reports from Monaco
Nigel Mansell's ill-starred return to Formula One was abandoned last night when McLaren-Mercedes announced they had severed their relationship with the ageing former world champion.
Mansell has been written off many times before and come back to confound the sport, but now it does look like the end of a glorious, often controversial, and always eventful career.
The 41-year-old has raced only twice for McLaren in a car they had to build specially for him because the original was too tight. The extra room, however, could not bring the best out of him, and Ron Dennis, McLaren's managing director, said the team had taken "the most appropriate course of action".
Mansell, who parked his car after just 18 laps of the Spanish Grand Prix 10 days ago, expressed his "disappointment", yet maintained he and the team had parted on the best of terms. His contract this year is thought to have been worth around pounds 5m. He will presumably be compensated.
Mark Blundell, the British driver who deputised for Mansell in the first two races of the season, takes over again for Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix.
Dennis, who is believed to have taken on Mansell under pressure from new engine partners Mercedes and F1's impresario, Bernie Ecclestone, said: "The performance of the car has not met the expectations of both parties so far this year. Nigel has not felt confident within the car and this has affected his ability to commit fully to the programme."
Mansell hinted he may retain links with Formula One, but it is difficult to envisage his being offered another top drive at his age.
He said: "I am obviously disappointed that the relationship with McLaren and Mercedes, which could have achieved so much, has been concluded early. I had expected on joining McLaren that the total package would have given me the possibility to be competitive with the other top teams. I have no immediate plans in Formula One, but have welcomed the opportunity to keep in touch with the team, with whom I have parted on the best possible terms."
Mansell's comeback to grand prix racing started to go wrong when he decided to leave IndyCars after two years in America. He made four "guest" appearances for Williams-Renault last season, culminating with pole position and victory in Australia. To his dismay, Williams decided against signing him for this year and opted for David Coulthard.
Ecclestone and commercial interests engineered what had seemed impossible - bringing Mansell and Dennis together. They had never been friends, but Formula One folk are hard- nosed businessmen and a deal was struck.
The first serious test in McLaren's revolutionary car, lavishly praised by Mansell at the official launch, heaped embarrassment on the team that not so long ago dominated the sport. Mansell complained he could not fit in the cockpit. He was withdrawn from the opening two races in Brazil and Argentina, and his made-to-measure McLaren was produced in 33 days.
Mansell finished a modest 10th in the San Marino Grand Prix and demanded time to "get up to speed". Even before his capitulation in Barcelona, the pit lane was rife with rumours that he might not be given the time.
Mercedes' hierarchy were there to witness events and Dennis pointedly commented afterwards that Mansell had chosen to retire. His other driver, Mika Hakkinen, persevered and was running fifth when a fuel-pressure failure forced him to stop.
If this is the end for Mansell, it is a sad final scene of what has been a remarkable drama of a career. Perseverance was his byword for so long and eventually, at the age of 39, he was rewarded with the world championship.
Perseverance carried him through the lower formulae when others would have called off the hunt. He defied financial hardship, a broken neck and a broken back to reach Formula One, making his debut with Lotus in 1980.
Colin Chapman, founder of the team, hailed Mansell a potential world champion, but others were less sure. He was brave and combative, but many questioned whether he had the judgement and application to win the title.
His self-belief never wavered and he had the vital breakthrough in 1985, winning the Grand Prix of Europe at Brands Hatch, driving for Williams. He almost won the championship in 1986 and was runner-up again in 1987. He sought a "new challenge" with Ferrari in 1989 but the following year, at Silverstone, announced his retirement, only to be persuaded back to Williams in 1991.The momentum he generated that season propelled him to emphatic championship success in 1992. He had a record 14 poles and nine wins.
And yet, even then, conflict was at hand. He was unable to reach agreement on a new contract with Williams and took his helmet across the Atlantic, where he promptly won the IndyCar series.
On reflection, he may consider he should never have returned to Formula One, or that he should have called it a day after that win in Australia, his 31st on grand prix circuits. Only Alain Prost and the late Ayrton Senna won more.
But statistics alone do not do justice to Mansell's appeal or his legacy. At his best, he was fearless and irrepressible. "Il Leone" they called him in Italy. Some of his manoeuvres and some of his duels, especially with Nelson Piquet, Senna and Gerhard Berger, already had their places in motor racing folklore.
Mansell at his best was an awesome sight, wrenching the last dregs of performance from a car and thrilling the gallery with his audacious feints and passes. Mansell at his best was ebullient and motivated, hungry and confident, super fast and well nigh unstoppable.
Mansell at his best, alas, has not been evident this season. He has been back among the also-rans. That is not where he belongs and not where his fans will care to remember him. McLaren may have performed an act of mercy.
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