Motor Racing: Mansell pulls the strings

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The Independent Online
FRIDAY and yesterday at Suzuka gave us Nigel Mansell in extremis. On the track, be it wet or dry, he and the Williams-Renault were unstoppable. And in the press room, sadly, he was unstoppable, too.

The Suzuka circuit is owned by Honda, but might have been designed to highlight the astounding qualities of Mansell's world championship-winning car, which shines especially in fast, open corners. This place abounds in them.

In Friday's dry conditions Mansell was a clear second faster than his team-mate, Riccardo Patrese. Ayrton Senna, by his own admission pushing his McLaren-Honda harder than he could remember, was yet unable to get on terms even with the Italian.

This he found extremely disappointing, for his emotional links with Honda are strong, and the company is to suspend its Formula One involvement at the end of year. Self-centred as he is, Senna hoped to give Honda a last victory at home. 'We've closed the gap to Williams a little, perhaps,' he said. 'But it's not enough. The Williams-Renault is in a separate class.'

Monsoon conditions in yesterday's final qualifying session meant that only a handful of drivers bothered to take to the track, but Mansell was one of them, and duly recorded the fastest time once more.

Whatever the conditions, therefore, he looked a heavy favourite for today's Japanese Grand Prix, but the mixed weather made him a little wary.

'It's supposed to be dry for the race, but today's rain will have washed the track, and made it 'green'. Whenever this happens, the set-up of the car for the race is a bit of an unknown quantity. Also, a clean track is an abrasive track, which means higher tyre wear. I think we may need to change them two or three times tomorrow.'

Mansell has driven superbly in his world championship year, but has consistently played down the technological superiority of the car which has taken him to his title. Now, however, as he prepares to leave Formula One for Indycars, he has at last acknowledged it.

Indirectly, anyway. It came in the form of yet another of his attacks on Alain Prost, the man who will lead Williams-Renault in 1993.

'I'll forecast now that if the Williams is reliable next year, Prost will probably win all 16 races,' Mansell volunteered. 'We've perfected the car now, as you can see. We demonstrate it every week. And next year's car, the FW15, will have anti-lock brakes, which will take the skill out of the braking. I guess a good puppet could drive the car, and win everything. And it looks like you're going to have that . . .'

Mansell spoke enthusiastically of the lesser technology of Indycar racing. It made for purer sport, he argued. 'I think in Formula One we're getting to the stage where the driver has very little to do,' he went on, 'and that's bad.'

Few lovers of the sport would take issue with him there. But the impression given was that, now he is leaving it behind, advanced technology has suddenly become A Bad Thing. He neglected to mention the 'gizmos' on the current Williams, such as active suspension, traction control and semi-automatic gearbox, from which he has been pleased to benefit in 1992.

Still, statutory goal-posts have never been Mansell's style, and his remarks were no surprise. Derek Warwick, whose confirmed return to Formula One next year has delighted the paddock, broadly agreed with Mansell's new-found worries about rampant technology.

'I think it is worrying because obviously it reduces the contribution of the driver,' Warwick said. 'In my opinion, they should ban active suspension, and automatic gearboxes and all the rest of it - but until they do, I want them] Otherwise, there's no way to be competitive. The Williams has shown that this year, hasn't it?'

Almost certainly, it will show it again today. Even without next year's anti-lock brakes.

JAPANESE GRAND PRIX (Suzuka) Final qualifying times: 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 37.360sec (ave speed 216.828 kph, 134.731 mph); 2 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:38.219; 3 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda 1:38.375; 4 G Berger (Aut) McLaren-Honda 1:40.296; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:40.922; 6 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:41.030; 7 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus-Ford 1:41.415; 8 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:42.187; 9 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:42.361; 10 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:42.428; 11 N Larini (It) Ferrari 1:42.488; 12 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:42.617; 13 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:42.626; 14 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:42.627; 15 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:42.824; 16 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:43.029; 17 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 1:43.117; 18 B Gachot (Bel) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:43.156; 19 P Martini (It) Dallara-Ferrari 1:43.251; 20 U Katayama (Japan) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:43.488; 21 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell- Ilmor 1:43.941; 22 J J Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari 1:44.037; 23 J Lammers (Neth) March-Ilmor 1:44.075; 24 M Alboreto (It) 1:44.149; 25 M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan-Yamaha 1:44.253; 26 E Naspetti (It) March-Ilmor 1:47.303.