Mansell applies the `fun' formula

Norman Fox watches the former champion wrestling with a new challenge
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NIGEL Mansell will "enjoy" the experience of starting a race at the back of the grid at Donington Park this afternoon. The former Formula One world champion's return to competitive racing in the British Touring Car Championship began inauspiciously yesterday when he qualified for today's main feature race 19th out of 21.

Creditably, though, he will start the shorter "sprint" event on the second row after "amazing" himself with a superbly quick lap. He was far from heartbroken by his first qualifying session on the track where, in 1993, he made his first return to racing, also in saloon cars, and collided with Tiff Needell, smashing into a wall and falling unconscious.

Yesterday his Ford Mondeo was four miles per hour slower than the Nissan Primera driven by Anthony Reid, in qualifying for the feature race. "The back of the grid is the perfect spot from which to watch the race and overtake a few cars. I'm going to get some more experience - that's what I want. It's a challenge and an education," he said.

With the spirit that makes the 44-year-old a hero to British motor racing enthusiasts, he said: "We are going to have a lot of fun trying to overtake 18 cars on the first corner."

All he can do is hope that the rain comes down harder than it did yesterday when he got caught changing too late to slick tyres as the track dried. So far in testing sessions, his Mondeo has always behaved better in the wet than dry, as he proved in the "sprint" qualifier yesterday.

Nobody expected Mansell to do much more than, at best, take a mid-grid position for today's races, but equally nobody would underestimate his experience and determination. The problems, though, are not only that the Ford Mondeos have not quite been on the pace, but that in practice this summer Mansell has not always forgotten the habit of a lifetime, forcing a reluctant car beyond its limits.

He drove yesterday still suffering from a stiff neck and bruised jaw sustained on Thursday when, through no fault of his own, he was involved in a crash with the Vauxhall driver Mark Lemmer.

It was said by people who slyly watch private testing sessions that it made a change. Normally, Mansell has simply insulted tyre adhesion limits in his enthusiasm to get back on the pace of the quick boys - a term used loosely in this class of so many veteran drivers.

Rumours in the paddock yesterday were of shady intentions to stop him hogging all the publicity. Some other drivers were said to be looking out for the first opportunity to make sure he was given a little help in steering the Mondeo somewhere it didn't want to go. Mansell said: "It doesn't take much for that to happen in the dry, but in the wet it's different."

Since he is committed to only two more events in this year's Championship, the motor sport public will put up with a damp summer if it adds more excitement to an enthralling series now led by Rickard Rydell in a Volvo, who starts only three places ahead of Mansell in today's feature race, having also missed a dry "window" in qualifying.

In the 18-lap sprint race section today, Mansell will start with his sights on a surprise minor victory after his qualifying time in favoured wet conditions of 1min 18.639sec was fourth fastest behind Reid, Rydell and Paul Radisich. He said that at last he felt that the car had the right balance but that no one should expect too much.