Mansell makes good his new family ties : MOTOR RACING

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The Independent Online
Nigel Mansell was back playing the role he revels in: centre stage, lights, cameras, the whole bit. What is more, he plans to stay there for another two or three years yet.

It seems the old warhorse is not ready to be put out to grass just yet and, significantly, Ron Dennis, having signed him for McLaren-Mercedes on a one- year contract, holds out the incentive of a further deal.

Mercedes, too, are new partners and Dennis appears intent on some stability. He talked of loyalty and his "family" at yesterday's official announcement, at a London hotel. Then why not give Mansell the option he wanted? "To keep you on your toes," Dennissaid, turning to the 41-year-old former champion and only half joking.

Mansell contends he has no fears about his ability, fitness or motivation. He is encouraged by new regulations which will no longer penalise the heavier drivers and the promise of an innovative car, due to be unveiled within a fortnight.

"It's only a question of when we start winning," Mansell enthused. "I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't think I had another championship in me."

A championship may be too much to ask this year, that is why Mansell, who said he would come back only to have a chance of the title, is looking to next year and beyond. "I don't want to build up something here just for someone else to take it over."

He did not wish to talk about the past and open old wounds, but that was a clear reference to the experience he had to endure at Williams, giving way to Alain Prost two years ago. It is widely supposed that Michael Schumacher, the world champion, will bemoving from Benetton to McLaren next year, but that is far from arranged, Dennis stressed.

Williams, of course, was Mansell's intended destination this time. Instead, they chose the 23-year-old Scot, David Coulthard, to partner Damon Hill, and circumstances conspired to forge this most improbable alliance with McLaren. Dennis and his team haveregularly poked fun at Mansell over the years. The British driver was once depicted as a gorilla at a McLaren party. It was a subject Dennis knew he could not duck. He admitted he carried preconceived ideas into his negotiations with Mansell.

"Our first meeting was brief and catastrophic," Dennis said. "We are different characters and people knew about the opinions I had of him. At the second meeting I did some plain speaking. Nigel brings a unique style to his racing and he has a public image which is important, especially to the media.

"I had to look behind the split personality and I prefer the Nigel Mansell I eventually got to know than the one I had been familiar with. My attitude towards him has changed. He is committed to many things, his family and his racing. And I think he is now beginning to realise we are a focused family, committed to winning races."

Mansell concurred: "I think we both learned a lot about each other we hadn't appreciated before and we like what we see. Ron has demonstrated certain things I hadn't experienced in motor racing. He stepped in to sort out hiccups in the contract negotiations and showed himself to be thoroughly professional."

Even then, however, they were separated by $100,000 (£63,000) after the inevitable sparring, reluctant giving and taking. It was a familiar scenario for Dennis, who once settled a similar dispute with Ayrton Senna by tossing a coin. This time, he and hisnew driver agreed to donate the sum to charity. Mansell is still thought to be on a retainer worth about $10m, plus, no doubt, a range of extras.

Mansell takes over the No 7 car from Mika Hakkinen, but we should not read anything into that, Dennis maintained. McLaren do not believe in a No 1 and No 2 driver, and Hakkinen apparently loves No 8 (equally, we presumably should not read anything into the fact that Mansell was in the middle of the table and the promotional photographs). Mansell had hoped to retrieve his old "Red Five" from Williams but that was one deal Dennis could not pull off.

Mansell, in any case, is back on the trail of the No 1 he has never carried on a grand prix car. He said: "I am excited and just looking forward to getting in the new car. I have been lucky to drive for the greatest names in Formula One - Lotus, Williamsand Ferrari, and now McLaren. They are the only team I admire and haven't driven for.

"They have 104 wins and I have 31, and over the years we've taken a lot of wins off each other. We've been main rivals. But now we're together and I can sense that tremendous will to succeed again. They had a lean year last year and they are hungry. It is often said that a team are at their most dangerous when they've been hurt.

"I want it just as much as they do. You can't stop the fire burning if it's burning. I love driving. If I had done badly in the last two races of last season I wouldn't be here, but we know what happened [a fourth place and a win] and I am fired up now. This opportunity has given me motivation like I've never had before. I am carrying the banner for the over-40s and I have no problem with that."