Mansell's fits of paranoia are well known, but that doesn't mean they're not out to get him. In the paddock at the Grand Prix of Europe this weekend, you would be hard put to find enough Mansell fans to give him a push-start.
Poor Mansell. How typical, somehow, that he should be coming back at precisely the wrong moment. The fanfares are being played on broken bugles. The Union Jacks have the wrong name written across them. A million-dollar cheque is his only evidence that anyone wants his presence here at all.
'I don't have any expectations,' he said, sitting on the steps of his motor home between practice sessions on Thursday. 'I just want to do my best and keep my head down.' The moustache was Nigel Mansell's, the stitching on the overalls said Nigel Mansell, but the words had an unfamiliar ring.
Five months ago, when the plan was cooked up, it all looked very different. Ayrton Senna was dead, and Michael Schumacher was running away with the world championship while the two best cars in the field were being wasted on a pair of test drivers. The races were boring, the crowds were down, sooner or later the television ratings would go south, and the sponsors were starting to show signs of restlessness.
Bernie Ecclestone, whose hard business brain has turned Formula One from a game for gentleman amateurs into a paradigm of the contemporary TV- driven sports industry, knew there was only one short-term answer, only one man with the presence to put motor racing back on the front pages.
But by the time Williams's sponsors had agreed to stump up the million-dollars-a-race fee, the story had changed. A new plot-line had emerged in the battle for the championship between Schumacher and Damon Hill. It was a contrived script, depending for its tension on Schumacher's series of misadventures, and it meant that the story of this grand prix year will never have the resonance of the great seasons in which Fangio or Clark won their titles. But at least there was a story, one just about gripping enough to banish the shadows cast by the early-season tragedies. So Mansell, instead of returning to take up the banner against Schumacher, found himself surplus to requirements.
It was clear that Frank Williams and his design chief, Patrick Head, didn't want him there at all. 'It's not an engineering solution,' Head observed bleakly, no doubt remembering Mansell's penchant for blaming misfortune on anyone but himself, and probably thinking that the sponsors' millions would be better spent on the salaries of a few more software programmers. Frank Williams's words in Jerez this weekend, concerning the likelihood of Mansell staying with the team next season, could be interpreted as either realistic or grudging: 'If he's blindingly fast, we'll have to sign him.'
Damon Hill, naturally enough, also showed little enthusiasm for his new partner. After all, what could Mansell do but add confusion at a critical time, when all the team's resources needed to be focused on the championship contender? And Hill was having enough trouble with David Coulthard, the man Mansell was replacing.
Mansell is graceless, pompous, and unprepossessing. His noisy self-justifications make people cringe. He and his family have no natural place in the Formula One paddock, where the women are all Chanel size 8s and Niccolo Machiavelli is a Ferrari driver. Mansell, shoulder-charging his way through the stiletto-carriers, drowning their whispered lies with his noisy whingeing, is believed to lower the tone.
The obvious contrast is with Coulthard, whose seat Mansell has taken this weekend. His youthful good looks, his friendly manner and the drop-dead blonde girlfriend who gives him a lingering kiss just before he steps into the cockpit make Coulthard much more of a marketing man's idea of a grand prix driver. And the campaign to keep him in the second Williams, at Mansell's expense, has been chilling to watch.
Coulthard is a client of Mark McCormack's International Management Group, a company which often appears to operate on the assumption that sport exists merely to serve its own financial interests. He is also a protege of a fellow Scot, Jackie Stewart, who became McCormack's first motor racing client 25 years ago and learnt the business of interfacing sport, celebrity and commerce so well that he later became the first person to persuade a member of the Royal Family into sponsored kit.
Last week Stewart added his voice to the debate. 'I don't believe Mansell has anywhere else to go in Formula One outside Williams,' he said, with all the authority of a triple world champion. 'He's burnt his boats with every team he's been involved with. He has money, beautiful houses, boats and a jet. It's time for him to make way for a new generation.'
Exactly where that new generation might be coming from was made clear in a full-page advertisement in last weekend's Sunday Times, in which Paul Stewart Racing - 'a remarkable motor-racing team . . . set up by Jackie Stewart and his son Paul' - solicited interest from 'forward-thinking business partners' wishing to use motor racing as what it terms an 'Active Marketing Tool'. The secret of PSR's success, according to the ad, lies in its 'staircase of talent - a path where drivers, technicians, engineers and managers can move up through three different formulas in a series of steps to reach the level of Formula One grand prix racing'. Listing their successes, the advertisers do not fail to identify 'one of our original drivers, David Coulthard, whose skills were developed using our 'staircase of talent' '. How much, it must be asked, do Jackie and Paul Stewart need Coulthard in a Williams-Renault, and for what reasons?
The IMG-inspired propaganda blitz continued. Coulthard, we were told in the Daily Telegraph, had made 'a hugely favourable impression with Rothmans, Williams's principal backers, with his conduct at a conference for their UK sales force. The perception is that Mansell would be unsuited to such chores.' If a smooth manner with cigarette salesmen is among the current qualifications for a potential world champion, then it may be time to transfer one's interest to another sport altogether.
It was characteristically maladroit of Mansell to be drawn into the war of words, defending himself by bluntly questioning Coulthard's stature. He has come off worst in such mind-games before, against players as experienced as Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. But he could hardly be blamed for lashing out when confronted by something like the Daily Mail's contrast between 'the new Rob Roy of the cockpits' and 'the avaricious old fox Mansell'. So Jackie Stewart and Mark McCormack are in this pro bono publico or for the honour of Scotland, are they? And Nigel Mansell has come back to put his life at risk just for the money, eh?
The thing about Mansell is that when you stick him in a racing car, his instinct is to find somebody to overtake. In the cool, marketing-led world of modern Formula One, that is a rare quality. He has worked hard this weekend to get back up to speed in Formula One, slotting into a team devoted to the task of giving his team-mate a winning car. 'Nigel has had to come in cold,' his race engineer, John Russell, said yesterday. 'We're catching up on his lack of experience with the car, and trying to rebuild a rapport. The cars are different now, but he's adapting quite quickly.'
Russell, who started the season looking after Hill and has worked with all four of Williams's drivers this year, pointed out that Mansell is suffering from the unusual sensitivity of the machines. 'For the drivers, it's important to have as many miles as possible in the car. At this level, Formula One works in such a small envelope of ultimate performance, and you can't bully speed out of the car.'
After qualifying third on today's grid behind the two championship contenders, Mansell looked and sounded unusually relaxed. 'I'd like to point out that I've got the best seat in the house,' he observed, adding that he was pleased with his steady progress. 'But the cars are real critical. You're right on the edge, and if you get half a millimetre out you can go two seconds slower.'
Before the session he had borrowed a screwdriver from a mechanic and dived head first into the cockpit of his car, adjusting something or other. When he re-emerged, his wife Rosanne gave him a peck on the cheek before he tugged on his balaclava. Whether that is the sort of behaviour expected of an Active Marketing Tool is a question not even worth asking.
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