Motoracing: Brundle driven by Le Mans spirit

The continued appeal of the 24-hour sports car classic contrasts sharply with Formula One. By Derick Allsop
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The Independent Online
A RAINBOW appears across the grey skies of motor racing this weekend - and Martin Brundle will be chasing the pot of gold as fervently as any driver out in the field.

It is ironic that the Le Mans 24-hour race should have come round again at a time when Formula One is being condemned as sterile, and it seems somehow symbolic that Brundle is forsaking his ITV commentary position at tomorrow's Canadian Grand Prix to compete in the sports car classic.

Brundle is a past winner of Le Mans, and a former sports car world champion. At the age of 40 he accepts, finally if reluctantly, that he is primarily a TV man rather than a racing driver. And yet he remains entranced by the opportunity to demonstrate his prowess at the steering wheel - and by the allure of a race that stands as a fortress of defiance, a protector of sporting values, in an age of rampant inflation and still more excessive egos.

Brundle heads the Toyota bid anticipating stern resistance from Mercedes and BMW, but in the firm belief he will, late tomorrow afternoon, emerge the winner of winners in an event that sets an individual challenge for every driver. To back his confidence, he broke the lap record in the first qualifying round on Thursday. "If we don't win this year I'll be scratching my head wondering what else we could have done," said Brundle, who starts in pole position. "But then an awful lot of things can go wrong at Le Mans. That's part of the character and fascination of the race.

"The weather can catch you out. A puncture can, and when you're doing upwards of 220mph a blow out can take the suspension, the bodywork, everything, with it. Racing at Le Mans has a thrill all of its own. It's a road circuit, 14km long, much of it lined with trees. Five times you are flat out. You have to cope with the night stints, the mist, perhaps pouring rain. It can't be anything other than thrilling."

For thrilling read dangerous. But then so many people become hooked on this high-powered narcotic and Brundle relishes the chance to indulge himself without the burden that weighs on grand prix drivers.

"I'm lead driver in a team with a Formula One budget and I've been outpacing good drivers 10 and 15 years younger than me," Brundle said. "So I can still do it. I've always had this feeling of invincibility in sports cars. Young drivers come to me and say I should still be in Formula One but I know that's behind me now.

"This gives me the satisfaction because it's a seriously quick car and I'm in seriously good form. I can enjoy it because I'm so relaxed compared with the Formula One guys, who are under so much pressure. I was testing at Spa recently and I had that magnificent circuit all to myself with a brilliant Le Mans car. What a privilege that is."

Brundle's paean for the particular appeal of Le Mans and sports cars is echoed up and down the pit lane. Scotland's Allan McNish, who never had the chance to test himself in Formula One, found another kind of fulfilment by winning here last year and returns, lining up in a Toyota, this afternoon.

Andy Wallace, also deprived of his chance in Formula One, won the race in 1988 and competes for the 11th time this year, partnering two other Englishmen, Perry McCarthy and James Weaver, in Audi UK's R8C. "I would have liked to race Formula One but I've made a long-term career out of sports car racing," Wallace said. "Even if you get a chance in Formula One you could be unlucky and soon find yourself out of it.

"I did a lot of Formula One testing after winning the British Formula Three Championship but couldn't find the sponsorship Formula One teams wanted, which was the normal requirement if you weren't an Ayrton Senna or a Michael Schumacher. I get well paid to do this and I genuinely enjoy it."

At the age of 43 Weaver, too, is still earning a good living and realising boyhood fantasies by racing at Le Mans. He fits perfectly the image of the quintessential British sports car driver: public school, cavalier, drinks with the chaps afterwards.

The experienced driver said: "I spend eight months of the year in America, the rest here. Compared with a normal job it pays well and above all it's outrageous fun. Of course there is pressure because people want results, but you're driving a fabulous car, with people that you like. Life could not be better."

McCarthy may be an East Ender, but he is a kindred spirit. "This is our passion and we have time to enjoy it. Most of the grand prix guys are like hunted animals. They may be paid several million quid but I do all right out of this and I'm happy doing it."

The pleasure will be all the greater for those who come through the 24- hour ordeal at the head of the ritual cavalcade tomorrow afternoon.