Alone of all the grand prix drivers, Mansell has two cars available to him at each event, one the 'race' car, the other set up for qualifying where ultimate speed over one lap is the goal. At Hockenheim, the latter was equipped with Renault's latest, more powerful RS4 engine which for now the team prefers not to risk in a race.
Using this car, Mansell was appreciably quicker than Patrese on Friday, so for most of yesterday's session it was handed over to the Italian who improved his time considerably. For the last 15 minutes, it was back with Mansell, and he also went faster than before to claim the 26th pole position of his career, and his ninth of the season.
A banzai lap by Ayrton Senna, quite awesome in its commitment, improved the McLaren-Honda's time by more than a second, but not its position. 'I am not designed to be second,' the world champion has often said in the past. In 1992, he is necessarily getting accustomed to third. This is taking its toll of his patience.
Amid continuing rumours that Honda will pull out at the end of the year, Senna has again been speaking about his future. This is not an ordinarily competitive man - not even an ordinarily competitive Formula One driver. By any standards, he is an obsessive. 'I do this to fight for the world championship,' he said at the British Grand Prix. 'If I can't do that, I prefer to stop.'
Here in Hockenheim, though, his tone has softened somewhat. 'I can face another year where I win maybe one, two, races - if I know there is a truly competitive car for me in '94.
'On the other hand,' he adds enigmatically, 'there could be . . . an earthquake in Formula One soon. And if that happens, I will be in a competitive car next year.' The remarks invite a variety of interpretations. Amid a growing conviction that he will leave McLaren after five years with the team, the first of his remarks would appear to refer to Ferrari, who have wooed him for years, the second to Williams-Renault.
This, of course, is the drive everyone covets. At the end of 1991, Mansell said that winning the championship would mean, for him, instant retirement. Although his coronation now looks a foregone conclusion, the indications are strong that he wants to continue - and with Williams.
'The situation is not settled,' Mansell said yesterday, 'and I admit I'm far from comfortable with it. But for now I'm being patient, and concentrating on this race.'
Although Mansell, not surprisingly, would prefer to be teamed again with Patrese, it is a certainty that either Senna or Alain Prost - the two most successful drivers of all time - will drive for Williams-Renault next season. Indeed, there is even a possibility that both will be on board, although this is thought unlikely. The most probable pairing is Mansell and Prost, formerly team- mates at Ferrari.
The most probable result today, though, is Mansell and Patrese. Situation normal.
GERMAN GRAND PRIX (Hockenheim) Grid positions and final qualifying times: 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 37.960sec (ave speed 250.449kph, 156.531mph); 2 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:38.310; 3 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda 1:39.106; 4 G Berger (Aut) McLaren- Honda 1:39.716; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:40.959; 6 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:41.132; 7 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:41.942; 8 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:42.122; 9 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:42.136; 10 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 1:42.357; 11 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:42.645; 12 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 1:42.748; 13 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus-Ford 1:42.749; 14 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:42.797; 15 A Suzuki (Jap) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:42.838; 16 U Katayama (Jap) Venturi- Lamborghini 1:43.079; 17 M Alboreto (It) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:43.171; 18 P Martini (It) Dallara-Ferrari 1:43.556; 19 G Tarquini (It) Fondmetal-Ford 1:43.777; 20 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:43.790; 21 J J Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari 1:43.931; 22 P Belmondo (Fra) March-Ilmor 1:44.130; 23 M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan-Yamaha 1:44.521; 24 A Zanardi (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:44.593; 25 B Gachot (Fr) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:44.596; 26 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:44.763. Did not qualify: 27 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 1:45.088; 28 E Van De Poele (Bel) Brabham-Judd 1:45.098; 29 A Chiesa (Swit) Fondmetal-Ford 1:45.459; 30 D Hill (GB) Brabham-Judd 1:45.871.