Nigel Mansell: Master class

The last glimpse the public had of Nigel Mansell competing in a high-powered open-wheel racing car was in 1995, when he joined McLaren for the formula-one season but baled out after two miserable races in a poorly handling car.

Since then, he has occupied himself with developing his Woodbury Park leisure complex in Devon, cruising round the Mediterranean in his yacht with his family, and serving as president of the charity UK Youth.

But Mansell was always renowned as one of the most belligerent and competitive of formula-one drivers, and at a mere 52 you would hardly expect him to agree that he is over the hill. A dozen years after his unique achievement of holding the formula one world championship and the US Cart championship simultaneously, an offer to join the new Grand Prix (GP) Masters racing series instantly pushed his starter button.

“I’m in a dream at the moment,” he said, in the middle of testing his new GP Masters car at Silverstone last week before the opening race at Kyalami on Sunday. “I never thought anything in motor sport would surpass my expectations, because they’re quite high, but if I’m truthful I think these cars are too quick. They’re awesome.”

Grand Prix Masters is an extension of the senior tours popular in golf and tennis. Drivers have to be over 45, and after passing a medical they are let loose on one of the cars rolling out of Delta Motorsport’s factory in Northamptonshire.

The roll-call of former world champions and famous formula one names — including Alan Jones, Emerson Fittipaldi, Riccardo Patrese and René Arnoux — will roar off the grid powered by a V8 3,5-litre Nicholson McLaren Cosworth engine and snuggled inside a low-slung fuselage partly derived from a 1998 Reynard design for Cart.

Mansell advances several reasons for signing up, including admiration for GPM’s chief executive Scott Poulter (“he’s gone out on a limb, and he deserves support”). He also has a list of forthright criticisms of the current state of formula one, and seems partly motivated by an urge to put on a display of real motor racing, with no driver aids and lots of overtaking.

“The current superstars of formula one are very lucky, because the circuits have been changed beyond belief,” he snorts. “You don’t have the really iffy corners at Monaco any more. They can go into hell-raising corners at 200mph [320kph] and make some really bad errors and not have a problem with it.

“The driver doesn’t have to balance the car in the corners, the computer does it. Rubens Barrichello told me that — he said: ‘If I get in big shit in a corner I just put my foot down flat and the car will sort itself out.’ That’s totally the opposite of what we were used to.”

Mansell had a glimpse inside a computer-assisted cockpit when he drove a Jordan up Regent Street in the formula-one parade last year.

“I did six starts at Silverstone before I went to London, just by taking my finger off the button. It was a terrible anti-climax for me. I told them, ‘Switch it all off — I want to do the standing start.’ The real skill is the guy writing the computer software, and that’s the most alarming thing about formula one.”

The new formula-one regulations for next season also bring Mansell instantly to the boil, especially the new qualifying format in which the slowest cars will be weeded out in two 15-minute sessions.

“The teams that are struggling need as much time on the track as they can get to bring themselves up to speed, but they’re being penalised because if they don’t qualify quickly enough they’re out, and then the others get more track time. How fair is that? It’s an own goal before you start.”

However, he has more immediate concerns. During his unhappy final days at McLaren, Mansell provoked mirth by having to have the cockpit widened to accommodate his broad rear end. He does not look any slimmer, so will race fitness be an issue?

“My fitness is non-existent at the moment,” he admits. “But if the series goes from strength to strength, I’ll get on a sensible programme and lose a bit more weight and train. But I don’t want this to take over my life.”

Whether he will feel quite so relaxed when he is charging towards the first corner on Sunday remains to be seen. — Â

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