Herbert dreams of a day to savour at Le Mans

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The Independent Online

One marque has dominated Le Mans of late, just as one marque is currently dominating Formula One, but those involved in the 24-hour sports car event this weekend will tell you healthy competition is assured.

Even if Audi are again a cut above the rest – including the main British challengers, Bentley and MG – a Ferrari-style carve up is not on the agenda. The German camp have four cars and crews capable of winning, and the rivalry between them will endure as long as men and machines keep going.

For the men in car No 1 a piece of Le Mans history beckons. Germany's Frank Biela, Italy's Emanuele Pirro and the Dane, Tom Kristnsen, have the opportunity to become the first trio to win the classic race three years in a row.

However Audi's other nine drivers recognise this may be as good as it gets and the one Briton in the line-up is intent in taking the acclaim of an estimated 60,000 compatriots who make the annual pilgrimage to this evocative corner of France.

Johnny Herbert, the former Grand Prix driver, has been frustrated in his attempts to break into American single-seater racing, but he hopes that on Sunday afternoon he will be standing in the middle of the Le Mans rostrum with team mates either side of him.

Herbert, who is partnered by two Italians, Rinaldo Capello and Christian Pescatori, said: "Any driver wants to drive a competitive car no matter what the race or the championship is, and I know I have a car capable of winning this race. I really don't think you can look beyond Audi for the winner."

Another of Britain's Formula One exiles, Mark Blundell, contends that his team, MG, who are entered in a category for smaller cars, have the potential to finish in the top three, but Herbert dismisses such claims as fanciful.

"I honestly see no serious challenger,'' Herbert said. "Dallara and Bentley are rivals, but I feel they won't be close enough. As far as MG, I think they are being optimistic if they say they can make the podium. They will be quick, but not quick enough and probably not reliable enough."

Positions two to four hold little attraction for Herbert, who has waited 11 years to make up for the celebration that was denied him on the one occasion of his success in the race so far. The ordeal that day took so much out of him that he collapsed at the end and was unable to join his colleagues from Mazda on the rostrum.

"I want to enjoy what I missed back in 1991,'' Herbert said. "Along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500, Le Mans is one of the great races. I have actually won this race but I'd like to experience everything else that goes with winning.''

Blundell also made it to the top of the podium as a Peugeot driver in 1992, and the view is still as vivid in his mind as it was that afternoon. "Le Mans is a motor sport event held in France but it's effectively on the British motor sport calendar because so many Brits make the journey across," he said. "I still remember standing up there 10 years ago, seeing all those Union Jacks below. That's a hell of a kick for a driver. A repeat of that on this 10th anniversary would be perfect.''

This time Blundell is a leading figure in what he proudly proclaims as the only true all-British effort, and would settle for any position in the presentation ceremony. "Since Bentley is part of the VW/Audi group, I don't think you can call them truly British," he retorted. "We are and we have British drivers in our two cars, so there is a patriotic feel to it.

"In any case I think we will be quicker than Bentley. My objectives are firstly to finish the race, secondly to win our class and thirdly to be standing on the podium. I believe we have a realistic chance of achieving all three."

Blundell, busy developing a new career with ITV's Formula One commentary team, shares his MG/Lola with an old friend, Julian Bailey, and Kevin McGarrity. The other car is driven by Anthony Reid, Warren Hughes, and Jonny Kane.

"We've made a big impression in a short period of time'' Blundell said. "MG is back in motor sport and revitalising its brand. We're getting the name up there, through sports cars, touring cars and the rally programme. Everything is going in the right direction.''

If this sounds like the spiel of a company man, that's probably because it is. Blundell has also taken on an ambassadorial role with MG and is even planning to drive one of their cars at the Rally of Great Britain in November. But ask him about Le Mans and his obsession with the race emerges.

"For me the allure of Le Mans is as strong as it ever was,'' he said. "I am 36. There's still plenty of life in me as a driver, still plenty of ambition. Of course there are real risks in a 24-hour race with the disparity in the speeds of these cars, the changing conditions, driving through the night and everything else it entails. It can be dangerous.

"But then that's what it's all about, that the bug that's still inside me. I am drawn by the challenge to go back and try to win it again.''