The unlikely lads

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Nigel Mansell, McLaren driver. An unthinkable notion in the past, but now circumstance and market forces have brought the two together…

The tinkle of the Park Lane Hilton’s finest china coffee cups and the gentle strains of the Penguin Café Orchestra hardly seemed an appropriate backdrop for the impending arrival of Nigel Mansell.

Then again, most people’s memories can clearly recall the day, in the not too distant past, when a McLaren press conference would have been a wholly inappropriate setting for the impending arrival of Nigel Mansell.

To recap, Ron Dennis, master of all things McLaren International, was on record as saying that he would never sign a driver he didn’t understand. And his powers of comprehension did not extend to the aforementioned Mr Mansell.

Mansell has driven for some of the most respected names in the sport: Lotus, Williams and Ferrari in F1, Newman-Haas in CART… but past evidence always suggested that he had more chance of winning a Grand Prix on foot than he had in a McLaren.

Until February 3, 1995…

Of course, the jungle drums had been beating for weeks. Mansell was out of IndyCar racing, and had contested the final three Grands Prix of the 1994 season for Williams… but there was no future place for him there. Nor, indeed, at Benetton, where a seat was being kept warm for Johnny Herbert. Ferrari had long since been spoken for. Of the teams whose stature matched the ambitions of the 1992 world champion, therefore, only McLaren remained.

Stumbling blocks?

Heinz-Harald Frentzen? McLaren and Mercedes were both said to be interested, but the young German was happy to stay put at Sauber, where he had a works Ford engine deal.

Martin Brundle? He raced extremely well for McLaren in 1994, and Dennis acknowledged as much. “Martin was obviously acceptable. He struggles in qualifying and does a brilliant job in the race. When you start two or three rows back from where you should be, you don’t get a chance to shine. His racing efforts were more than acceptable to everybody at McLaren, to our sponsors and to Mercedes. But not quite as attractive as a proven race winner who can qualify well, and who can put Mika under pressure.”

When Brundle pitched in his lot with Ligier, the only remaining hurdle in the way of this improbable marriage was that of tangible mutual indifference, a matter which Dennis handled with reasonable conviction.

“I don’t feel hypocritical when I talk about him because you have to understand him, and what he can and can’t do. You think about what he’s achieved in his other sports and the level he’s achieved: black belt karate, a scratch golfer, Indy racing, F1… that takes commitment and focus. He should feel far more comfortable with himself than he sometimes appears. “I can accept what it takes to achieve all that, so I just said we should put it on the side and talk about the future, about what he could bring to the team, what I could bring to him. I think you’re a fool if you think you ever stop learning. It led to an interesting dialogue, and we came to an agreement quite quickly.

“It’s true that our first meeting was close on catastrophic. We’re both very different characters, and you’re aware of some of the opinions I’ve expressed in the past. What became clear in the second meeting was that Nigel brings a unique style to his motor racing. You have to look behind the split personality (words he used with Mansell sitting all of eight inches to his left – SA). There’s the flamboyant showman, and racing champion, and then there’s the real Nigel Mansell. That’s who I prefer, when you can get to him, but he’s a difficult character to get to. I don’t regret what I said in the past. It was an honest opinion which a lot of people hold. It’s something that was based on observations and behavioural patterns. But so many people in this world are completely different once you know them.”

If Mansell was fazed by his new employer’s frankness, it didn’t show.

He just smiled, scattered platitudes around the room, made quips that might have had greater impact had he not laughed at them before his audience had a chance to, reiterated how committed he was, how his motivation had never been greater, and even said that “I’ve been privileged to drive for Ferrari, for Lotus, for Williams, and I have to say, in the little time I’ve been with McLaren, they’re ahead of the rest.” Quite a conclusion to come to, given that he hadn’t even sat in a car by then.

Mind you, he wasn’t the only one on the stage with an apparently short-term memory. Dennis was moved to remark that “What you see before you is probably one of the most talented driver line-ups we’ve ever been privileged to have in our Grand Prix team.”

Alongside him were Mansell, Mika Hakkinen and test driver Jan Magnussen. Masses of potential, certainly, but redolent of Prost and Senna? Or Prost and Lauda, come to that?

But for all the glitter, hype and occasional tendency to exaggerate, you got the feeling that both men were going to give it their best shot.

And Dennis certainly doesn’t expect things to be as smooth as his own polished performance in front of the media spotlight.

“I think that, at the moment, there’s going to be a process of trial and error that’s going to exist in the opening Grands Prix. Nigel obviously has a bit of an explosive nature about him. He’ll lose control a couple of times, which is counter-productive from an emotional standpoint, but I expect it. It’ll be understandable, because like all teams I think we’ll be in for the odd disappointment. The most important thing is to draw on each other’s experience, discuss the problems, sort them and get on with making whatever’s not working work.

“In reality, as soon as Nigel was free, we were absolutely committed to finding a way to put him in a car.”

Behind the scenes, as speculation raged that Mansell was heading for McLaren, there was talk that Bernie Ecclestone — keen to have Mansell’s crowd-pulling power in F1 on a permanent basis — had played the role of matchmaker.

Dennis denies this, though he can understand the suggestion. “Bernie had no involvement at all. I have a great respect for what Bernie Ecclestone has brought to Grand Prix racing, and I’m sure he was quite a useful catalyst when it came to the Williams/Mansell arrangement. As for McLaren, we stand on our own feet and make our own decisions. We don’t really need outside assistance. Having said that, Bernie has got a vested interest in promoting the series, so he was doubtless making lots of encouraging noises on the sidelines, driven by a desire to see an increase at the gates. That’s acceptable.”

Mansell has been recruited for just one season, though Dennis is adamant that he has not been signed simply to keep a seat warm for Michael Schumacher. “I haven’t spoken to Michael for nine months,” he insists, “and we have no contract with him. The situation is fluid for 1996. If things go well, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t continue as we are.”

Mansell, of course, is sure to be something of a catalyst when it comes to motivation. And Dennis hopes that his presence will help drive Hakkinen along. “Obviously we’ve got a good blend. Mika is still young, still to win his first GP, and obviously I think that’s soon to happen. He’s learned the McLaren way, and I’m sure he’s going to learn the McLaren way of winning.

”Nigel of course is a proven race winner, a world champion. He’ll be bringing the team valuable experience which will only help Mika. It’s not necessary to have a world champion in the team, but obviously it helps. Half the battle with anyone who hasn’t achieved is that they don’t know what it takes, and they don’t know how to handle it. You’ll see with Mika when he inevitably wins his first Grand Prix. He will raise his game much more than you would expect. It’s the first part of the process of fulfilment for a driver to win his first GP. Nigel has had that experience.”

The two will enjoy equal status within the team. “There have been many things Nigel and I have discussed, and none of them has been status. McLaren has never had number ones or number twos; we pride ourselves on being able to give the drivers the same equipment. It makes no sense to us to provide them with anything else.”

While Benetton, Jordan and Sauber were up and running relatively early with their new cars, McLaren has adopted a different approach. “I’ve seen pictures of the new cars,” says Dennis, “and most have been designed to comply with the regulations, which they’ve struggled to accommodate in the time available. Hopefully we’ve actually addressed some interesting areas which we feel will be addressed by everybody when they’ve seen our car. It’ll be quite a bit different to anything that’s been announced. We’ve built a car to the limit of the new regulations. Hopefully you’ll look at it and say ‘That’s different’.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll have four cars built for the Brazilian GP, maybe five. We’ll take three chassis to Brazil. I know other teams are already running, but I think others would prefer to be in our situation, with lots of parts made and a process by which we’ll get to the first race with a lot of cars and a lot of parts.”

Dyno testing of the new Mercedes V10 has been encouraging. Devoid, they say, of failures. From all sides of the Hilton stage, there is a tangible aura of contentment. Dennis may still have reservations about his new driver, albeit well disguised, but you get the impression that he envisages a long term chassis/engine alliance with Mercedes-Benz as McLaren strives to rebuild a relationship of Honda-like steadiness, following its staccato engagements with Ford and Peugeot.

Test driver Magnussen will be groomed carefully, He won’t drive the new car until the start of the European season, and you can stake your house on the fact that he won’t go anywhere near a Grand Prix until the team is satisfied that he’s ready.

Predictions for the year ahead? Dennis is upbeat, but he tempers his ideals with a note of realism. “There’s some catching up to do, purely because of the momentum you gain from winning races. But we can do it, sooner rather than later. We’re not in the business of making excuses. We’re in the business of giving honest reasons for our problems and then getting them fixed. But it would be foolish of me to start saying how quickly our competitiveness will materialise. To win consistently, you need the best of everything.”

Does Dennis believe his methods will get more out of Mansell than either Ferrari or Williams managed, given the acrimony which marred his association with both teams at times? “I tend not to really thinking about how other Grand Prix teams work. I have to believe in certain things, and part of the process of that belief is to convey values to everybody that works for McLaren. We have a culture. Not everyone might think it’s great, but I think its constructive. You have to explain it to people when they join McLaren, whether they are joining to perform unskilled tasks or whether they are an experienced, skilled GP driver. I’m not in the business of producing McLaren clones. I’m in the business of keeping people pointing in the right directions, keeping them focused on achieving their own objectives.”

Mansell’s objectives are similar to those of his new boss. “I think McLaren’s strength is their focus: I mean they want to win, they don’t want to go racing to finish second. They’ve won 104 Grands Prix and I’ve won 31 myself, so it goes without saying that they’ve taken a lot of races from me with their drivers in the past, and I’ve taken a lot of races away from them. So the rivalry was there and it was healthy.

“Now we’re together it could be very strong.”

Rocky? Maybe. Potent? Certainly.

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