Mansell alliance fit for controversy

David Tremayne explains how McLaren's problems have soured the start of the season
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IN 1990 Gerhard Berger's seat in his McLaren was frequently as comfortable as an electric chair, yet he said nothing and soldiered on. Nigel Mansell's altogether different reaction to the cramped confines of his new McLaren may be an index of their disparate characters. He will sit out the first two races of the season until McLaren can come up with a car he can fit into.

At a time when the teams, especially McLaren, have been investing millions of dollars in the development of all-new cars for 1995, this very public failure to produce one that fits either of its drivers comes as a major black eye, and does not augur well for the longevity of this new alliance.

Last year was to Formula One grand prix racing what Vietnam was to Lyndon B Johnson's presidency. At one point, the sport was almost brought to its knees following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. The governing body, the FIA, the drivers and the teams all desperately want this to be a "quiet" year. The regulations have been turned on their head after the events at last year's San Marino Grand Prix sparked off an intensity of self-examination not seen in the sport since Jim Clark was killed at Hockenheim in 1968.

Engine capacity has been cut from 3.5 to 3 litres to reduce power outputs. Major changes to the aerodynamics of the cars have sought to reduce the downforce that sires cornering power. Safety has been the watchword throughout; chassis must now have wider cockpit openings, and higher sides to offer the sort of increased lateral protection that might have helped Karl Wendlinger in the accident at Monaco last May that left him comatose for 18 days. New structures to absorb impacts are now mandatory, and the FIA's pre- season chassis crash tests have never been so demanding. Now, as the teams prepare to get racing again, in Brazil this weekend, after the toughest winter lay-off in memory, their hopes for a lower profile have yet again been engulfed in controversy.

Mansell, not known for suffering in silence, draws public attention like an electro-magnet. Just as his signature on a £7m contract was a coup for McLaren, so his refusal to race has brought high embarrassment. Friday was more Red Face than Red Nose Day in Woking.

The Great Cockpit Cock-up has a deep irony that one may be sure has not been lost on McLaren or rivals snickering along the pit lane. When Berger had that painfully cramped season, cockpits were ludicrously short to keep a car's weight distribution at its optimum. The 6ft Austrian has been one of the leading campaigners for sensible cockpit dimensions, and these finally came with the 1995 regulations. McLaren's current problem stems from the fact that its MP4/10 was designed around Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, who at that time seemed the Finn's likely partner. But when Williams opted to retain the Scot, Mansell moved into the frame at McLaren. His height is not a problem, but his breadth is, for the cockpit is too narrow in its present state to allow him to flex his elbows for the duration of a grand prix. If you've ever done an endurance kart race you'll be familiar with funny-bone bruising, and if you watch the in-car cameras during grands prix you can see that driving a Formula One car is more like an alligator wrestling match.

As the Williams technical director, Patrick Head, will testify, Mansell is a driver who likes to put a lot of physical effort and forearm strength into his driving. On the face of it he is pulling the sort of prima donna act that IndyCar will not be missing, and he is, after all, being paid the sort of money that would make even water and electricity chiefs salivate. But as Jackie Stewart has said: "If you're not comfortable in a car, you're never going to be able to drive it properly."

Mansell's misfortune is Mark Blundell's big break after being abandoned by Tyrrell on financial grounds. But in reality the 28-year-old from Royston faces a thankless task, for he will probably be no less uncomfortable than Mansell has been in testing. Underlying all the hoopla is the crucial fact that the McLaren doesn't work at present, which is half the reason why Mansell is ambivalent about driving it.

While this misfortune has befallen McLaren, others have been pushing ahead. Eddie Jordan's team now uses the Peugeot engine discarded by McLaren, which has switched to Mercedes-Benz, and has been setting fast times in testing. Many tip the Irishman to achieve his first F1 victory in 1995. Jordan himself gives his famous conspiratorial glance, and offers: "Williams look very strong, stronger than ever."

And indeed they do, for Damon Hill and David Coulthard have been pushing one another along very nicely as they develop their new car, and have watched with ill- disguised pleasure while the reigning world champion Michael Schumacher has struggled with transmission problems in the new Benetton that now uses the same Renault engine as they do. Ferrari's progress has been stymied by suspension failures, but the indications are that the new car could be the most aerodynamically efficient Ferrari yet.

The opposition have been of less concern to them than the argument over the terms of the super-licences they need before they can race. The FIA has presented fresh clauses as a fait accompli, and so far fewer than 10 drivers have signed the documents, and await a showdown this weekend. For much of the off-season, discussion has centred around whether the new regulations will allow the driver to become a more important part of the overall performance package. Thus far, though, they have contributed more to the inevitable politics. So much for a quiet start to the season.