the Williams harder still. 'I've got a short memory,' he smiled.

The Williams databank clearly has not, as Mansell explained: 'I'm perhaps not so surprised we're so far ahead of the opposition here because this was where we had our seven-day test just before the start of the season and our car is dialled in.'

Mansell should confirm his 12th pole position in 14 races by the end of this afternoon's qualifying session and, given reliability, suddenly a factor in the equation again, ought to claim a record ninth win of the season.

Senna's thoughts are on next season. Apparently blocked from a direct path to Williams by Alain Prost's agreement with the team, he could be provided with the opportunity he desires by high-level dealings in the engine market. It is understood McLaren are attempting to buy Ligier, thereby acquiring the French team's supply of Renault engines. Prost might then return to McLaren with the prospect of eventually taking control of Ligier, while Senna slips through the gap to Williams.

That, at any rate, is the theory, although no one is officially acknowledging such a plot. Ligier deny it, Ron Dennis, the managing director of McLaren, insists he has nothing to say, Renault concede only that 'all things are possible in Formula One', and Senna maintains: 'I am not in a position to say anything.'

Whichever triple world champion drives for Williams (Prost's gear is thought to be in the team's truck, ready for use in testing here next week), his partner seems likely to be Britain's Martin Brundle, who has been released by Benetton-Ford.

Several British drivers are seeking openings elsewhere. Mark Blundell is talking to Ligier and Footwork, Damon Hill to Scuderia Italia and Footwork, and Derek Warwick to Footwork. Warwick, out of Formula One since 1990, has won the Sportscar World Championship this season and yearns for a return to grand prix racing. He has tested the Footwork-Mugen Honda, though he is also considering joining Mansell in Indycar racing.

Nelson Piquet, the former Formula One world champion, left Indiana yesterday bound for Brazil as he recuperates from injuries sustained in an accident during practice for the Indianapolis 500 in May. Piquet, who injured his ankles and feet, boarded his flight with the aid of a walking stick.

PORTUGUESE GRAND PRIX (Estoril): First qualifying times: 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 13.041sec; 2 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:13.672; 3 G Berger (Aut) McLaren-Honda 1:15.117; 4 A Senna (Br) McLaren-Honda 1:15.343; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:15.356; 6 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus-Ford 1:16.173; 7 M Alboreto (It) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:16.282; 8 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:16.755; 9 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:16.796; 10 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:16.937; 11 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:17.332; 12 A De Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:17.356; 13 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:17.361; 14 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:17.384; 15 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:17.512; 16 B Gachot (Bel) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:17.624; 17 P Martini (It) Dallara-Ferrari 1:17.661; 18 JJ Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari, 1:17.847; 19 M Gugelmin (Br) Jordan-Yamaha 1:17.949; 20 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:17.973; 21 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 1:18.030;

22 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 1:18.060; 23 E Naspetti (Fr) March-Ilmor 1:18.092; 24 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 1:18.318; 25 C Fittipaldi (Br) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:18.615; 26 U Katayama (Japan) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:36.224.

(Graphic omitted)

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