Motor Racing: Where familiarity and insanity collide: David Phillips assesses the pleasures and perils awaiting Mansell in the United States

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NIGEL MANSELL is about to enter a motor racing arena at once very different and much the same as the Formula One circus in which he has played such a pivotal role for more than a decade.

He will find much that is familiar, starting with his new team-mate Mario Andretti. A former world champion, Andretti was at Lotus when Mansell made his Formula One debut in 1980. Other Formula One refugees include Emerson Fittipaldi, Raul Boesel, Stefan Johansson, Eddie Cheever and Roberto Guerrero, as well as an increasing number of mechanics and technicians with Formula One roots.

At the same time, Mansell will find his new world very different. In financial terms the emphasis is shifted from salaries to prize-money. Whereas the top Formula One drivers have been earning close to dollars 15m (pounds 8.5m) in recent years, the leading Indycar driver has received no more than dollars 3m to dollars 4m per season. On the other hand, an Indycar driver can earn large amounts for winning an individual race - dollars 1m is the prize for winning the Indianapolis 500, though the driver does not keep it all.

And while a majority of the 16 races in the PPG Indycar World Series take place on road and street courses similar to grand prix circuits, half a dozen events are contested on oval tracks, such as Indianapolis and Phoenix, which require driving techniques and race tactics foreign to European racing.

Ovals are an integral part of American racing, with dirt tracks dotting the countryside and hosting weekly races in a variety of machinery. The ovals visited by the Indycars are paved and vary in length from one to two and a half miles. With lap times in the 20-second range, the mile ovals such as the one near Phoenix produce spectacularly close racing that places a premium on a driver's ability to get through traffic (if a car is just one second per lap slower than the race leader, over the course of a 200-mile race the leader will pass that car 10 times).

The contrast between the dramatic action on the oval tracks and Formula One racing, where a single pass for the lead is cause for celebration, is surely one reason for Formula One's failure to capture the American imagination.

Other factors are the great success of NASCAR's stock car series, drag racing and America's other myriad forms of motor racing; the fact that no high-profile American has regularly competed in Formula One since the days of Mario Andretti, who left in 1982; and that after having become an institution at upstate New York's Watkins Glen circuit in the 1960s and 1970s, the US Grand Prix moved through a succession of sterile, over-priced venues. As a result, Formula One all but disappear as a sports entity in the United States.

The most recent US Grand Prix, held on an uninspiring circuit in Phoenix, actually drew fewer spectators than an ostrich festival a few miles outside of town. In contrast, the Indianapolis 500 draws more than 350,000 on race day, another 250,000 during the month-long build-up of practice and qualifying.

The big ovals at Indianapolis and Michigan, known as speedways, see average lap speeds in excess of 220mph. Guerrero won pole position for this year's Indianapolis 500 at an average speed of 232.482mph. The speeds - and occasional horrendous accidents - have given Indycar racing a somewhat undeserved reputation as an insanely dangerous sport.

Nelson Piquet, the former world champion, suffered grievous injuries to his feet and ankles this May when he crashed while practising for the Indianapolis 500 and, a few days later, young Jovy Marcello was killed in a crash there.

While the dangers of Indianapolis and Michigan are real, it should be noted that Marcello's death was Indycar racing's first fatality since 1982 - a period during which three men died driving Formula One cars.

Nevertheless, Indycar pit lanes are populated with drivers who have suffered serious injuries as the result of 200mph encounters with concrete walls. The sport is attempting to improve the drivers' lot for 1993 with rules designed to protect drivers in 'frontal impacts' - such as changes to the internal bulkheads that will enable the driver to pull his feet back in case of an impending impact.

Moreover, technological innovation is strictly limited. This stimulates close competition and makes it unlikely that Mansell will enjoy the sort of technological advantage he enjoyed at Williams this year. The 1992 Indycar series goes to its final two races in the coming weeks with the title wide open. The 1993 season begins in Australia on 21 March.

In joining Newman-Haas Racing, Mansell will use some of the best equipment in Indycar; equipment that is manufactured largely in England. Like most of the Indycar teams, Newman-Haas use chassis constructed by Lola Cars of Huntingdon.

With Michael Andretti - widely hailed as the fastest (and arguably the best) of the current Indycar drivers - making his move to Formula One, the 1993 season should provide some fascinating comparisons between the world's two premier open wheel racing


David Phillips is the Indycar editor of Motoring News and Autoweek.