United Colours?

To those who hark back to his Formula Three days he is still the Man Who Could Beat Senna, but since those heady months in 1983 when their battle for the British title kept crowds on their toes, their career paths could not have been more divergent.

Nobody is more aware of this than Martin Brundle. The very mention of that part of his past makes him uncomfortable. “It’s an old saw, that! To be frank, I’m embarrassed when people keep saying ‘You beat Senna, didn’t you? You beat Senna.’ It’s eight years ago and I don’t think it’s that relevant, because Senna has done such an outstanding job inside and outside the car. He’s extremely clever. Back in 1983 I remember saying something to the effect that he’s got an old head on young shoulders. He’s not only done a better job than I have since 1983; he’s done a better job than anyone, let’s face it.”

One would think that the inner knowledge that he can beat the established yardstick would have helped to sustain him through the numerous bad times he has endured since then, but Brundle says otherwise. “I haven’t sort of reflected on that too much,” he admits, clearly anxious not to be drawn too much into this particular debate. “The only thing that the Senna year can do for me now is if we get this Benetton going as quick as a McLaren, when I’m sitting behind Senna in a race I know I can pass him and beat him because I’ve done it before, and if I can do that it will be a huge psychological advantage that not many other drivers have got. That’s all I’ve got that I can relate to the ’83 year, because his F1 programme and mine have been so completely different. He’s got experience of leading races and winning races, starting from pole, winning World Championships, and I’ve got none of that whatsoever. In my mind I know that as soon as I win races that I can win the World Championship because I did that in the sportscar thing, although I appreciate that the level will have to be jacked up.

“I think I’ve got that one advantage that when I get behind him I won’t have any collywobbles at all because of ‘Oh God, it’s Senna’. I’ll be thinking ‘Hang on, I can pass this guy.’ And he might be thinking the same way.”

The practicality of the thought process is typical Brundle, a product of a shrewdness and avoidance of hype that have been two hallmarks of his character. Now, for the first time in his F1 career, he is poised for a season in a topline car, with a topline team. Some expressed surprise when his name first became connected with Benetton for 1992, but the man himself has no doubts that he will justify Tom Walkinshaw’s faith. A year ago, when we talked about the prospects for his return to Brabham, he remarked: “I had a glimpse of what F1 can really be like, having Patrick Head tuned into my crash helmet when I drove for Williams at Spa in 1988. That’s what I aspire to. Either we can make the Brabham that good, given time, or I’m going to get into one of those cars.” Determination to succeed, simply expressed.

Well, the Brabham situation got about as bad as it could have, for a variety of reasons, and the inevitable parting was anything but sorrowful. For Brundle it was a year every bit as tough as the disaster with Zakspeed in 1987, with the added ‘problem’ of a team-mate who proved as fast or faster on several occasions. The opportunity to come back to F1 was not something that comes to every driver, and having left for the second time at the beginning of 1990 when the Brabham team was in the turmoil of takeover and much money was still owing from the previous season, Brundle was lucky to find himself a further chance. Now, he is luckier still for having such a strong drive for 1992.

F1, as we have all been reminded since Derek Warwick was forced from participation, can be very irrational, not to say occasionally downright silly. On the one hand, there are teams which won’t take new drivers, believing experience to be all important. On the other, there are those who believe that drivers who’ve been in a Grand Prix for three years and haven’t won a race should be turfed out. Where would that have left Nigel Mansell?

Sages such as Jackie Stewart and Alan Rees believe it takes a driver at least that amount of time to reach full maturity, and few ever manage to jump straight into a competitive car at the outset. The question is, though, has Brundle done enough in his six seasons of F1, and has he the sheer speed, to justify a top drive? There are those who wonder, but the man himself has no doubts even if he admits that he isn’t leaping about in uncontrolled ecstasy whenever he thinks about the coming season. Suggest to him that he faces his most settled winter in many years, and it is clear the thought has not previously burdened him.

“Yeees,” he says after a moment’s cogitation, “I guess I am. I hadn’t really thought of it like that. You don’t ever usually sit down and think about the following year until you’ve finished the present season. Your head is always so full of what’s got to be done, understeer, oversteer. It’s only really when I got home from Australia and sat down and thought about it that I began to feel quite excited.

‘Obviously I put a lot into the Brabham Yamaha thing, particularly during the second half of the year, and it really was an uphill struggle. There was a thing that Mark (Blundell) said to me, because I got an enormous amount of publicity in Australia, going round and about. He said: ‘Have you noticed how much more profile you’ve got because you’ve signed for Benetton?’ I mean, I hadn’t even sat in a Benetton, and I didn’t until I got back!

“It wasn’t exactly easy just cruising into the Benetton pit and sitting on Nelson’s car and having a fumble around with the switches and gearlever, because at that point I was still a competitor. You then come home from that and think ‘Well, we were on the same tyres all year and mid-season we got quite close to them, and information was very much kept secret, obviously. And suddenly you can walk straight in and sit in the car and discuss every spring rate and damper setting they’ve ever had, you know? It’s just a very strange situation.”

Brundle has been accused in the past of believing that motor racing history began when he first took up the sport, of adopting a cold approach “not true, I was riveted to The Power and the Glory on television just the other night!” but the more he talks about 1992 the more his underlying excitement is evident.

“Yes, I am excited, absolutely, but it’s like when you work to achieve something and then when it happens you’re not that surprised and not that excited about it. It’s a bit of an anti-climax, really. You don’t sit at home barely able to contain yourself, you look at the next step. At the end of the day, the old order can’t stay the same way for ever. You’ve got a new wave of designers that everyone’s getting excited about, you’ve got a new wave of drivers… I’ve always rated Ross Brawn very highly, and always, always wanted to work with Rory Byrne. In that respect I have the best of both worlds. Perfect.

It’s taken a long time to get my bum in a really good topline F1 car. The very first one l drove was a McLaren MP4/1 at Silverstone for the F3 thing at the end of 1983, and some of the early Tyrrells were quite good. I had that shot in the Williams in 1988 at Spa, and though Frank himself would say that was the worst year they’d had since they started winning, it gave me an insight into how a proper F1 team works, and working with someone like Patrick. You know, that image from Spa really stuck with me: I’ve had glimmers of it, enough to know what I’ve been missing.” Surely his sportscar drives for TWR Silk Cut Jaguar kept him up to speed on that score, though?

“Yes, that’s a good point. The Jaguar XJR14 still remains the best car I’ve ever driven, but the fact is that F1 and the general level of it is so much higher that it’s difficult to really rate yourself in world terms when you’re doing sportscar racing.” Lest that give the wrong impression, he is quick to add: “But then if you look at it, you had the likes of Schumacher, Blundell, Brundle… I’ve always said over the years: don’t underestimate the ability of Group C drivers. Or Group A, because you get specialists in their own field.”

Brundle himself has excelled in many disciplines, winning in F3, GpA and GpC, and giving particularly good account of himself when he did the American IROC series in 1990. Consistent success in F1 has eluded him so far, although there are those who remember his glorious chase of Piquet in Detroit in 1984, his qualifying sparkle at Monaco a year after his accident there with the Tyrrell 012, his performance with the Brabham there in 1989 when only battery failure robbed him of a deserved third place. And if it is true that you can tell more about a driver when he faces adversity than when he wins with ease, then there was certainly much to glean about his character this year. It was not that Brundle was bad, when Blundell was proving himself to be so quick; it was more a case of the latter also being something special. And Martin was not exactly overshadowed. His drives at Spa, Monza, Portugal, Spain and particularly, Suzuka, were outstanding examples of a refusal to give in, and were played against a backdrop of mechanical frailty which makes them all the more meritorious.

“The obvious structural integrity of the Benetton is great, it’s obviously a very strong car. I came to expect with Brabham, for various reasons, that something would break, and I don’t blame the mechanics at all. I found by Friday afternoon during the Estoril test in November that I was hurtling the Benetton into the corners and never having a second thought about it, and we’re talking about fifth and sixth gear, flat-out corners.

“I don’t think I ever sort of sat at home wondering what was going to break next on the Brabham. But I definitely got to the point in prequalifying for the race in Estoril where I realised that if that suspension had let go more or less at any other corner on the circuit, it would have been a huge accident. To be honest, at that point I knew that the Benetton thing was a strong chance, and I was more scared that with my big chance staring me in the face I was going to end up with a broken leg you know? Or worse. That’s what really bugged me, with the problems I had in Mexico, Hockenheim, Spa, Portugal, one way and another.

“I spoke to Tom about it, actually. ‘What do I do?’ He said you either get out of it, or get in it and drive it flat out.” He chose the latter course, ‘When I sat and thought about it, I said ‘Well Tom’s absolutely right’. There’s no point in cruising round, because you’re still going to be going within five miles an hour of any given speed and you might as well get in and give it one. I felt I put in some really good performances in the second part of the year, even if they didn’t always show up. In Spa where I was going well the undertray came loose, and in Spain we had the misfire. Generally we put up some quite strong performances in the second half.”

The recent tests in Estoril and Barcelona further helped him settle into the Benetton environment. “Obviously there are a few changes going on at Benetton right now and I still feel a little bit of an outsider,” he admitted after the former, “because I’ve just had a few working days with them. I’d settled into the car by Friday in Portugal once we’d alleviated a problem with the original seat I had to use, and I could start driving it properly. But they made me extremely welcome. I was a little bit nervous that I was moving in on Piquet’s stamping ground, although I was aware that he had made it quite clear he wanted to leave the team, but you’re still moving into someone else’s territory. I think once the team gets to know me a little better it will be able to see some of the qualities I’m able to bring to it. So far they’ve made me extremely welcome and I can see they’re very professional.”

During that test his irrepressible new team-mate Michael Schumacher proved very quick. Because of his greater experience with the B191, he was entrusted with the runs on qualifiers, and emerged second fastest only to Damon Hill in the Williams-Renault, lapping well below Riccardo Patrese’s pole position time now that the car was on Goodyear rubber. On race tyres he was nine tenths faster than Martin. The Briton was settling himself in, ostensibly, but was he not disappointed not to have stamped his authority first time out against the man he used to beat regularly when they raced Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz sportscars against one another? It’s a slightly unfair question that he nevertheless accepts at face value.

“It is a hard question. Obviously I didn’t know the car and he’d done several races in it including Estoril, which is a very fast track. I didn’t have a proper seat in the beginning and was on a pretty steep learning curve. I wouldn’t say I expected to be quicker than him, but I would have liked to be nearer to him on lap times, no doubt about that! But we’ll have to wait and see when I get fitted properly in the car, and have had a few things changed around me. One valuable lesson I learnt is that you don’t sit in seriously fast racing cars without being 100 per cent comfortable. Especially when you’re lapping four seconds quicker than I’d ever been round there before on race tyres. It’s not the hardest GP we go to, but it’s the highest g circuit we visit.”

Already the detractors are pointing at Schumacher, with his Senna-like lust to be quickest in every session and on every test or race lap, and predicting that he will eat Brundle alive. If he finds that hurtful Martin conceals it well, and just as he was with Blundell, he is generous with his praise for the German star.

“I don’t think you get much quicker when you go to Formula One. You just learn how to be quicker, longer,” he begins, reminding one of Jim Clark’s comment that there are old heroes and there bold heroes, but there are very few old, bold heroes. “He is a very impressive young man, put it that way. He’s obviously superfast. The quickest thing I’ve seen in a long time. He’s got a lot of confidence, inside and outside the car. And he also got a pretty good technical ability. We’ve very much felt the same things about the car, which I’m pleased about, which proves we should be able go in the same direction.”

If Schumacher does prove the faster of the two, Brundle is not the type to go to pieces, losing self-confidence. Back in 1983, when Senna had beaten him for the ninth straight time, he resolutely declared: “I’ll beat him yet, you’ll see.” And beat him he did as the championship suddenly exploded into life. The race at Donington that year, in which he headed Senna to the line by inches after leading 25 laps, is still the most electrifying I have ever witnessed. If all the factors fall into place for him Martin Brundle should not be underestimated, he is well aware that 1992 will be the Year of No Excuse.

“To be honest, that’s fine by me, because if you want to win in F1 and that’s my final goal in racing, obviously you’ve got to beat Senna. So if I’m going to beat Senna. I’m going to have to beat Schumacher. ” DJT