Old dog Mansell sniffs a return

 

THE old dog thinks he can still do the trick - and top lick too. Nigel Mansell, at 43, climbed into a Grand Prix Formula One car near Barcelona yesterday and put in 49 increasingly impressive laps at a snarling din which obviously meant business.

It is 18 months since the former world champion has driven at remotely such speed. If the money is right and the car competitive, he could well be putting his life on the line again next year.

On the face of it, however, it officially remains a 50-50 chance that Mansell will be in the Jordan car on 1997's first starting grid at Melbourne next March, alongside Michael Schumacher's tearaway younger brother Ralf, around whom the Jordan team are said to be building its future.

Both Mausell and team boss Eddie Jordan admitted yesterday that there was a great deal of talking still to be done - not least by their respective bank managers. Yesterday Mansell's fastest lap was one minute 22.89 seconds, compared to young Schumacher's 1:22.59 - some going for the ancient Brit, for he was starting from cold.

Mansell, as he ever engagingly was, climbed out full of his own conceit. "Ralfs very quick and committed, and he brakes late all right, so for me to be within three-tenths of a second of his fastest can't be bad for an old man, can it?"

Yesterday's testing on the twisty Circuit de Catalunya on the industrial scrubland beneath the jagged and picturesque pelmet of hills north of the city represented an intriguing and initial sizing-up process by both parties. For sure, the Jordan team needs some headlines and publicity pulling power - certainly their sponsors do.

If nothing else, Mansell down the long years has written his own headlines. He is a star all right, but stars cost money and a multi-millionaire already will be asking for more multi-millions. Would the comparatively low-budgeted Jordan team break the bank to sign him up?

"Only in a realistic way," said Jordan, "Nigel's degree of reality and mine in that respect are probably two different things. There is still a huge amount of talking to be done and it will be weeks before any firm announcement either way."

This first practice spin had been mightily impressive, agreed Jordan. "We will do more testing, after which Nigel knows I have a willing pair of ears to listen to his proposals. This first day was just acclimatisation. There are weeks to go yet."

Mansell concurred: "For me, today was eight out of 10. The engine goes very well. With or without me, Jordan has a real future. For me, I have to form a relationship with a car, to trust it implicitly before I can push it deep into corners.

"It takes time, certainly after nearly two years. You have to get used to breaking from 200 to 60 in less than two seconds when all you have been doing is getting your golf handicap down from five to one in 12 months."

Knowing Mansell, it must have unquestionably spurred his palpable ambitions when he heard Damon Hill would be stepping next season into the presumably uncompetitive Arrows team. Fame was the spur? "Not so much. that," said Mansell yesterday, "the sport just remains in my blood."

It was a day full of portent but also of memories. This was the very track on which only last year Mansell had made his dramatic, almost dottily staged departure from the McLaren team, running too far down the field for a former champ. Nigel just drove it into the garage here in Spain, put it into neutral, cleared his glove compartment, got out and walked away.

He retired to Devon and his golf. End of story? Those in the know knew better - and yesterday the whiff of the pit lane fumes and the whip of fame had brought him back. Mmm, like a bisto kid ...

And sure enough we were back in Barcelona. Same old Nigel, except he's shaved off his Kitchener-Gooch moustache. "Your-country-needs-me" moustache. By the time he. had clamped himself into the cockpit and buckled on his old Union Jack helmet, a sparkling bright Spanish morning had turned into a pewtery-grey English-like afternoon.

There is always something romantically eerie about grand stadiums when they are empty and out of season. Now the sombre, quiet afternoon was blitzed every minute-and-a-half or so by the screech of Mansell's careering engine past the paddock pit lane.

Mansell recalled his last-time debacle here. "I didn't retire, I just stood down. Since when I've enjoyed it in No Man's Land working on my golf and reflecting on life. If you've never lost the urge to drive fast, what have I to regain? If I'd lost it I would have ended up today in a wall on the very first lap. I didn't, so I've still got it."

His wife, Roseanne, was, he said, "fine about it and as supportive as ever." If the offer came when would he make his decision to drive again? Interrupted Jordan - "It takes two to tango.

The courtship dance has a long way to run yet.