Motor Racing: Beaming Mansell bounces back on satellite: Mike Rowbottom takes part in a transatlantic talk-in with the Formula One world champion

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The Independent Online
THE IMAGE of a figure in a pale blue polo shirt hung before the eyes of the assembled British media yesterday. Familiarly bushy eyebrows took on a life of their own as Nigel Mansell charged on past - and occasionally through - a jam of questioners taking advantage of a 45-minute satellite link with Indianapolis, where tomorrow he will negotiate what he refers to as 'the biggest sporting event in the world, period'.

Given that is how he sees his first Indianapolis 500, he appeared absurdly relaxed. That was as far as one could judge from the huge picture being beamed back via New York to the Canary Wharf office of Texaco, sponsors of the team - in its full commercial glory, the K-Mart Texaco Havoline Newman-Haas team - for whom the Formula One world champion drives.

The technology involved in such global communication afforded the Englishman considerably more amusement than the demands made on him by the IndyCar's technology. He was a regular card, in the heavy-handed manner of a Botham. Would he ever contemplate a return to Formula One? 'Why, are you making me an offer?' Was he aware that some of his rivals in the 33-strong field, unhappy at what they perceived as his blocking tactics, didn't want him to be in the race? 'If I'm fortunate enough to win the race on Sunday there will probably be 32 drivers that would not like me to compete in it.'

In between interviews with people he was unable to see himself, he made faces at the camera and joked with the technicians at his end. 'Hey. . .I got Texaco in. K-Mart's probably going to shoot me.' Offstage laughter.

Yet, as another interviewer prepared to take advantage of the satellite time, Mansell eased himself uncomfortably forward in his chair. The back operation which he required after his 180mph shunt into a concrete wall in practice at Phoenix last month required 100 stitches. From the look on his face, most of them hurt.

Mansell has raced through pain before in his career; he is clearly doing so again, although things are nowhere near as uncomfortable for him as they were at Long Beach in his first race back after the crash, when he was making his way to and from the pits in a golf buggy. 'The last week has paid dividends,' he said. 'I got back home to Florida and rested. I'm not back to the way I was two or three months ago, but I've got up to speed quite well. . .'

The question of how he would cope with getting up to speed in his first oval track race was one which preoccupied several of his questioners. 'You are entering corners at 240 miles per hour. More if you are in a slipstream. And five feet or two feet away is a concrete wall.' He paused for a moment. 'Yes, it does catch your attention, doesn't it?'

The memory of his Phoenix crash is something he is trying to use positively, rather than forget. 'I don't want to put it out of my mind. It will act as my safety valve. I'm one of the few racers there this year that knows how hard those walls can bite.'

He has been told by those who know these things - including, no doubt, his veteran colleague Mario Andretti - that he cannot hope to race his car for all 500 miles. He will thus - reluctantly, one feels - proceed steadily for the first 400 miles tomorrow. Then fireworks.

For all Mansell's patent excitement with his new racing life, he carries a profound sense of loss after his falling out with the Williams team at the end of last season which precipitated the switch. 'Formula One should never have let me go,' he said. 'I was not totally blameless in what happened, but a lot of people have got a lot of regrets about it.'

Pressed again about the possibility of his racing in Formula One once more, he demurred, although he would not deny it outright. And he expressed a strong hope that he would race in Britain again - perhaps with the IndyCar set-up. Perhaps not.

'Some of the excitement which we had in Formula One previously doesn't exist now. And now I am out of Formula One I can say that some of the political shenanigans are going on still, where people can't agree on the rules and regulations - that disillusions people too.

'For my followers and supporters, the way things transpired last year was obviously disappointing. There's no question that if I had been afforded the opportunity to defend my championship in the manner in which I won it, I would still be there. But it wasn't within my power to do that. So I think I did the most honourable thing I could.'

There were several more honourable mentions for his sponsors, and then his time was up. By rights, his eyebrows ought to have lingered for a while, like the Cheshire Cat's grin. 'We're off? We're clear? We're done?' That's it, Nigel. Only another 500 miles to go.

(Photograph omitted)