Last pit-stop for a class act Surely, asks Martin Jacques, this is not the end of Nigel Mansell's glittering career?

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Is Nigel Mansell, one of Britain's great sporting heroes of the past decade, about to be left on the grand prix shelf? Yesterday Mansell's return to Formula One suffered a possibly fatal blow when the Williams team, his preferred choice, announce d that they had chosen David Coulthard to partner Damon Hill next season. To many outside the sport - and within it - Williams's decision will be incomprehensible. True, Coulthard is a promising young driver who enjoyed a bright start in Formula One last season, but he is largely unproven.

With the Williams door now firmly bolted, Mansell's options are few. There are only three other teams he would consider driving for, and two of them - Ferrari and Benetton - have already indicated there is no place for him. That leaves only McLaren, whose team boss, Ron Dennis, has never been a Mansell fan. Is the introverted world of Formula One about to inflict premature retirement on the only truly charismatic driver left in grand prix racing, following the death of Ayrton Senna?

Few British stars succeed in becoming cult figures beyond their own sport, but Mansell is one of them. He has twice been voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year. His moustache, thick eyebrows and unfashionable Brummie accent have become part of the cultural furniture of contemporary Britain. The moment during the 1986 Australian Grand Prix when his tyre burst at 160mph, just as he was on the verge of winning the world championship, remains one of the most compelling television memories of the 1980s.

Mansell is by far the most popular British driver of recent times. When he tested a Williams last June at Brands Hatch, 10,000 people turned up to watch his lone car circulating around the track. When he drove a Ford Mondeo in a guest appearance at a touring car meeting the previous November, 60,000 descended on Donington Park: just 6,000 had attended the same meeting the year before. His popularity extends beyond these shores. Apart from the late Ayrton Senna, Mansell's personal following on the grand prix circuits of the world is second to none. When he drove for Ferrari in 1989-90, the Italian fans took him to their hearts and christened him Il Leone (the lion).

Mansell's popularity is partly to do with his success. He has won more grand prix than anyone else - apart from Alain Prost and Senna. He was world champion in 1992 and runner-up in 1986, 1987 and 1991. When he left Formula One after the 1992 season, he went to race in Indycar, the American equivalent of Formula One, and became the first driver to take the championship in his maiden season.

But the enthusiasm for Mansell has at least as much to do with the way he drives as the number of victories he has scored. He is the classic underdog. Formula One lives and breathes money, but unlike most drivers, Mansell was not born into wealth or connections. As a working-class Brummie he sits uncomfortably in a world of European glamour and privilege. His story has been well-chronicled: the night jobs, the extra mortgage, the broken neck. Mansell did it the hard way.

He was also a late developer. He had already participated in more than 70 grand prix before he scored his first victory. Unlike most drivers who, by their mid-thirties, tend to drive with more calculation and caution, Mansell got faster and more successful as he grew older. Another characteristic that sets Mansell apart in the exotic world of Formula One is the fact that he likes to take his family to race meetings.

In Formula One, Nigel Mansell is the outsider, struggling to be part of a world in which he feels he does not really belong. It explains his proclivity to whine and his deep feeling of insecurity. It also helps to explain his driving style. While others may calculate, Mansell simply drives his heart out.

Prost may have won more grand prix and more championships, but he never aroused the passion of the crowds as Mansell did. The only way Mansell knows how to drive is with 110 per cent commitment. When he was forced to pitstop near the end of the Monaco Grand Prix in 1992 and was passed by Senna, he harried the Brazilian to the end, even though on such a narrow circuit the chances of his passing were slight. His battle with Jean Alesi in the Ferrari in the wet at last season's Japanese Grand Prix was one of the few genuinely exciting racing moments of a dull and tragic season. When he raced that Ford Mondeo at Donington Park, he drove in characteristic fashion, giving his all, having an accident and ending up in hospital.

No wonder Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario, is desperate to find a place for Mansell in 1995. He adds millions to the worldwide television audience and tens of thousands to race-day crowds. But the Formula One circus is small and myopic. It can be no great surprise that Frank Williams eventually decided to reject Mansell. After the latter won the world championship in 1992, Williams effectively pushed Mansell out of the team amid much bad blood and a serious split in the team. Williams, who is notorious for his poor handling of drivers, was not easily going to forgive or forget the resulting ignominy which was heaped on him as the factory was deluged with letters complaining about the shabby way in which Mansell had been treated.

Mansell is not an easy person to deal with. He is frustratingly insecure, always suspecting that his team is not fully behind him, needing constant reassurance from those around him. But as he proved in the last three races of the 1994 season, he remain

s breathtakingly quick and a crowd-puller bar none. If anyone is capable of beating the current world champion Michael Schumacher, then it is surely Nigel Mansell. It stretches the bounds of credibility to think that Mansell will be absent from the starti ng grid next season. Is Formula One about to take leave of its senses?