Mansell ready to push himself

San Marino grand prix: Local hero is driven by a nation's expectation as a former champion aims to get back on track
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The Independent Online
TO THE Italians he is Il Leone, the lion. To the French, Le Dinosaur. To his legion of fans, Our Nige, and to the British tabloid press, he is manna from heaven, the man to whom things just seem to happen. But to Mika Hakkinen, he is someone else to beat who happens to share the same equipment. And beat him the Finn did in qualifying yesterday, in their first encounter as team-mates.

Only Nigel Mansell could win a race, then knock himself senseless on an overhead stanchion. Or strike the wall at the Phoenix oval at 170mph, yet recover to undertake two roller-coaster years of IndyCar racing that destroyed as many new relationships as it created. And only he could have trouble fitting into his McLaren on his return to Formula One.

As he prepares for his 186th grand prix at the age of 41, there is no shortage of observers who feel that he may be pushing for one season too many. Mansell has no self-doubt, but he is less ebullient, perhaps more aware of just what demands the latest breed of car imposes. "Though I'm off the pace, we know why and what to do," he said.

Being spurned by Williams clearly stung, but he has come to terms with the rebuff. "I can understand Frank's reasons," he said without rancour, and his praise for David Coulthard, who supplanted him, was without guile. "It was a double whammy because I didn't fit the McLaren. Sure, it's been disappointing, but reality is reality, isn't it?"

Despite missing two races, a second World Championship remains his goal. "Anything is possible in motor racing. I will give myself two or three races to get back up to speed. Going back to 1991, Ayrton ran away with the first four races. He was 40 points in front and it was not until the fifth race that I scored any points and we almost won the championship.

"You have to be very honest with yourself, especially with what we've gone through these past couple of years. And now to be with Marlboro McLaren Mercedes; it's a hell of a partnership and very exciting to be part of that future, no matter how long it might be for."

The grapevine is suggesting afresh that Schumacher, desperate to clean up his image, will replace him at McLaren at the end of the season. Unless, of course, Mansell can raise his game and beat the German.