That position has been Mansell's ever since he outmanoeuvered Derek Warwick and claimed his first Formula One victory in 1985. No other driver from these shores has won a grand prix for a decade. John Watson achieved that success at Long Beach in 1983. Warwick is returning after two years in sportscars, for what is the beginning of a new chapter in British motor racing. No one doubts the affable Warwick's ability or commitment, yet the Footwork-Mugen Honda is unlikely to make him a leading contender this season.
The more probable candidates for Mansell's mantle are Damon Hill and Johnny Herbert, with Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell hovering in the wings. Hill has, without question, the outstanding opportunity. After two years straining at the leash, test driving for Williams-Renault, and a couple of outings in a pedestrian Brabham, he is about to be let loose in the Williams, the best car in Formula One.
Benetton-Ford and McLaren- Ford may give Williams sterner opposition than they had last year but the champions have the momentum and the reliability to stay ahead. The one stumbling block for 32-year-old Hill is his team-mate, Alain Prost.
The Frenchman has the experience and the credentials: three championships and a record 44 grand prix wins. He may also have rather more pace than has been evident in winter testing. He has to be favourite for the championship. Hill, however, is quick and blessed with sound common sense. Those qualities ought to earn him regular visits to the podium and, eventually, victories.
Herbert, whose early Formula One career was blighted by the effects of a serious crash in a Formula 3000 race, which shattered his feet, should at last emerge as a consistent points-scoring driver this year. He even predicts his Lotus- Ford could take him to the top of the podium.
The 28-year-old has distinguished supporters, including James Hunt, yet last season through a combination of misfortune and misjudgment became involved in too many tangles to make use of an obviously competitive car. Those experiences and a more solid financial structure should enable Herbert and Lotus to produce more convincing performances this time.
Ligier-Renault, the French team, will be in for another bombardment of homespun abuse if their British drivers, Brundle and Blundell, do not deliver. They have the engine and the fuel (Elf) which have enhanced the Williams package, and have worked hard on their chassis.
Brundle, 33, and about to complete a century of grand prix appearances, proved last year, with Benetton, that he has the racecraft to bring a car home in the points, while Blundell, 26, can only have been fortified by a year's test driving with McLaren.
Warwick, 38, will hustle and cajole to get the best out of his team and car, and, even if he does not realise his dream of winning a grand prix, he should at least bring a smile to the face of Formula One.
But the man who first entered grand prix racing in 1981 said: 'When it comes to the work my mechanics will tell you I can be hard as well. There's nothing wrong with having a good time at dinner and having a laugh, but nobody should have any doubts that I'm serious about this. I desperately want to do well and yes, the one thing I want above all is a win.'
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