Matters of Moment, March 2012

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Two starkly contrasting views of Nigel Mansell this month. In this issue, which you might have noticed features a few pages on Williams, Patrick Head tells us that the 1992 World Champion was certainly “high-maintenance”, but then goes on to say he was “bloody quick, bloody quick all the time… Nigel was given the Graham Hill mantle of the gritty grafter who didn’t have the skill and artistry of Senna or Prost, and overcame it through sheer determination. I don’t think that was fair. I would put him right in the same class as Prost.”

As good as Prost, eh? But when Patrick Head speaks, you sit up and take notice. The same was true of the late Peter Warr, whose eagerly anticipated autobiography landed in the office this month. In the book, published posthumously and reviewed on page 137, the man who kept the flame burning at Lotus in the wake of Colin Chapman’s death makes no mention of ‘that’ prediction about Mansell’s future wins ratio and the sealing of a certain orifice on his own person… but Warr never backed down, even 31 Grands Prix wins, one world championship, an IndyCar title in his rookie year and a near-miss Indy 500 later.

Consider this section on a driver he considered “seriously flawed”: “how Nigel went on to be so successful is a source of bewilderment to all those who knew him when he drove for us. Perhaps he was a late developer – unusual in a Grand Prix driver, but not impossible. Perhaps he happened to be in the right place at the right time… Perhaps the cars he drove later with the addition of the driver aids that Senna was to resent so bitterly served to give him the extra confidence he needed by making the cars easier to drive. The active suspension Williams FW14B that gave him his title was a brilliant and vastly superior car.”

That it was, which is why we picked it out for the cover of this Williams-themed issue. But whatever its merits, Mansell still had to make the most of it in 1992 (winning the title by August suggests he did so), and Riccardo Patrese certainly didn’t find it “easy”. Warr also describes Mansell as “universally disliked in the very close-knit world of F1”, and there’s the rub. If he’d had the character of his Lotus team-mate Elio de Angelis, Mansell would be revered in the manner of Ronnie Peterson or Gilles Villeneuve. But then he wouldn’t have been Mansell. The persecution complex, the moans and groans, the clumsy syntax, the inconsistency and mistakes on track – that was him. Things were never dull with a mixed-up talent like Nigel Mansell around.

Twenty years after his title season, he still divides opinion like no other.

*

A couple of press releases have pinged in from the Bahrain Grand Prix organisers this month. Don’t worry, nothing to worry about for the race on April 22. Apparently.

This is the circuit that dismissed a group of employees last year following the forceful suppression of protests that shook the Arab state and led directly to the cancellation of the Grand Prix. But it’s OK. An independent inquiry has recommended that these ‘rogue’ employees should get their jobs back and “in a spirit of reconciliation” they’re all happily back at work again.

So that’s all right, then.

But if that’s the case, why are civil rights groups still warning that F1 is heading for trouble by insisting on a return to Bahrain? In the wake of continued reports of police violence against activists, groups such as the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights are calling for a driver and team boycott of the race. It says the government is trying to pretend everything in Bahrain is normal, when clearly it isn’t.

The grim determination of the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone to force F1 back into Bahrain is unfathomable. Twelve months on from the global embarrassment of a sport collectively sticking its head in the sand and ignoring a very real problem, history is about to be repeated. No one except ‘Bernie and the blazers’ wants to go, not least because of the very real fears that violence is bound to erupt when the eyes of the world are trained on the place.

The race shouldn’t happen, it can’t happen – and I strongly suspect it won’t happen. That teams and manufacturers must take a lead on this to make it so is another depressing indictment of the governance of our sport.

*

Karun Chandhok will make the headlines if he becomes the first Indian driver to race at Le Mans when the British JRM Racing team heads to the 24 Hours in June with its brand new top-class prototype (see p15). But for one of his team-mates the race will have even greater significance and meaning.

Peter Dumbreck (below) is still best known as the man who survived that terrifying flip on the run to Indianapolis in full glare of the TV cameras 13 years ago, in a Mercedes-Benz CLR so aerodynamically unstable it should never have started the race. But like Mark Webber who survived not one but two pre-race flips that fateful June week in 1999, it’s all ancient history for Dumbreck. He’s been a professional racing driver for all those years since, plying his talents in the DTM, Japanese Super GTs and most recently in the FIA GT1 World Championship. He’s even returned to Le Mans, albeit in cars as uncompetitive as Spyker’s slow GT2.

Now, finally, he’s heading back to La Sarthe in a top-class prototype. “I feel like I’ve finally come full circle,” he told me at the Racing Car Show in January. The man who was nicknamed ‘Slash’ in his Formula Vauxhall days because that’s what he wrote on a questionnaire when asked what he liked to do in his spare time, is not exactly one to show emotion. But this clearly means a great deal to Dumbreck. Keep an eye on him come June.

*

Keep an ear out too for Ben Edwards, the man who is to replace Martin Brundle as the BBC’s lead F1 commentator. For years, Ben has been a hugely popular figure in the sport and has more than earned his stripes for another shot at the Grand Prix job.

Meanwhile, Brundle is still batting away criticism for his switch to Rupert Murdoch’s ‘evil empire’. Nigel Roebuck has talked to him for ‘Reflections’ this month, and as usual, nothing is exactly as it might seem. Brundle has some very good reasons for the move, and while some of them will boost what I suspect is already a pretty healthy credit rating, there’s so much more to it than that. Sky’s promises for the F1 enthusiast are tantalising. It looks like turning to the ‘dark side of the force’ is going to prove unavoidable…

*

And finally, if you haven’t yet entered our competition to win tickets for the Motor Sport Hall of Fame at the Roundhouse on February 16, there are still a couple of days left – so log on to the website. We’re delighted that Infiniti, whose logos you will recognise from the engine cover of Red Bull F1 cars, will be the official car marque, joining title partner TAG Heuer as a supporter of our big night. It should be quite an evening.

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