Motor Racing: Mansell fuels growing speculation

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The Independent Online
BETWEEN the hours of one and two yesterday afternoon Nigel Mansell devoted his time here to protecting his pole position from McLaren. Between the hours of three and four, he talked with Ron Dennis, the head of McLaren.

Was this a conversation of consequence, involving a possible contract for the future, or a piece of crude theatre to put pressure on Mansell's current team, Williams-Renault, with which he has been in dispute for some weeks now? Answers on a postcard, please.

It is clear, however, that the impasse between Mansell and Williams has deepened in recent days. Nothing is impossible in the Le Carre world of Formula One, of course, but the prospect of a new contract between the two parties seems increasingly remote. Over the Monza weekend, there has been speculation that Mansell will accept a lucrative offer to go Indycar racing in America next year - either that, or he will retire from the sport altogether.

After his pole position press conference yesterday, however, he said he 'had some people to see', after which he might have something to say about his future. And he promptly went to the McLaren motorhome for a highly public meeting with Dennis.

A busy weekend, all in all, for the McLaren boss. Two hours later he left the circuit - in the company of Alain Prost, the only man as yet with a firm Williams contract for 1993. Why so? Perhaps because of Frank Williams's continuing desire also to sign Ayrton Senna. Should Senna eventually join Williams, it would be a surprise to see Prost remain, and most believe he would go to McLaren . . .

Simple? In reality, it is getting to be like the Ring Cycle.

But Mansell's protracted negotiations with Williams have had little effect on the team's track performance. He duly starts today's Italian Grand Prix from pole position.

Inside the team's motorhome, however, nerve ends are frayed all the way around. Mansell, already confirmed as the 1992 world champion, is less than thrilled that his team is offering for 1993 a somewhat lower stipend than he received this year. Williams point out that there is less money about than there was, that the increasing priority is to spend it on technology, rather than drivers.

Mansell has won the title this year in a car which, by virtue of its advanced technology, has usually been faster than anything else. The cost of developing these systems, though, has been daunting.

'I have some sympathy for Mansell,' a rival team owner commented yesterday, 'because it must seem rough to win the title, and then face a pay cut. He's unlucky to have won it now, rather than a couple of years ago. The fact is, though, that the cost of technology has gone through the roof - just at a time when sponsorship is harder to find. Save a few million dollars on a driver's retainer, and you have that much more to spend on R & D. There's not much point in paying the driver dollars 20m or something - and then giving him a car that can't win.'

Earlier this year Frank Williams said that his driver bill for 1992 was almost 40 per cent of the team's total budget. 'At present that's what the market requires,' he said, 'but if we have to cut back in the future, the main target for reductions would have to be what we can afford to pay the drivers.' That time has clearly come.

Renault is deeply embarrassed, not to say angry, about the whole affair. For months now, France has been awaiting formal confirmation of Prost's signing for the team, but this cannot be announced until the identity of his team-mate is known. Nor, for that matter, can Prost begin testing for Williams-Renault. The three- times world champion had his seat fitting for the car weeks ago, and was due to drive the car for the first time this coming week.

Still there remains the question of Senna. Rumour has it that the Brazilian even made attempts to persuade Marlboro, primary sponsors of his current team, McLaren, to transfer their allegiance to Williams, taking him with them in the process. Marlboro, however, are to remain with their existing teams, McLaren and Ferrari.

On Friday Honda confirmed, as expected, that they are to withdraw from the grand prix scene at the end of this season. And, at a press conference later in the day, Dennis of McLaren said he had yet to settle on an engine manufacturer to fill the Japanese void.

American Indycar driver, Michael Andretti, has accepted a drive with McLaren next year, but Senna looks disinclined to continue with the team which has taken him to three world championships in four years. 'Without Honda engines, for me it's finished,' he said on Friday afternoon.

Few doubt his attempts to join Williams have finished, however. The only certain facts are that Williams and McLaren will run two-car teams again in 1993 - and that one of the four drivers will be Andretti. That apart, all permutations of Mansell, Senna and Prost are possible. At Monza the hectic activity has been away from the race track.

ITALIAN GRAND PRIX (Monza, 5.8km, 3.604 miles) Final qualifying times: 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 22.221sec (253.950kph, 157.797mph); 2 A Senna (Bra) McLaren- Honda 1:22.822; 3 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:22.976; 4 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:23.022; 5 G Berger (Aut) McLaren-Honda 1:23.112; 6 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton- Ford 1:23.629; 7 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 1:24.321; 8 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:24.413; 9 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:24.551; 10 B Gachot (Bel) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:24.654; 11 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus-Ford 1:24.807; 12 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:24.912; 13 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:25.140; 14 J J Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari 1:25.145; 15 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:25.178; 16 M Alboreto (It) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:25.234; 17 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 1:25.343; 18 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:25.354; 19 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:25.374; 20 G Tarquini (It) Fondmetal-Ford 1:25.420; 21 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:25.425; 22 P Martini (It) Dallara-Ferrari 1:25.528; 23 U Katayama (Japan) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:26.174; 24 E Naspetti (It) March-Ilmor 1:26.279; 25 E Van De Poele (Bel) Fondmetal-Ford 1:26.407; 26 M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan-Yamaha 1:26.463. Did not qualify: 27 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:26.510; 28 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 1:27.331.