Motor Racing: Mansell set to enter new dimension: World champion looks forward to first IndyCar race on an oval circuit

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THE next phase of Nigel Mansell's IndyCar career gets under way today when practice begins for the Valvoline 200 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Mansell got his new career off to a flying start two weeks ago with a dramatic win in the Australian IndyCar Grand Prix, beating the double world champion and the former IndyCar champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, as well as the exciting 24-year-old newcomer, Robby Gordon, in the process.

The win at Surfers Paradise was like a dream come true for Mansell. 'So many people have been so accommodating to my family and I, more so than in my 12 years in Formula One,' Mansell said. 'The win, the whole experience, is like a fairy-tale.'

But there is a critical difference between that race and tomorrow's here. The Australian race was held on a 2.7- mile street circuit similar to the road courses and street circuits on which Mansell won 30 grands prix during his Formula One career.

This weekend, Mansell tackles oval-track racing for the first time. Although he has gone extremely well in testing here during the winter, it is no guarantee that he will be successful when there are 23 other cars on the one-mile oval with him. 'There's just nothing like driving on an oval,' Mansell said. 'You can't compare it to anything I've done before. You can compare road courses in IndyCar racing to road courses in Formula One but you can't compare ovals to anything in Formula One. It's just another world.'

With just two 180-degree turns connecting the front and back straights, IndyCars are precisely tailored to turning left. The right-side tyres, for example, are of a slightly larger diameter than the left-side tyres in order to make it easier to turn into the corners. While this enhances the car's performance, it also makes it behave rather differently. 'I think the biggest difference in driving on the oval is being able to hang on to the car in a straight line,' Mansell said. 'Because obviously the car is set up to turn into the corners, and they're all left-handers.

'It's hard enough doing it when you're alone on the race track. Toss in 20 more cars at speeds in excess of 170mph and you have several additional variables to consider. Number one, you never have a clear track, you are nearly always running amidst a pack of competitors, including slower cars. And given the speeds and the aerodynamic sensitivity of race cars travelling at 170mph, the turbulent air can have a dramatic effect on a car's behaviour.'

'It's fascinating,' Mansell said, 'it's an incredible challenge and it's very, very exciting, more so than I had anticipated. There's a lot to learn and I'm very green. Right now my comfort zone on an oval is near zero, but my comfort zone with the Newman- Haas racing team and my team-mate, Mario Andretti, is 100 per cent. If I can run competitively at Phoenix that will be great, if not I'll just have to try harder.'

Alain Prost tested his Williams-Renault on the Nogaro circuit in Italy yesterday in preparation for the Grand Prix of Europe, at Donington a week tomorrow. Prost is hoping to shake off the bad memories of Brazil, where a 'failure to communicate' led him to crash out of the Interlagos course when he had the second race of the season at his mercy.

'Nagaro gives us everything we need at the moment. It's a slightly bumpy, winding circuit with few big corners,' the Frenchman said. It is an ideal course, he said, for team engineers to sort out the active suspension, which had been causing 'a few small problems'.

Ivan Capelli, 29, of Italy, has left the Jordan-Hart Formula One team after a poor start to the season. Jordan said yesterday that Capelli and the team had ended their partnership by mutual agreement. Capelli, who joined Jordan this season, crashed during the first grand prix in South Africa and failed last weekend to qualify for the Brazilian race.

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