Motor Racing: Mansell goes back on tour

Norman Fox at Brands Hatch finds a haven for old masters of Formula One
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The Independent Online
FORMULA ONE this season is boring. However, if we are to believe Ken Tyrrell's comments in the press this week, Formula One offers a fascinating insight into seeing how long it will take Goodyear to develop tyres that will allow other cars to catch up with the McLaren.

Well, OK, if soft-compound rubber turns you on, but for proper bumper- to-bumper stuff Brands Hatch is the place to be today for two rounds of the Auto Trader RAC British Touring Car Championship which later in the season is set to be further enlivened by the arrival of a certain Nigel Mansell.

Predictability is not on this season's touring car agenda. In the six rounds so far, only one driver, 44-year-old David Leslie, in a Nissan Primera, has won twice, and there have been five different types of winning car.

What is more, the leader on points in the championship, James Thompson, a Yorkshireman in a Honda Accord, has not yet won a race. A new format in which there is a sprint of 25 laps followed by a longer feature race, including pit stops, has added spice to an already tasty formula.

Mansell is not actually driving this weekend, but has been doing a lot of testing in his Ford Mondeo and is committed to three real races starting at Donington on 14 June. The former Formula One World Champion got tired of being a former something at 44 and after several rumours about going back into Formula One proved to be false starts, he is temporarily committed to cars with lids on.

His practice sessions have tended to be more spectacular than spectacularly fast. These past few days at Brands he has generally been a second or so off the pace of the leaders but obviously enjoying himself immensely. As one of many veteran ex-Formula One drivers who have gravitated towards saloon car racing, he is in plentiful company when talking in that peculiarly Spitfire-pilotish way beloved of motor racing people of a certain age. He says he has had his "moments" in practice, which is not a comment on his fast laps, but of slewing the car off the circuit while grinning all over his face.

To think of Mansell as a bit past it is not only to underestimate the considerable residue of his ability to make any sort of car go exceptionally fast but an insult to the memory of Juan Fangio who was about the same age and still World Champion.

The imminent arrival of Mansell on the grid has reawakened the interest of several other of his oldish rivals, not least another ex-World Champion, Jodi Scheckter, 48, who Honda and Nissan are supposed to be interested in signing up for a few races. His age is not a problem, if Mansell and his fellow Ford driver Will Hoy link up this summer their combined years will be 89.

Mansell's task will be to restore Ford's prestige in a form of motor racing that relates to the family car. For the moment the well-organised Vauxhall team is the one he has been watching with most interest. He says that by comparison his Ford team is not up to scratch yet, and he has not made up his mind whether he wants to do a full season in the touring cars next summer. He hints, mysteriously about "other offers".

But what is beyond doubt is the esteem in which he is held by the British crowds. However dour he may have seemed off the track, on it he was Union Jack personified. Motor racing badly needs drivers who arouse a passionate following, even if they only drive family transporters at unsociable speeds.

Top speeds in the hot sunshine yesterday hovered just under 100 mph and promised more paint-scrapingly close races today. Sweden's Rikard Rydell, in a Volvo S40, had a slight advantage over Britain's Anthony Reid in a Nissan Primera in practice for the "feature" race, but the top 15 drivers were divided by less than a second.

Getting on the front of the grid at Brands is always of paramount importance since overtaking is difficult, which is one of the reasons why mandatory pit stops with a change of two tyres have been introduced. Today, Thompson will start the longer race on the second row alongside the defending champion, Alain Menu, who nevertheless qualified only 0.449 seconds behind Rydell.

Rydell will also start on pole ahead of Reid, after being quickest over a single "one-shot showdown" lap yesterday. This is also part of the new format allowing drivers to warm up over a single lap then be timed over another.

Curiously Will Hoy, who had his qualifying tie for today's longer race disregarded after a technical infringement, held fastest qualifying time for the sprint until Rydell, Reid and Thompson went quicker despite an oily track.