The manner in which Nigel Mansell parked his McLaren to register retirement from the Spanish Grand Prix inevitably raises the question of whether he is already contemplating retirement of another kind.
Even Ron Dennis concedes that the MP4/10’s performance, or lack of it, was a factor behind his new signing’s reluctance to drive the first two races. How the former world champion must have pondered his future after finishing a lowly 10th at Imola and deciding that he did not even wish to continue with the race at Barcelona. “It’s undriveable,” said the disgruntled Briton as he retired from 21st place. “I’m not going out there in it to have an accident.”
He is a driver who thrives on ‘people power’ and is formidable when in buoyant form. But a demotivated Mansell is perhaps the last thing a team needs when it is fighting a rearguard PR action.
The problem is two-fold. Firstly, as teammate Mika Hakkinen confirms, the car is unbalanced, with or without its radical ‘midship’ wing. Secondly, Mansell’s problems are exacerbated by his driving style.
“My style is to go deep into a corner and then turn-in,” he explained after the first day’s qualifying in Barcelona. “Mika’s fastest lap today is near enough two seconds quicker, but in fact on the overall lap I’m at three per cent more full throttle than he is, and yet I’m slower. The reason for that, and that counts for three and a half seconds more full throttle per lap, is that I’m aggravating the front-end of my car and I have more understeer, so I go into the corner and I can’t turn. We do have a weakness on initial turn-in.
“I’ll share this with you: Mika said to me at Imola, ‘How the hell did you go round that corner like that?’ I picked up three or four tenths just on braking and entering one corner. But it was only one corner and then there were six others he was killing me on all the second gear comers!”
It is not the first time Mansell has found himself in such a predicament. At Ferrari in 1990 he struggled all season against Alain Prost, who preferred a car set-up for understeer. Mansell would rather cross himself and reach for the garlic than face such a nightmare.
Williams Technical Director Patrick Head maintains that Mansell’s biggest asset has always been his tremendous physical strength in the corners. When Martin Brundie suggests that the fitting of power steering to last year’s McLaren gained him seven tenths of a second at Silverstone’s Becketts alone, you can see why. Now, however, Dennis concedes the weakness in the frontend of this year’s car means Nigel’s aggression only exaggerates the problem.
“I think our honesty at the start of the season worked against us, and continues to work against us,” pondered Dennis at Imola. “It sort of gave a dog a bad name.” But Barcelona’s high speed curves exposed the MP4/10’s inherent flaws to such a degree that it palpably warranted a bad name. You can bet your bottom seven million dollars that Mansell called it a few…