For racing drivers everywhere, the serie noire of Formula One's accident-prone spring brought about a sudden concentration of the mind. They were like people who fly around the world on business without thinking too much about it until one day, for no reason, they glance out of the window at 30,000 feet and realise that the only thing that is keeping them up there is a combination of human ambition and the law of averages.
'The realisation of what this job is really about suddenly came to the fore,' Mansell said on Thursday afternoon, sitting in the Newman-Haas team's motorhome in the Indianapolis paddock. A couple of hours earlier, he had eased himself out of the cockpit of his Lola- Ford after completing the final practice runs for today's Indy 500, which he came close to winning in 1993, his rookie year, and in which he starts this year as the reigning Indycar champion.
Mansell's reaction to the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger 5,000 miles away was complicated by several factors. First, he is 40 years old, with a wife and three children, a dream home by a Florida golf course, more money in the bank than he will ever spend, and the knowledge that his back-to-back Formula One and Indycar championships have secured his place in history. 'If anybody wanted to retire,' he said on Thursday, 'they'd have done it in the last couple of weeks.' Second, and in immediate conflict with such considerations, came the inevitable clamour for him to return to Formula One, to take Senna's seat in the Williams team and to restore some competitive interest to a championship now signally lacking in senior figures with established box-office appeal.
Deeply involved in the month-long preparation for the annual extravaganza of speed and pageantry at Indianapolis, Mansell found himself half-drowning in a sea of speculation. Credible rumours suggested that Bernie Ecclestone, the impresario of Formula One, had pleaded with him to leave the American series and accept a vast sum from Williams's sponsors - said to be dollars 9m, which is getting on for twice what he is being paid by the Newman-Haas team - to make an immediate return. Paul Newman and Carl Haas, it was said, would receive compensation to the tune of dollars 20m.
'Absolute rubbish,' Carl Haas said, briefly removing his foot-long cigar to respond when I put the story to him in Gasoline Alley last week. 'Total bullshit.'
Has anybody offered you anything?
Pauses. Replaces cigar. Removes it again.
'I wish they would.'
Which might seem conclusive, except that in the world of big-time motor racing, nothing is ever what it seems.
As Haas was talking, for instance, Mansell was issuing a statement which, while apparently intended to defuse the rumours, in fact redoubled their virulence.
'It was perhaps inevitable,' he said, 'that speculation would take place about the possibility of people trying to persuade me to return to F1 - despite all the problems that would cause. After all, I have often said that in motor racing anything can happen]' He was, he continued, completely committed to his present team and to their preparations for the 500. 'So I hope it will be understood that I will spend no time thinking, still less talking, about Formula One. Regarding this matter, I have nothing to add at this stage. Thank you.'
Phrases like 'anything can happen' and 'nothing to add at this stage' seethed with possibilities. So, inevitably, people kept asking him about it.
And, being Mansell, nor could he keep his own promise to shut up. Later, talking to journalists, he added a few details. A part-time deal involving a return at the British Grand Prix in July was out, he said, because the Newman-Haas team would be competing in Cleveland that weekend. And he was currently in the middle of a programme that involved the Indy 500 and the following two rounds of the championship, at Milwaukee and Detroit, on consecutive weekends. 'It won't be until after Detroit,' he said, 'that I'll focus on what I want to do in the immediate and long-term future.'
Which would make sense. By then, with six rounds of the championship gone, he would have a clearer idea of the chances of holding on to his title. And, just as important, he would know whether Michael Schumacher and the Benetton- Ford are on their way to a clean sweep of the 16-race Formula One series, leaving no scope for a triumphant return.
So Mansell seemed to be saying that it might indeed be on the cards, if the conditions are right. Although he quite rightly refused to comment in detail about Formula One's present problems, there was a definite tinge of nostalgia to his voice when he reminisced about his famous battles with Senna, and observed that there are not enough experienced drivers in the current grand prix field to supervise the new safety campaign - not even Schumacher. 'He hasn't got the years on him,' Mansell said. 'When I was involved in the drivers' strike of 1981, we had Jody Scheckter, Alan Jones, Gilles Villeneuve, Jacques Laffite, Carlos Reutemann, myself, Nelson Piquet, loads of drivers of great, great standing, with a wealth of experience.'
The older campaigner does not always have the clearest perspective. In 1981, of course, Mansell himself could hardly boast a 'wealth of experience'. His first grand prix win was still four years in the future. Nevertheless, his point is taken - although his value to Bernie Ecclestone and the Rothmans Williams-Renault team would have to be assessed in a cruder currency. They need him to keep the TV ratings up, and to sell cigarettes.
He is kept busy doing these kinds of things in America, where his pre-race schedule this week included a fashion show for one sponsor, an autograph- signing session for another, a transatlantic satellite press conference for a third, and a party for Mario Andretti to mark his team-mate's 29th and final appearance at Indianapolis. America has undoubtedly taken to Mansell, just as he has taken to it. In Europe, his rough Brummie manners, determined unstylishness and lack of a sense of irony put him at a disadvantage in the political battles endemic to the Formula One paddock: to watch him in conflict with a Senna or a Prost was to watch a yeoman with a quarter-staff trying to fend off a couple of expert swordsmen. In America, where auto racing is a blue-collar sport, he is an honorary good ol' boy, perfectly at home.
'You're probably right,' he said when I suggested that he seemed far more relaxed than he had in Europe, 'but you're wrong as well. What's probably happened is that we won the two championships in '92 and '93, and now here we are in '94 and you've got to be more relaxed, haven't you? Now I've proved it. I know what I can do. So it doesn't matter what anyone says now, does it?'
Some of his remarks last week made it clear that he still regards his departure from the grands prix as enforced and untimely, which may provide further motivation for a return. But there's no doubt that his time in America has brought him a serenity that might be threatened by a renewal of his relationship with Formula One. 'In the last few years I've been through an incredible transition,' he said. 'I'm at peace with the world. I've matured in ways that I couldn't have begun to understand five or six years ago.'
Last week, he was even looking with reasonable equanimity at the prospect of being blown into the weeds by the impressive trio of cars from the Penske team, two of whose drivers, 'Little Al' Unser and Emerson Fittipaldi, will be bracketing the front row today. Powered by a new Mercedes-Benz engine which takes cunning advantage of a previously unexploited loophole in the special regulations for the 500-mile race, and whose very existence was only divulged five weeks ago after a secret development programme costing millions of dollars, the Penskes have, in Mansell's awed estimation, an advantage of up to 200 horsepower over his Ford.
'I followed Emerson this morning,' he said after the final practice. 'I caught him at Turn Three, and by Turn Four I was close to his gearbox. I thought, 'Right, I'm going to get sucked down the straight and then I'll fly past him.' But he just left me. I thought, 'We're in big trouble'.'
As a result, he is 'optimistic rather than confident'about his chances of a win that would, in his words, 'complete the portfolio'. The important thing, he said, is to be there at the end. 'I'm going into it knowing more than I did last year. This race begins in the last 100 miles.'
Whatever happens, the rumours will start up again. A win would put him back into the lead of the Indycar championship; a heavy defeat might turn his thoughts towards Europe. Unless, that is, he can no longer forget how he felt when he glanced out of the airplane window a month ago and saw, perhaps for the first time, his own mortality.
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