Motor Racing: Mansell the stranger in familiar role: Briton sets record in IndyCar practice

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The Independent Online
IT WAS looking a little tricky for a while, but eventually Nigel Mansell did his stuff here and the IndyCar impresarios were rubbing their hands with glee.

The stage and the rest of the bill may have changed but Mansell is unlikely to. Here he was, on his IndyCar debut, charging with familiar aggression to emerge from his 'slow' group of qualifiers in an equally familiar position - provisional pole. What is more, he had established a lap record in the process. Officials can scarcely wait to see him racing in tomorrow's Gold Coast Grand Prix.

Any judgement of his driving yesterday must be tempered by the argument that the reigning Formula One world champion in a good car, run by one of the best teams, ought to excel in any company. The overall quality here is second division by comparison with Formula One.

And yet, given the circumstances - first appearance, new environment and only half an hour's qualifying - it was hugely impressive and entertaining. Mansell promises to be good value for his Newman-Haas team and the series.

Mansell looked on as the 'A' group of drivers, established IndyCar campaigners, went through their qualifying session. A routine and frankly uninspiring half-hour closed with Emerson Fittipaldi, another Formula One champion, on top, his Penske team-mate Paul Tracy second and Mario Andretti, in the other Newman-Haas Lola-Ford, third.

Enter Mansell and an assortment of novices and not so inexperienced hopefuls. Mansell, third in the unofficial morning session, had aerodynamic changes made to his Lola-Ford for qualifying and it soon became apparent he has only one serious rival in this batch, a precocious 24-year-old called Robby Gordon, driving for the legendary A J Foyt's team.

Gordon, in only his second year of IndyCars, hurled his Lola-Ford at the kerbs of the chicanes and almost dared the walls to reach out and grab him. For Mansell it was a challenge to be relished. The 39-year-old English rookie attacked the street circuit with equal vigour, though rather more control, and put the upstart in his place.

In the overall timings, however, Mansell was still second. He launched himself into another lap, wrestling his car through the concrete corridors. Mansell, who claimed a record 14 pole positions in the world championship last year, clocked 98.555sec, six-tenths of a second better than Fittipaldi. His average speed was 102.095mph, 0.195mph faster than Al Unser Jnr's lap record, set last year.

Gordon finished with fourth place overall, just a tenth of a second behind Tracy. Andretti was fifth and Bobby Rahal, the defending IndyCar champion, eighth.

'That was exhilarating,' Mansell said. 'To come through like that on my first day is real special. It's fantastic and very satisfying because it's so very close in IndyCars. There's only a second separating the top five. It's not like that in Formula One.

'I touched the wall a couple of times, but then I had to. It gives you more of a twitch going round here than it does at Monaco. It's more physical and demanding.'

Mansell, sweating profusely, was flanked by Gordon and Tracy as he described his first day. He explained that he stayed with one set of tyres to generate the heat required for a hot lap and that he was able to find a clear lap only towards the end of the session.

Still intent on entertaining his audience he asked: 'Why isn't he sweating?' Pointing at Gordon. Gordon's expression displayed no more reverence than his driving had.

Mansell was asked how it felt to have two 24-year-olds sitting with him. 'I'm jealous as hell,' he said. 'But I also sympathise with them - they've got 30 more years of this]'

The arrival of 46-year-old Fittipaldi redressed the balance. The Brazilian said: 'It is great for IndyCars to have Nigel with us. He has shown how fast he is. IndyCars is very competitive and Nigel realises that. We have to keep young, hey, Nigel?'

'I don't know, Dad,' came the response.

Tracy, wearing spectacles and looking more like a high school student than a racing driver, gave a similar appreciation of the newcomer, but Gordon suggested that when Foyt trusts him with the 1993 car he would be up with Mansell.

Mansell's boss, Carl Haas, said: 'Nigel rose to the occasion but I thought he'd be that quick. He's not free yet, but it's good for him because it builds up confidence.'

Gordon, meanwhile, was revealing that Mansell had been one of his boyhood idols, but 'when the helmet is on he's just another driver. I want to beat anybody'.

GOLD COAST INDYCAR GRAND PRIX (Surfers Paradise, Queensland): Leading positions after first qualifying round: 1 N Mansell (GB) Newman-Haas Lola-Ford Cosworth, 102.095mph (single-lap track record, 2.8 miles); 2 E Fittipaldi (Bra) Penske Racing Team-Lola Chevy, 101.472; 3 P Tracy (Can) Penske Racing Team-Lola Chevy 101.321; 4 R Gordon (US) A J Foyt Enterprises Lola-Ford Cosworth 101.192; 5 M Andretti (US) Newman-Haas Lola-Ford Cosworth 100.099; 6 S Goodyear (Can) Walker Motorsports Lola-Chevy 99.866; 7 S Brayton (US) Dick Simon-Lola Ford Cosworth, 99.643; 8 B Rahal (US) Rahal-Hogan- R/H 101 Chevy, 99.519; 9 M Smith (US) Arciero- Penske Chevy, 98.738; 10 A Unser Jr (US) Galles-Lola Indy, 97.940.