Motor Racing: Mansell approaches crossroads: Briton's role in French Grand Prix provokes transfer talk

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The Independent Online
NIGEL MANSELL returns to his day job this week, resuming the pursuit of a seemingly lost cause in IndyCars, and leaving Formula One's four biggest teams to ponder whether they should compete for his services next year.

The 40-year-old former world champion has something of a question mark over his head after a less than impressive comeback performance in Sunday's French Grand Prix, at Magny-Cours, never able to get in touch with the front-runners and retiring his Williams-Renault with a hydraulic pump failure.

Williams have already set up a deal with Mansell for the last three races of the season and are considering negotiating with him for a full 1995 campaign. That prospect has alerted Benetton, Ferrari and McLaren and all could enter the bidding.

Benetton are anxious to find a worthy driver for their second car and partner to the apparently irresistible Michael Schumacher. It is thought they are about to announce a switch from Ford to Renault engines and the French company were prime movers for Mansell's return last weekend.

Mansell has an on-going love affair with Ferrari, the team he raced with in 1989 and '90, and they may have a vacancy if Jean Alesi's fragile relationship gives way. He, in turn, might be a candidate for Williams.

McLaren, who pride themselves in shopping for the best available, would have to be interested. Ron Dennis, the team's managing director, is not Mansell's greatest admirer yet is enough of a businessman to have made inquiries about the British driver in the past.

Williams hold the initiative and the team's principal, Frank Williams, maintained the pounds 1m acquisition of Mansell for the French race was '100 per cent worth it'.

Others may not be so convinced. Jackie Stewart, the three-times world champion, believes a season and a half in IndyCars may have taken the edge off Mansell's game. He said: 'He still has tremendous ability but it's a different environment, not as tough, hard and competitive or aggressively demanding as Formula One, and that may have had its effect.'

But then perhaps some expected too much on Sunday. Mansell himself may have raised aspirations by his familiar, charging display in the final qualifying session. That his team-mate, Damon Hill, was inspired to beat him to pole heaped further credit on Mansell.

Producing one blindingly quick lap and sustaining such pace for the duration of a grand prix, however, are two entirely different matters. What is clear is that he would have to prepare himself thoroughly for a full championship and next winter would give him the opportunity to do that. He is currently 7kg heavier than when he won the world title, two years ago.

A Formula One team owner convinced Mansell does want to return is Eddie Jordan. He said: 'He must know it's better in Formula One, that's why he wants back. I never felt he would enjoy America. It is his style in a way, but deep down I know it's not. It's a different culture.'