Motor Racing: Mansell makes his mark in rookie role: A Briton abroad has been introduced to IndyCar's highs and lows: David Phillips reports from Long Beach, California, on the fluctuations of fortune for a Formula One refugee

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The Independent Online
NIGEL MANSELL has seen the best and the worst that IndyCar racing has to offer in the first six weeks of his new career. Mansell sampled life at the top with a dramatic victory in his IndyCar debut in Australia in March. Then he experienced the brutal reality of oval track racing at Phoenix International Raceway when he crashed and spent two weeks recuperating from his car's 170mph meeting with a concrete wall.

On Sunday, at Long Beach, he found something of the middle ground, leading at times, falling down to sixth place at others and finally finishing third. It was a race that highlighted the contrast between IndyCar racing and the world of Formula One that Mansell had come to know so well over the past decade.

There were two full-course caution periods, where the field is slowed to enable marshals to remove damaged race cars from the track and drivers' hard-won advantages over their competitors can be negated. The full gamut of IndyCar racing strategy came into play, as some drivers made pit stops for fuel and tyres during the caution periods, others did not and the running order was in a constant change of flux.

'I must say it was all very confusing,' Mansell said. 'One minute you're in the lead, the next you find yourself in sixth place.' The race winner, Paul Tracy, led 81 of the 105 laps enjoying leads of as much as 12 seconds, yet found himself as far down as seventh place at one point, sixth at another, and still recovered sufficient ground to record his first victory in the IndyCar World Series.

There was also a hefty amount of forceful driving and IndyCar officials imposed more than dollars 25,000 (pounds 17,000) in fines. The former Indianapolis 500 winners, Danny Sullivan and Arie Luyendyk, were among those penalised.

Mansell himself was involved in a minor controversy after he and the 1992 Indy 500 winner, Al Unser Jnr, touched wheels and Unser Jnr, normally a man of few words, lashed out at the British driver.

But as the dust settles, Mansell finds himself leading the IndyCar championship as the Indianapolis 500 looms in May. By virtue of his win, third place and two pole positions, Mansell enjoys a slim lead over his Newman-Haas team-mate, Mario Andretti.

'It's very gratifying to have been able to come back from my accident at Phoenix and race at Long Beach,' Mansell said. 'To find myself leading the championship at this stage is a little suprising. The fact that my team- mate Mario Andretti is second in the championship is, I think, indicative of the total professionalism of our team.'

Despite his impressive early performances, Mansell is under no illusions that he has conquered the world of IndyCar racing. Asked if he felt ready to tackle Indianapolis, he said: 'No'. Asked when he would be ready, he replied: 'May 30, I hope.'

PPG CART INDYCAR WORLD SERIES: Grand Prix of Long Beach (US unless stated): 1 P Tracy (Can), Penske-Chevrolet, 105 laps (ave speed 93.089mph); 2 B Rahal, Hogan-Chevrolet, 105; 3 N Mansell (GB) Lola-Ford Cosworth, 105; 4 T Fabi (It), Lola-Chevrolet, 105; 5 R Guerrero, Lola-Chevrolet, 104; 6 R Buhl, 1992 Lola-Chevrolet, 104; 7 S Pruett, Lola-Chevrolet, 103; 8 D Sullivan, Lola- Chevrolet, 103; 9 E Cheever, Penske-Chevrolet, 103; 10 M Smith (US), Penske-Chevrolet, 103. Championship standings (after three rounds): 1 Mansell 36pts; 2 M Andretti Lola-Ford Cosworth 33; 3 Fabi 26; 4 Rahal 24.