Brundle the inside man on the outside

'I have had more recognition as a TV commentator than in 158 starts as a driver, which irks me slightly but thrills me in other ways'
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Hockenheim, Saturday. The German Grand Prix - which will turn out to be one of the most dramatic races for years, thanks not least to Michael Schumacher's first-bend crash - is still 24 hours away. In the paddock, Martin Brundle is deep in conversation with Eddie Irvine.

Hockenheim, Saturday. The German Grand Prix - which will turn out to be one of the most dramatic races for years, thanks not least to Michael Schumacher's first-bend crash - is still 24 hours away. In the paddock, Martin Brundle is deep in conversation with Eddie Irvine.

But after a while he joins me in the McLaren-Mercedes motor- home, where a pretty young woman in black-and-silver McLaren livery attends to our every whim. Gets us some coffee, anyway. Meanwhile, we sit back in the lap of luxury watching the world (owner: B Ecclestone) go by. Next to us there are two fridges, both crammed with champagne. I can see now why some Formula One fans offer limbs in exchange for paddock passes. Never mind the opportunity to rub shoulders with their idols, never mind that Claudia Schiffer is here today and Boris Becker expected tomorrow, the motorhomes alone are worth ogling.

Many drivers, however, take for granted this level of extravagance, considering it barely adequate recompense for putting their lives on the line. And Brundle, now that he is no longer racing, observes his former team-mates and rivals with amused fascination. He never realised it at the time, he says, but drivers are a uniquely mollycoddled bunch, in his evocative words "practically rickshawed" from their hotel suites to the track. Moreover, he has asserted before that, for some of them, the yearning for money has become an illness. I invite him to elaborate.

"Well, one of my lines is that Schumacher is first out of the taxi and last into the bar, so as not to pay the taxi fare or the bar bill. That's a bit unkind on him but Gerhard Berger's another one... when you risk your life to earn your money, money assumes tremendous importance.

"So they like accumulating it but not parting with it - I think it was Mansell who said that as soon as he heard the click of his front door behind him, he knew that someone else was paying. But there are a few who go beyond reason and are ill, sick, with their money. I could give you some examples but I won't." Brundle's blue eyes flash provocatively, daring me to press the point.

He is hugely entertaining company, witty, perceptive and formidably eloquent. So hats off to whoever it was at ITV who capitalised on these virtues by pairing him in the commentary box with the doyen, Murray Walker.

In three years Brundle has won two prestigious Royal Television Society awards, and plaudits that, as good as he undoubtedly was, always just eluded him as a driver. As he says: "I have had more recognition as a commentator than in 158 starts as a driver, which irks me slightly but thrills me in other ways".

Brundle is now 41, and this is the first year since he was 12 - 12! - that he has not driven a car competitively. Nevertheless, he still considers himself a racing driver first and a pundit second. "If someone offered me a car that was competitive I'd jump at it. But I don't want to drive touring cars, there was nothing at Le Mans that took my fancy, and I'm too old to start again in Indy cars. Besides, I've got to be realistic. Jenson [Button] is half my age. I definitely have not hung up my helmet, but it's better to finish a year or two too early than too late."

In the meantime, there is no one in Formula One, from Bernie Ecclestone down, with such a broad perspective on the sport. Apart from being a driver and commentator, Brundle also manages David Coulthard. "I'm in a unique position," he says. "I manage one of the top four drivers and the other three, Schumacher, Hakkinen and Barrichello, have been my team-mates. I have driven for seven of the 11 teams. I am on the board of management at Silverstone. So I'm very integrated. They let me into the inner sanctum, and trust me with information I can't always pass over on television."

It is getting on for four years since Brundle learned that his old mate Eddie Jordan was sacking him and replacing him with Giancarlo Fisichella. "Me and Eddie started from scratch together but this is a big, hard business," he says. "Eddie is convinced that I give him a hard time on TV, but I carry no baggage into the commentary box. If I start settling old scores, I'm history. Now, Heinz-Harald [Frentzen] apparently wants to talk to me about something I said, but that's good, that shows he's taking notice."

Brundle would be hard to ignore. For as discreet as he claims to be with certain snippets of information, he is nothing if not outspoken. For instance, I remark that Barry Sheene recently told me how much he admires Alain Prost, that, as well as being a wonderful driver in his day, Prost is also a thoroughly decent chap. "That's bullshit," snaps Brundle. "I was never a Prost fan. I didn't rate Prost as a person. I was impressed with [Nikki] Lauda when he came back, but he wasn't a role model.

"My big hero was Graham Hill. I loved his attitude. I was a big fan of Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark, too. I didn't see Sir Stirling Moss in his heyday, but he was my team-mate in 1981 in Audis, when I was 21 and he was 51. I would sit and listen to Mossy all day now, but I didn't have the good grace then, I just wanted to blow his doors off. The arrogance of youth and all that."

As for glimpses of genius through the generations, where does he stand on the old hypothetical: was Ayrton Senna better than Michael Schumacher? "I'm very clear on that," he says. "I raced against Senna and I was team-mates with Schumi. I believe that Senna was more gifted and that Schumacher is this far [he presses his forefinger to his thumb] behind. He is a mentally driven man, who somehow finds extra thought capacity in the heat of the moment, whereas Senna was emotionally driven. I think of all the places Senna and I crashed together in Formula Three, like Snetterton and Oulton Park. He was already convinced that the world was against him. Schumacher is much more calculating."

Murray Walker thinks that the German superstar is unfairly maligned by the media. Brundle disagrees. "Schumi is a friend of mine but I think he has pulled one stroke too many recently and I have told him so. He's like Senna in that he stretches the line too far, past breaking point. He's so brilliant he doesn't need to do that. But he will only confess to me that he was out of order once, at Jerez in 1997 when he tried to run Villeneuve off the road. No, I don't think he's unfairly maligned."

And so to his own charge, Coulthard. What, in Brundle's estimation, are Coulthard's assets, and what are his deficiencies? There is a rare pause.

"He is the smoothest driver on the track, and the fittest, I believe. He lacks self-belief, but that is coming slowly and I'm helping him to acquire it. We've done a lot of work over the winter to refocus David and my experience helps. Because I didn't deliver to my potential in Formula One. I was too diluted, in that it occupied 90 per cent of my life and it should have been 100 per cent. I was running my businesses and had a young family, which I didn't think were distractions but they were."

Coulthard cannot help but be distracted, however, by the status of his McLaren stable-mate, Hakkinen, not just as the world champion but also as apparent favourite of the team owner, Ron Dennis. Brundle takes the point. "I have said many times that Formula One is about giving pressure or taking pressure. And the first point of comparison is always with your team-mate. If he's on top you have two problems. One, you're not the fastest guy on the track. Two, you're not even the fastest guy in your team. And it's plainly clear that some of your focus then goes on him. How did he do that? Is it his car, his engineer, his driving? Has he got new tyres? What did he do with his rear springs? And then, at some point, the situation usually flip-flops. In 1997, for instance, Coulthard had the edge on Hakkinen."

Brundle has had some flip-flops himself in his time. But let us go back further, to the beginning of the affair. His father was a car dealer and rally driver, and young Martin was a chip off the old block. He sold his first car when he was eight - developing communication skills that have been invaluable throughout his career - and at 12 took an old Ford Anglia off the used-car lot, knocked the windows out, ripped out the upholstery, and informed his father. In that order? "In that order. My daughter's 12 now and it shocks me when I think about it. I used to work with the mechanics until one in the morning then get up at eight for school, and I did that for years."

He is now a millionaire several times over and, aside from his media career and Formula One interests, also runs several thriving car dealerships in his native East Anglia. He has a Ferrari 550 Maranello on order after the last one lost an altercation with a woman in a Land Rover. Compared with some of his on-track mishaps, however, it was a minor scrape indeed.

Take Dallas, 1984. "I'd had a start to my grand prix career that Jenson Button would accept, definitely. I was fifth in my first race and second in my seventh race, and I was flying in Dallas, on a Mickey Mouse circuit, when I had a puncture on the chicane. I hit the wall three times, and the third time I smashed up my ankles so badly that my foot was only connected to my leg by skin. I passed out in the ambulance, then came to because they got my broken ankle caught in some wire meshing. Anyway, I ended up in hospital with a nurse, Diane Knight, a lovely lady, sticking a pin into my foot every hour and asking if I could feel it. I couldn't but I said I could. I knew what they were up to. They wanted to cut my foot off."

To cut the story short - unlike the leg, mercifully - his team, Tyrrell, was later thrown out of the championship for the rest of that season, all points annulled. So his efforts counted for nothing. "I now know that in sport you have to really enjoy the good days. I've learned that from Schumi. When I see him on the podium, punching the air, I used to think he was going a bit over the top. But you've got to soak up the pleasure as a counterbalance against the dark and crappy days."

Of which the darkest and crappiest was arguably May Day 1994 when Senna lost his life in San Marino. Brundle was lying seventh and had to swerve to avoid the debris. "They stopped the race and then we heard that Senna's head had moved, that he would be OK. It was his last movement, as it turned out, but we didn't know. So they restarted the race and to my horror and disgust, to this day, we raced past a pool of Senna's blood for 55 laps."

The Brazilian's death was a watershed for the sport. "I was chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association after Senna's death," Brundle recalls, "and I know that Schumacher put a huge amount of energy into making sure that what he hit from then on would be softer. Because nobody drives more on the edge than him. It is always a big whack when he hits the wall." Prophetic words, as it turns out.