Motor Racing: Mansell returns to a wasteland: The Great Entertainer was back but there was no atmosphere to inspire him

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The Independent Online
NIGEL MANSELL returned to Formula One here yesterday in a race that is perhaps the closest the sport has got to a post-modern grand prix.

A race without a crowd, just like one of those football matches staged behind closed doors after one of the clubs has committed a misdemeanour.

Spain has never displayed much enthusiasm for motor racing: it has never had a home-grown motor industry worth mentioning, and is bereft of a Formula One driver.

Jerez, set in the rolling countryside of south-west Spain, is miles from any major centres of population. Who would ever hold a grand prix here?

The result yesterday was utterly bizarre. The stands were half empty and the hillsides deserted. Never before has a grand prix had less atmosphere. It was like a stage set for television with the sparse crowd hired as extras, which was not far from the truth because many of them seemed to be guests of sponsors.

This hardly seemed the appropriate setting for the return of the Great Entertainer.

Mansell, more than anyone else in Formula One over the last decade, more even than the marvellous Ayrton Senna, has inspired motor racing crowds across the world with his refusal to admit defeat and his willingness to engage in the bravest of overtaking manoeuvres. After he left Formula One, the crowds at the British Grand Prix fell by half.

When he tested for a day at Brands Hatch before his return at Magny-Cours earlier in the season, an amazing 10,000 people turned up in midweek to watch his lone car circulating around the track. A year ago, 60,000 people watched him race a Ford Mondeo at Donington Park in an event which the previous year had attracted only 6,000. But his popularity is not confined to Britain. When he drove for Ferrari, the Italian tifosi took him to their hearts, calling him 'Il Leone', the Lion, a name adopted by British crowds.

When he joined IndyCar racing, television audiences outside the United States for that version of motor sport grew enormously. When he arrived, IndyCar was televised to 70 countries outside North America. That figure is now 120.

Scribes carp and the grand prix paddock may be divided, but the crowds love him.

But this was no command performance by the Great Entertainer. On the contrary, somehow it was a performance to match the post-modern setting: uninspired, without passion. Mansell never set the meeting alight as he had at Magny-Cours in practice. Here he performed respectably in qualifying, without ever threatening Michael Schumacher or Damon Hill. The race, alas, was something different altogether.

He started badly, falling from third on the grid to fifth on the opening lap. He managed to pass Rubens Barrichello for fourth, was re- taken, and then, when he tried to repass Barrichello, the Brazilian caught his front wing, obliging a lengthy pit stop to replace the nose cone which put him over a lap behind Schumacher and Hill.

Mansell's problems were compounded when the team called him in later in the race for a precautionary stop to check a loose bolt on the front-wing endplate. Mansell had slowly grown in competitiveness during the course of the race but on lap 48 he made a mistake and ended up, somewhat ignominiously, in the gravel trap.

'The back end got away from me,' Mansell said, 'and I just lost it and spun, it was as simple as that. It was a big moment.'

This, in short, is a race that Mansell will want to forget.

Does it prove that at the age of 41 and, after almost two years out of Formula One, he no longer has the pace and stamina to become world champion again? It is too early to say. The cars have changed profoundly since he was last in Formula One, even since Magny-Cours. He has had little time to catch breath since he completed his last IndyCar race in California a week ago.

And he insisted here himself that he would not be on the pace: the real test would be Suzuka and Adelaide.

Meanwhile, Mansell and Williams remain tight-lipped about the future, both claiming that no decision will be taken until after the last race in Adelaide.

That may or may not be true. Mansell had a contract for IndyCar in 1995 and a party, or parties, with big bucks appear to have bought it out. He is busy selling his Florida house and will spend the next three weeks moving back to the Isle of Man.

Here, he has been remarkably relaxed and confident, even with the media: after spinning off, he self-assuredly admitted, 'I made a mistake.'

All this suggests that the contract may already be signed. There may be a precedent. When he drove at Magny-Cours, Williams and Mansell insisted it was for one race only when in fact it would appear that a contract had already been signed for the last three races as well.

Will history repeat itself? We won't know until after Adelaide in November at the earliest. But at least in the next two races, Mansell will enjoy the benefit of the crowds which were so absurdly absent from Jerez.

(Photograph omitted)