reports from Barcelona
While the young bloods are jostling for position at the head of the field, it appears, alas, there is no room at the top for the old champion, Nigel Mansell.
Michael Schumacher reasserted himself as the pick with his comprehensive victory in Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix here, Damon Hill is still there, of course, and no one should ignore Jean Alesi or David Coulthard, and Johnny Herbert, too, now has a taste for the champagne business. But Mansell's sorry capitulation further undermined prospects for a successful comeback campaign.
The Formula One paddock, ever a hive of rumour and mischief, was already buzzing with suggestions that he might not see out the season. The update speculates he could be parting company with McLaren-Mercedes after the British Grand Prix in July, unless there is a significant change for the better.
Mansell shrugs off the notion and declines to enter the discussion. He has, after all, had only two grands prix with the team and he may not be keen to give up a job said to be worth about £5m. Clearly, however, all is not well and, at the age of 41, he no longer relishes the midfield scramble, knowing he has no logical hope of winning races. This is not the return he envisaged when he abandoned America and IndyCars last season.
He drove his car into the garage after careering across a gravel trap just 18 laps into Sunday's race. He said the machine was "virtually undriveable" and added: "There's something wrong with the front of the car. It's hypersensitive. You've got to trust the car and I can't at the moment. I'm just hoping we make the big step forward."
McLaren and Mercedes diplomatically fend off questions about Mansell's performances and his future, though a hint of discord may be read into the post-race comment of the team's managing director, Ron Dennis: "Nigel had handling problems and chose not to continue."
At an earlier press conference here, Dennis intervened when Mansell had been asked how long he was prepared to persevere with an uncompetitive car. Dennis said: "You can't expect Nigel to predict what's going to happen and second guess what his feelings are going to be. We'll wait and see.
"Drivers thrive on success and achievement, and as soon as it gets better the motivation will soar. Let's see how well the team performs, and the engine and the car go, and that will lead you to the answer."
Mansell's young partner, Mika Hkkinen, has battled on regardless and had worked his way up to fifth place on Sunday before a fuel pressure problem forced him to retire 10 laps from the end. The contrast will not have gone unnoticed by the watching Mercedes hierarchy. They have invested heavily in this venture.
Norbert Haug, the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, said: "Everybody knows Nigel gives the absolute maximum when he has a good car, but he's not used to driving a car that is not capable of winning the world championship. It was disappointing to see only one red and white car out there. Mika did a good job until he had the problem.
"Everybody knew at the start of the season that we were not going to be in a position to win the championship this year. The whole philosophy we are adopting this year is to improve step by step. It will four months before our car can compete with the top teams."
The next step for McLaren, Mercedes and Mansell is Monaco, the blue riband event, a grand prix the Englishman has never won, on Sunday week. It is difficult to imagine him not being motivated, and even if victory is beyond reach, he has the opportunity to buoy his Formula One career and convince a sceptical paddock he still has the requisite mettle.Reuse content