Vast stretches of vacant stands, an eerily subdued atmosphere, continuing disagreement on proposed rule changes and the persistent campaigning to retrieve Nigel Mansell and unsettle the IndyCar series provided the backdrop to a Spanish Grand Prix here which was rendered a no-contest by Williams-Renault's absolute domination.
The authorities are justly concerned. Crowds and interest diminished at Imola, a fortnight earlier, and the indications are that the Monaco Grand Prix may be unable to check the downward spiral. Package tour companies who traditionally sell out months in advance still have on offer a wide range of hotels in and around the principality.
Attempts to rid the cars of modern technological aids, reduce costs and create more democratic and competitive racing, met with further resistance here this weekend. Williams, McLaren and Ferrari apparently urged a compromise which would permit the use of active suspension and semi-automatic transmission. Tyrrell suggest only semi-automatic transmission should be allowed.
Other interested parties in all this are the sponsors. They have told the teams they no longer have unlimited funds available and that it would be foolhardy to jettison the proposals. Fisa, the governing body, may force the changes on the teams, but it seems there is likely to be more talking.
The combined pressures exerted by dwindling appeal, resources and competitiveness has created a dilemma for Formula One. Mansell would undoubtedly spice the show, but who has the car and the money to entice him back from America? Benetton would no doubt like to have him. So would just about every other team in the pit lane. Having the means to attract him is a different matter. He left grand prix racing maintaining it had to be Williams or nothing, and, having achieved his ambition of winning the World Championship, he will not be rushing back for anything less than 'the right package'.
Despite the complications, Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One ringmaster, refuses to be shaken off Mansell's trail. Even though Mansell dominated last season, he does have an inimitable penchant for generating his own excitement and that makes him box office.
Mansell himself does not wish to become embroiled in the latest round of speculation over his services. He currently has more than enough on his plate. He is still hoping to recover from a back operation and meet his revised schedule for the Indianapolis 500. He is due to have external stitches removed today and fly on to Indianapolis to report at the Speedway tomorrow for the start of his rookie test. The next stage would be qualifying, this weekend and or next. The race is two weeks on Sunday.
Mansell said from his home in Clearwater, Florida: 'I'm flattered to hear of all this talk about me in Formula One but I'm disappointed for the sport over there and I'm not getting involved in any of the speculation. I've got a job to do over here and it's colossal. I want to concentrate on getting well to drive in the biggest race of my career.'
What is clear is that the Englishman is under considerable pressure from his Newman-Haas team to make sure he appears in the classic oval event. An obvious contingency plan is that Michael Andretti might return to his native environment to qualify Mansell's car for him. If Mansell is not fit for the race, Andretti, conveniently available on that day, could then resume his role alongside his father, Mario, in the Lola-Ford.Reuse content