The 40-year-old Englishman, endeavouring to familiarise himself with the characteristics of an alien Williams-Renault, could manage only seventh place in the first qualifying session for tomorrow's French Grand Prix.
Michael Schumacher, naturally, parked his Benetton-Ford on provisional pole position, followed by Gerhard Berger, in a Ferrari, with a hugely relieved and self-satisfied Damon Hill, in the other Williams, third. This had been, Hill suggested, an eye opener for the former world champion.
Mansell, hired from IndyCars to bolster the Williams-Renault effort this weekend, maintained he was, in the circumstances, content. 'Seventh on the first day, with a limited number of laps, I'm pleased,' he said. 'I still have to get a balance, settle in and feel comfortable. I am optimistic I can go quicker. The car is a lot more nervous than an IndyCar. I said this was going to be a big challenge.'
Victory, however, does not figure in his plans. He seeks only to assist the cause, and would, if he found himself with the luxury, hand that privilege to Hill. 'I doubt I can win,' Mansell said. 'The Benetton and the Schumacher combination is probably unbeatable. But if I can give the team any information or ideas to help improve the car, it will have been worth it.'
Mansell gradually improved his time yesterday, but was never in touch with the main event. Hill split the two new Ferraris and kept Schumacher within his sights.
'I had a good run, but the competition is hotting up,' Hill said. 'Ferrari are there and with Michael you just don't know how hard he's trying. (Schumacher, in fact, settled for his early time and saved a set of tyres.)
'I think today may have been an eye opener for Nigel. He's been witness to the situation but the Williams is different now. And it's very competitive in Formula One. Everyone is at the height of the year, and to jump in at the middle of the season highlights the difficulties.
'It's nice to know Nigel is prepared to help me. The competition is tough enough. But I feel quite strongly I want to get the points on merit, not handed on a plate. There again, I wouldn't say no.'
Schumacher, reliability permitting, should be on for his sixth win in seven races and another step towards the championship. Hill's more realistic target of second place could be complicated by the growing threat from Ferrari.
Jean Alesi was fourth yesterday, his pursuit of a front-row position interrupted by an excursion into gravel country, which interfered with the new car's bodywork.
Martin Brundle indicated McLaren-Peugeot might be in contention for a share of the spoils with fifth place, immediately ahead of Rubens Barrichello, in a Jordan- Hart. Eddie Irvine, in the other Jordan, was 12th, Mark Blundell, in a Tyrrell-Yamaha, 15th, and Johnny Herbert, in a Lotus-Mugen, 18th.
Schumacher, Berger and Brundle have again been at the forefront of discussions to formulate demands for changes to the Monza circuit, which is due to host the Italian Grand Prix in September. The organisers are reluctant to cut down trees to accommodate alterations.
Schumacher said: 'If they don't make the changes, we won't race there. We have to ask what is more important, the life of a human being or trees.'
FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours) First qualifying times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1min 17.085sec; 2 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:17.441; 3 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:17.539; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:17.855; 5 M Brundle (GB) McLaren-Peugeot 1:18.112; 6 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:18.326; 7 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1:18.340; 8 J Verstappen (Neth) Benetton-Ford 1:18.669; 9 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren- Peugeot 1:19.041; 10 E Bernard (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:19.292; 11 H-Harald Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Mercedes 1:19.318; 12 E Irvine (Irl) Jordan-Hart 1:19.463; O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:19.697; 14 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:19.969; M Blundell (GB) Tyrrell- Yamaha 1:20.001; 16 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:20.084; 17 M Alboreto (It) Minardi-Ford 1:20.097; 18 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Mugen Honda 1:20.108; 19 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Mugen Honda 1:20.122; 20 A de Cesaris (It) Sauber-Marcedes 1:20.145; 21 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Ford 1:20.576; 22 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Ford 1:20.707; 23 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Footwork- Ford 1:20.801; 24 O Beretta (Fr) Larrousse-Ford 1:21.964; 25 D Brabham (Aus) Simtek-Ford 1:22.527; 26 J-M Gounon (Fr) Simtek-Ford 1:23.264; 27 B Gachot (Fr) Pacific-Ilmor 1:24.048; 28 P Belmondo (Fr) Pacific- Ilmor 1:24.637.