Motor Racing: Mansell sets the pace in first session: Briton dismissive of debut disaster while Reynard chassis passes initial test on the short oval

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The Independent Online
NIGEL MANSELL, who went to the wall here 12 months ago, topped the charts in yesterday morning's practice at Phoenix International Raceway in the warm, dry Arizona desert air.

As the thin cloud layer cleared and the sun heated and changed the surface of the one-mile oval, one team and then another broke through into the top five spots. However, Mansell quickly stole his glory by breaking the 20-second barrier. Red Five had finished the morning with a 20.7, while Paul Tracy had put on some pressure with a 20.8 and less than half a second separated the top nine positions.

The first set of times from the first short-oval meeting of the 1994 PPG Cup IndyCar world series still proves very little. Driver experience and team experience can be expected to combine with engineering know-how on the ovals to put a more familiar list of names back on top as the race meeting progresses.

Mansell, who showed his inexperience on the oval last year when he whacked his Lola into the concrete wall, was determined to erase that memory. The PPG IndyCar world series champion arrived confident, justifiably so as it proved, and joked: 'Oh, do we have to go back to Phoenix this season? Since (Phoenix last year) we've had a go on the other ovals, so we're deinitely more comfortable than we were a year ago.'

As the teams headed back from an Australian seaside paradise to the arid Arizona desert for the second race in the series, the other question on the sceptics' agenda was how well would the new British Reynard chassis do here with this uniquely American form of racing. Another point was proved there. For a brief period Jimmy Vasser even had one of those chassis at the top of the time sheets. They had hinted at such success during testing week when Vasser and Jacques Villeneuve set times among the six best.

One year ago at Phoenix, when Mansell made his first appearance on such an oval, many observers expected, in fact hoped, to see the world champion fail. Red Five did not disappoint them. During Friday morning practice, while others gingerly assessed the conditions on the track, Mansell shot out of the pits and made a spectacular debut with a very quick lap.

Then while other drivers were getting up to speed Mansell ducked into the pits for fresh tryes and a change on his set-up. As he was getting used to the changes he went into a corner too hot, felt the car getting away from him and broke the cardinal rule of oval racing, which says: 'If you feel the car getting away from under you, don't try to correct it'.

Mansell paid dearly for his transgression as the back end took the lead at 185mph and slammed a hole in a nine-inch thick concrete wall gearbox first. It took many months for Mansell to recover completely from the injuries and surgery that followed the accident. But recently Mansell commented: 'What hurt me more than the injuries was that people said 'I told you so'.' He might be world champion but the ovals seemed beyond his reach.

Mansell put that impression to rest as he came back to win the three short oval races on the 1993 schedule, declaring that racing on ovals is 'pure racing'.

(Photograph omitted)