Motor Racing: Mansell the rookie takes IndyCars by storm: Briton overcomes adversity and inexperience to triumph in Australia

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The Independent Online
NIGEL MANSELL brought his full repertoire of drama and suspense to a new theatre yesterday and had the audience in the palm of his blistered hands. The old routine looks like being the smash hit of the IndyCar season.

Records almost inevitably succumbed to the Briton's irresistible ambition: the first driver to complete the double of pole position and victory on his IndyCar debut; the first to win his maiden race in this company since his countryman Graham Hill's success at the 1966 Indianapolis 500.

More commendable, however, was the manner in which Mansell achieved this latest niche in racing folklore. He was left stranded at the start and relegated to fourth by the end of the first lap, fought to the front only to incur a stop-go penalty, bludgeoned his way back into the lead but stopped with a suspected puncture, and eventually spluttered across the line on the last dregs of his fuel, just five seconds clear.

Mansell's Newman-Haas Lola-Ford rolled to a halt barely 300 yards further on. He hauled himself from the cockpit, threw his balaclava and gloves to the gallery and hobbled to the sanctuary of a service truck. Cramp and a sharp brake pedal had inflicted his latest injuries. It was vintage Mansell and the spectators lapped it up. He leaned out of the window to wave to them, just as he had done some three hours earlier during the introductions. One banner proclaimed: 'Mansell - King of Poms'.

They are big on stage management in IndyCars, be it in America or in Australia, and Mansell is a dream for any impresario. Along with the second-placed Emerson Fittipaldi, and the third driver, Robby Gordon, he dutifully posed in the caps of many sponsors. It was classic Tommy Cooper.

There is a school of thought that IndyCars is more music hall than sport. Well, entertaining it certainly is. For that you have to acknowledge the wisdom behind the drafting of the regulations, which ensure virtual parity of machinery, and the contribution of the other drivers.

Mansell and the rest of the best from Formula One are probably a cut above the general standard here, but the experience and guile of Fittipaldi, and the pace and audacity of Gordon suggest this is going to be an eventful adventure for Mansell, especially on the oval tracks.

Fittipaldi offered his balanced appraisal: 'Nigel drove a beautiful race and it's great to have him here. He deserved to win. But it was close. IndyCar is very competitive. It is not like last year for Nigel, when he had the Williams and disappeared.'

Mansell returned the compliment: 'Emerson is not only a fair driver, he is a great driver. He could still go into a good car in Formula One and do the job.'

Whatever the relative qualities here, Mansell could not have done more for himself or his new fraternity. He boosted the crowd to 80,000 and television pictures of the Formula One world champion's triumphal entry to IndyCars were broadcast to 90 countries. Officials are now eagerly anticipating his first trial by oval, at Phoenix on Sunday week.

Mansell, though, begged to savour the moment. 'I just want to enjoy this,' he said. 'I'm absolutely ecstatic. It's the kind of thing fairy-tales are made of. I can't remember when I last enjoyed my racing so much.

'The team had settled for third place in the middle of the race and we didn't even have the help of pace-car situations. All I could do was give it my best shot. Even then I didn't think I'd make it because I was right down on fuel. I could feel it going half a mile from the end. I was scared stiff I wouldn't make it.'

After seven vain attempts to win the Australian Grand Prix, a frustrating saga which included a spectacular tyre blowout, crashes in the wet and the collision with Ayrton Senna, he at last had a change of fortune here.

Complications were in keeping with the Mansell tradition. The rolling start - the cars are moving when the green light goes on - swallowed him up like the waves devouring the beach at the other side of this resort street circuit. He got too close to the pace car and Fittipaldi went past, followed by his Penske team-mate, Paul Tracy. Soon Gordon was squeezing inside a stunned Mansell.

'That added insult to injury,' Mansell said. 'I got blown into the weeds. I learned a lesson, but then I'd not done a rolling start since my karting days, 22 years ago. That's why I've got my rookie stripes.'

His recovery was that of a 39-year-old champion. He must have had visions of Senna as he sought out the Brazilian's countryman, Fittipaldi, in the familiar red and white livery. Mansell attacked on the inside, much to Fittipaldi's chagrin. They were under yellow-flag restrictions because of an accident and overtaking in such a situation is not permitted. Fittipaldi radioed his team in protest. Mansell was soon told by his team to come in. He had been black-flagged and punished with a stop-go penalty, which forces the driver to make a pit stop.

Mansell said he was unaware of any flags, but there was no time to explain. The pit crew took the opportunity to give him fuel and fresh tyres and he launched himself back on the track in fourth place.

Mario Andretti, his team-mate, went into the pits for fuel and tyres, but Mansell still had to negotiate Gordon and Fittipaldi. He completed the twin manoeuvre with an extravagant jink around Fittipaldi.

Just as it seemed he was settling into a commanding rhythm, he felt a vibration and came to the conclusion the cause was a puncture. Goodyear later said there was no puncture but by then it was too late. Mansell was in the pits way ahead of schedule. The team changed his tyres but were not prepared for refuelling.

It meant another chase, this time dicing with Andretti in the process. Mansell built up a lead of half a minute, sufficient to stop for a final splash of fuel and come out again at the head of the pack. Fittipaldi, also concerned about his fuel supply, did just enough to hold off Gordon. The first three were separated at the end by five and a half seconds, with Andretti a further nine seconds adrift.

Mansell had also survived a skirmish at a chicane and contact with a wall. It was just another day at the office for Mansell and a riveting performance for onlookers around the globe.

AUSTRALIAN INDYCAR GRAND PRIX (Surfers Paradise, 181.765 miles, 292.369km, 65 laps): 1 N Mansell (GB) Newman-Haas Lola-Ford Cosworth 1hr 52min 2.886sec (av speed 97.284mph, 156.569kph); 2 E Fittipaldi (Bra) Penske Lola-Chevy +5.113sec; 3 R Gordon (US) A J Foyt Lola-Ford Cosworth +5.590; 4 M Andretti (US) Newman-Haas Lola-Ford Cosworth +14.647; 5 A Luyendyk (Neth) Chip Ganassi Racing Lola-Ford Cosworth +47.220; 6 B Rahal (US) Rahal- Hogan Racing R/H-Chevy +1 lap; 7 E Cheever (US) Turley Motorsports Penske-Chevy +1; 8 R Boesel (Bra) Dick Simon Racing Lola-Ford Cosworth +1; 9 T Fabi (It) Hall-VDS Racing Lola-Chevy +1; 10 S Goodyear (Can) Walker and Associates Lola-Chevy +2.