Motor Racing: Turning second fiddle into an art form: Guy Hodgson on the lot that is Riccardo Patrese's

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EVERY second counts in motor racing . . . unless you are Riccardo Patrese. The second driver to Britain's Nigel Mansell in the Canon Williams Team and second in the world championship, he has been runner-up five times this season. The figure 2 is beginning to dog him.

Living in the shadow of a man running away with Formula One's world title is irritating enough for anyone sufficiently egocentric and competitive to race grand prix cars for a living. When it is your team-mate, when you are using the same technology and when you are beating everybody else but him, it is trebly so.

Patrese, with 34 points from eight races, would be having a good season in any other team. Held up to Mansell's 66, the impression is tarnished.

The knives, never fully sheathed in the world of grands prix, are probably glinting in the daylight for the Italian. Renault, manufacturers of the Williams engine, are rumoured to want Alain Prost, the French triple world champion, in the team, and if Mansell stays, Patrese must be the casualty. 'When Senna and Prost were at McLaren together in 1988, they won 15 out of 16 races,' Patrick Faure, the president of Renault Sport, said pointedly. Mansell has six victories this year, Patrese none.

It is a harsh verdict on Patrese, who had withstood a series of attacks on his French Grand Prix lead by Mansell last Sunday until team orders forced him to wave the Briton through. At the same time he could have been saying goodbye to a place in the team. He was diplomatic about it afterwards, but for a man who had spent 28 years since the age of 10 trying to win motor races, and succeeding, it must have been a bitter experience.

Yesterday, the final practice at Silverstone for today's British Grand Prix, encapsulated Patrese's frustration. The rain bucketed down, producing a track too treacherous to improve on a lap time of 1min 20.884sec. He could only sit in the cockpit searching a computer screen placed on the bonnet for any attempts, foolhardy or miraculous, on his grid position.

A swarm of mechanics worked round him, journalists and photographers jostled no more than two yards from his front wheels, but if his eyes registered them, they did not show it. They also ignored the man in the car beside him. Mansell had set the fastest time on the first day and could relax in the knowledge that no one would challenge the time nearly two seconds better than anyone else. Not even himself. 'I tried to go as fast into Becketts and Stowe in an official practice,' he said referring to two of Silverstone's landmarks. 'But I couldn't. I tried to blame the car but it was me.'

The adrenalin that had surged the previous day as he put on a show for his home supporters had disappeared. Both drivers left the pit lanes in a shower of spray. But they were merely going through lightningly quick motions, analysing how the cars would perform in the wet. They left the track to their rivals 10 minutes before the session was over.

Except that Patrese was no longer departing his own cockpit. He was in Mansell's support car, forced to drive the unfamiliar back-up because of a crash in the morning that had written off his own vehicle. The collision, into a track-side wall at around 100mph, had not been his fault and had left him unhurt except for the restricted time he will have to set up the newly built model instead of the five and a half hours of his fellow competitors.

The crash came when Erik Comas failed to notice yellow flags warning drivers to slow down and his Ligier thumped into Patrese. 'Comas just flew over me,' he said. 'The impact was not so bad for me, but it messed up the car.' Messed up to the tune of the front axle going through the chassis. Patrese's mechanics - each Williams car has its own team of engineers - were working until past 10pm last night to give their man something to race. It was a labour that was not begrudged because Patrese is spoken of with affection in the pit.

'He's a pleasure to work with,' Robbie Campbell, his chief mechanic, said. 'We're British, so we want Nigel to win in a British car. But the next best thing would be Riccardo. He's a stylish driver, like Prost and Piquet, and he will be seen at his best at circuits such as Monza, where a smoother style is more appropriate.' Another added: 'He's a gentleman, almost too nice for motor racing.'

Not too nice that he has not been able to set a record of 232 grand prix appearances, and not too much of a gentleman that he does not start his 233rd on the front row of the grid. In second place.