Motor Racing: Mansell eager to step into the firing line: Britain's Indycar new boy geared up for a rough reception on the gold coast

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The Independent Online
NIGEL MANSELL was put on stage one more time to sing the praises of IndyCar racing, its cars, its teams, its drivers and every bit-part player. But as the moment of truth drew nearer he acknowledged that he would be up there to be shot at.

'There's no question I'm a marked man,' he said here yesterday. 'Every man and his dog wants to beat me. They're gunning for me. There'll be 25 of them out there wanting to beat me and they'll do me no favours.

'I'm going to be finding myself in situations that are new to me and that I may not like. But I'm ready for them. It's an enormous challenge which I'm looking forward to.'

The challenge begins on the streets of this Gold Coast resort today with the first practice sessions for Sunday's IndyCar series curtain-raiser. The other drivers will be jockeying for qualifying positions and all will want, above all, to outmanoeuvre the former Formula One world champion. Just as he was the prize catch for this American-based championship, so he will be the prime target on the circuit.

Mansell is confronting this 'huge adventure' with modesty and good humour. He talks of the educational process he must go through and his desire for 'a nice quiet weekend'.

That was never quite the way of Mansell's Formula One weekends and no one in his new environment should be deluded. He is likely to hit the scene with all the ferocity of Cyclone Roger, which has been battering these parts for the past week.

Mansell has complemented his winter testing with the Newman- Haas Lola Ford by studying 50 hours of IndyCar racing videos. 'I've got my own mental profile of who does what out there,' he said.

'Having realised my boyhood dream by winning the Formula One world championship my motivation now is to break new ground for Britain in this series. I'm under a bit of pressure but I've been under more pressure over the years. I'm quietly confident but I wouldn't suggest we can do it straight away.'

Mansell maintained that the depth of competition would make this championship less predictable than Formula One and that 10 drivers - 'as good as those in Formula One', who include Bobby Rahal, the defending IndyCar champion, and Mansell's team-mate, Mario Andretti - were capable of victory. He contrasted that scenario with a Grand Prix contest that could involve only Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

It seems the 39-year-old Englishman can never escape Formula One, even when he expresses his determination to do so and his commitment to all things IndyCar. He affects a slamming of the door on his racing world of the past 13 years, yet somehow fumbles with the key.

'There are no approaches at this point from Formula One,' he said. 'No communiques to that effect. As for the future, I don't know.' Asked about a return to Williams, he answered: 'You'd have to ask Frank Williams. For me that's too much of a fairy-tale.'

Then, with his present boss, Carl Haas, sitting alongside, Mansell added: 'I'm focused on this. For any sportsman to be on top of his game he has got to be thinking only of that and not go off at a tangent. I can't even lapse into that thought pattern. I've got to be single minded. Formula One does not exist for me and IndyCars is my life. And please don't ask me any more about Formula One.'

Someone did. Wasn't there just a twinge of emotion inside him as 26 other drivers lined up for the South African Grand Prix without him? 'Everyone is human,' he said. 'I was sorry for Damon Hill. He had a terrible start. As did Michael Andretti.

'Of course you have feelings. Your emotions are stirred. I felt very sorry for Formula One that only five cars finished. I'm a fan of Formula One. It's been my life. It's great, but for me it's past. I've got to be focused on this or I could not do myself or my team justice.

'Coming to this is so refreshing. People think I'm joking when I say the big difference is that I've got no daggers in my back. It's been good to see everything more clearly. Some people in Formula One need to come up for air and see what is going on in the outside world. The trouble is they are too wrapped up in their own thing.'

Haas said he was 'optimistic that Nigel will enjoy his racing and be with us for some time to come. We are doing all we can to make him feel that way.'

The immediate task is Mansell's concern. He will endeavour to graduate from the 'slow' group of drivers to an advanced position on the grid. Come Sunday, he insists, nothing else will be on his mind.

'When you're a professional you become oblivious to everything else,' he said. 'An athlete will tell you that a small bomb could explode and not disturb his concentration at the start. I hope nothing affects me at the start. Then I'll be trying to win.'

This, however, may be a race and a championship he cannot win. He should be a class above the rest of this field, away from the ovals, at least, and anything that falls short of confirming as much will be construed as failure. The only certain winner from all the hullabaloo accompanying the Mansell roadshow is the IndyCar fraternity. They've never had it so good.

(Photograph omitted)

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