The inaugural race for grand prix grandees proved a big hit, with Nigel Mansell coming out on top. James Roberts was at Kyalami.
Nigel Mansell slowly pulled himself out of the cockpit. He appeared drained. It was an image we’d seen so many times before, but now he was that little bit rounder, more laboured. “It was a tough race, very frantic. I wasn’t enjoying the last couple of laps because I’d cooked my tyres,” he sighed. Then the grin broadened and he punched his arms into the air. Nigel Mansell was a winner again. He had eclipsed the 1972 and ’74 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi by less than half a second to claim victory in the first Altech Grand Prix Masters race in South Africa.
This was an event that followed in the tradition of golf and tennis Masters, and in which retired Formula One drivers over the age of 45 made their racing comebacks.
Two years in the making, it finally happened on November 13. It was a success too: the race had more spectators (68,000) than either of the two Formula One events at the shortened Kyalami in 1992 and ’93.
A few, like Riccardo Patrese, hadn’t driven a racing car in anger since they hung up their helmets. Andrea de Cesaris was asked when he last drove competitively, to which he replied: “I’m trying to remember. No, I don’t think I’ve ever driven a car competitively!”
Under the blistering heat of the Johannesburg sun, fitness surprisingly wasn’t an issue, except for Alan Jones: he pulled out before qualifying because his neck muscles could not handle the stresses of Kyalami’s twists and turns.
Back in the paddock, drivers reminisced and shared jokes. There wasn’t much pressure, it seemed, although after each practice session Patrese was eager to pore over the telemetry data — once he’d found his reading glasses. Derek Warwick was surprised he was on the pace so quickly: “You think to yourself, ‘Are you going to be frightened? Will you be brave enough?’ But gradually you get more grip and you feel more comfortable. It’s a big commitment, particularly through a couple of very fast left-handers, but I’m just humbled to be among such great names. Not including you, Nigel!”
The sweeps of Kyalami and the low-grip Avon rubber made the race processional, with Mansell leading all 30 laps, but Fittipaldi was never more than a second behind him. Afterwards he recalled some advice Ayrton Senna had given him when Mansell switched to Indycars for 1993. “Senna told me to look out for Nigel’s impressive car control: he was right,” said Fittipaldi. “Even in this race I thought three or four times he had lost it.”
The rolling start was disappointing and the race distance was less than half that of a modern grand prix, but it could be the start of something big, with five events planned for 2006 and a race at Silverstone as the highlight.
FACTFILE How the old boys finished…
1 – Nigel Mansell – 50m 55.154sec
2 – Emerson Fittipaldi – +0.408sec
3 – Riccardo Patrese – +20.662sec
4 – Andrea de Cesaris – +21.700sec
5 – Derek Warwick – +21.853sec
6 – Hans-Jochaim Stuck – +23.201sec
7 – Christian Danner – +24.118sec
8 – Eddie Cheever – +32.205sec
9 – Jan Lammers – +32.778sec
10 – Eleseo Salazar – +43.419sec
Mansell. 1min 36.390sec