He is thoroughly at his ease here, as always at Silverstone. For one thing, he loves the circuit, and has had great days here. For another, there is the adulation. While some sportsmen are uncomfortable in this situation, Mansell relishes it. And probably, he admits, the cheers and the banners are worth half a second a lap to him.
He is on the pole here, and by miles, just as he was 12 months ago. But it was his pole position in 1990, at the wheel of a Ferrari, which stands in the minds of most who saw it as perhaps the greatest lap he has driven.
Today, he is in the Williams- Renault, demonstrably the fastest car in the place, and the same was true last year. You may beat Ayrton Senna without a significant car advantage, but you do not annihilate him. No one does. In the Ferrari, though, Mansell did not have the quickest car, yet still consummately outqualified the rest. 'At Silverstone,' acknowledges Alain Prost, his team-mate of the time, 'Mansell is impossible to beat in qualifying.'
He led the race that day, but the Ferrari broke, and as he walked back to the pits, there was none of the expected anger in his body language. Rather, he languidly threw his gloves and Balaclava to the spectators. Later in the afternoon, as Prost attended the victory press conference, Mansell announced his retirement, and somehow it was no real surprise.
Unwilling to stay with a Ferrari team in which Prost was increasingly assertive, he had thought to return to Williams, but only the night before learned that the English team still had hopes of enticing Senna from McLaren. While still well able to excel before the British public, he gave the impression that day of simply having had enough of Formula One.
All that turned around later in the year. Senna decided to stay with McLaren, which left Williams without a No 1 driver for 1991. The only one available - if he could be talked into a change of mind - was Mansell. In the season and a half since, the Englishman has won 11 races with the team.
If the Monaco Grand Prix is generally perceived to be the event of the year, the race everyone wants to win, there is no doubt that, for Mansell, it is Silverstone. He does not use hotels for the British Grand Prix, preferring to stay in a huge motorhome at the circuit - the Mansell Stockade, they call it, surrounded as it is by smaller satellite campers, like so many covered wagons in a John Ford movie. Admittance, not surprisingly, is strictly by invitation only.
It is expected to be that way, too, at the front end of today's race. Not for a long time has a driver looked so convincing a favourite. Mansell is fond of stressing that he never sandbags, but at Silverstone more than anywhere else he does not sandbag. In Friday's dry qualifying session, he produced a quite stupefying lap, far quicker than anything McLaren or Benetton could produce. More significantly, though, it was two seconds faster than the best time of Patrese, the other man in a Williams-Renault.
Yesterday it was Patrese's turn to show that he, too, is scarcely faint of heart. Towards the end of the unofficial morning session, he was blamelessly involved in a big accident with Ligier's Erik Comas, and although neither driver was hurt, both cars were destroyed. In the hour-long afternoon qualifying session, though, Patrese was again beaten only by Mansell.
The session made no difference to the starting grid, for conditions were wet, and times appropriately slower. This was especially helpful to Brabham, for whom Damon Hill claimed the final starting position, thus qualifying for a grand prix for the first time. The British race is one of the few not won by his late father, Graham.
While most of the local interest has necessarily been focused on Mansell, there is strong British representation elsewhere, with Martin Brundle's Benetton and Johnny Herbert's Lotus qualifying sixth and seventh respectively. Both men scored points in France last week, and both should do so again today. After a disappointing start to his season, Brundle has achieved good results of late, and his confidence has soared. He is aware, however, that his place in the team next year is by no means certain, and the expected presence at Silverstone of the Indianapolis 500 winner, Al Unser Jr, will not be lost on him. The American, keen to move into Formula One, has been invited here as a guest of the Benetton team.
Elsewhere, the speculation continues that Prost will return to racing next year as a Williams-Renault driver. The president of Renault, Patrick Faure, this weekend stressed his company's wish that Mansell should stay with the team. For his part, the world champion- elect reiterated his hope that Patrese should remain his team- mate.
'Why break up a winning combination?' Mansell said. But the inescapable fact is that Patrese has won only twice in the last 18 months. For Renault - and also for Williams - the attractions of signing history's most successful driver are obvious.
Whatever, it should be another 1-2 for the team today, be it wet or dry. As Senna points out, a better car is a better car, whatever the conditions. He and the rest face a dispiriting afternoon.
BRITISH GRAND PRIX (Silverstone, 5.226km, 3.247 miles) Final qualifying times: 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 18.965sec (ave speed 238.252kph, 148.043mph); 2 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:20.884; 3 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda 1:21.706; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:22.066; 5 G Berger (Aut) McLaren- Honda 1:22.296; 6 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:23.489; 7 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:23.605; 8 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:23.723; 9 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus- Ford 1:23.813; 10 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:23.957; 11 B Gachot (Bel) Venturi- Lamborghini 1:24.065; 12 M Alboreto (It) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:24.198; 13 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:24.545; 14 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 1:24.558; 15 G Tarquini (It) Fondmetal-Ford 1:24.761; 16 U Katayama (Jap) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:24.851; 17 A Suzuki (Jap) Footwork- Mugen Honda 1:24.924; 18 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:24.984; 19 J J Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari 1:25.037; 20 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:25.096; 21 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 1:25.123; 22 P Martini (It) Dallara-Ferrari 1:25.221; 23 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 1:25.362; 24 M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan-Yamaha 1:25.988; 25 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:25.998; 26 D Hill (GB) Brabham-Judd 1:26.378. Did not qualify: 27 A Zanardi (It) Minardi- Lamborghini 1:26.458; 28 P Belmondo (Fr) March-Ilmor 1:27.995; 29 A Chiesa (Swit) Fondmetal-Ford 1:28.452; 30 E Van De Poele (Bel) Brabham-Judd 1:28.719.
World Drivers' Championship standings: 1 N Mansell (GB) 66pts; 2 R Patrese (It) 34; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) 26; 4= A Senna (Bra), G Berger (Aut) 18; 6 J Alesi (Fr) 11; 7 M Brundle (GB) 9; 8 M Alboreto (It) 5; 9= M Hakkinen (Fin), A de Cesaris (It) 4; 11= K Wendlinger (Aut), E Comas (Fr) 3; 13= I Capelli (It), P Martini (It) 2; 14= J Herbert (GB), B Gachot (Bel) 1.
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