Transatlantic challenge

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What can Nigel Mansell expect on the Indycar circuit?

One of the more pleasant aspects of the Portuguese GP weekend was the presence of Emerson Fittipaldi in the paddock, celebrating with sponsor Marlboro the 20th anniversary of his first World Championship (ironically taken at the wheel of a John Player Special!).

The double title holder resuscitated his fading career in the PPG/CART Indycar series in 1984, winning Indianapolis and the championship in 1989 and establishing himself firmly as a leading contender. He was amused by all the ballyhoo surrounding Nigel Mansell’s forth coming switch to American racing, especially when we told him some of the national daily papers’ scare stories about hitting a concrete wall at 220 mph at Indianapolis or Michigan, and the treatment of the death of Jovy Marcelo, the injuries suffered by Nelson Piquet and Jeff Andretti and Rick Mears’ qualifying shunt.

Like us, Emerson saw most of it as a product of sensationalism and ignorance. But just what does Mansell face?

Clearly, the Brazilian has a deep affection for Indycar racing, as do most of its protagonists. “I love it for the sport,” he says immediately, his face alight. “It is like it was back in Formula One in the Seventies. It’s relaxed. There aren’t the politics like there are in Formula One. People are here because they love the sport. They settle the challenge on the track. They don’t need to do it out of the car.”

In 1988 at the Meadowlands he took the pole but later had a run-in with Al Unser Jnr that sent his Patrick Lola bouncing into the wall and out of the race. As Unser came by next time round, Emerson shook his fist at him. They sorted it out sensibly a fortnight later, and in 1989 when the boot was on the other foot after Emerson had tapped Junior out of the Indy 500, the American stood trackside giving him the thumbs up to indicate that he was okay. Not exactly what you’d expect in F1…

“Nigel is an incredibly strong driver and a great champion, so we are all very happy that he is coming,” stresses Fittipaldi. “I think he will have no problems with the transition from Formula One to Indycar racing on the street circuits and the permanent road courses.” That’s the majority of the races, because only two of the 16 take place on superspeedways and four more on mile ovals.

“But for sure,” he continued, “it will be difficult for him going to the oval tracks. For them you have to have a different approach; you have to be very settled, you have to give time to yourself and not just jump in the car and try to go fast straight away. Mentally, it is a different procedure to be able to achieve the speed and be safe. That is one of the things that I am going to discuss with him. He needs time to make this transition as smoothly as possible. The speeds are much higher than Formula One. It is not forgiving; if you make a mistake on an oval track, you will never recover the car again and you are going to hit the wall. But I am sure that Nigel, with all his talent, will be very fast, for sure.”

“He must learn to relax and to respect the circuits. It took me three to four years to be comfortable on the superspeedways, and even now I still don’t feel comfortable!

“He needs to learn the tactics in the slipstream on superspeedways. You cannot use Formula One tactics, such as cutting in after overtaking. That’s something that Eddie Cheever does which still upsets other drivers. You need to give the guy behind the room or you take away the air from his front wing.

“One time I saw Eddie give Rick Mears a really hard time when he only got away with it because Rick saw just what was happening and gave him some extra room. With anyone else they would both have spun, but thanks to Rick, Eddie got away with it. He didn’t even know what he’d done.”

It’s endearing, the way Fittipaldi speaks about his Penske team-mate. I once asked Mears if it really was possible to catch an oversteer slide on an oval, as most believe that if you try to correct one you’ll end up in hospital because the car tends to regain grip just as the nose is pointing at the wall. “It is. I caught one today,” he replied, as nonchalantly as if we were discussing fishing. “But you really have to be ahead of what the car is telling you, to know what it is thinking of doing, and if you haven’t already started to get the lock off the other way the moment you’ve started to put it on, then you’re in real trouble.” I asked Emerson the same thing, and he smiled. “It is a very difficult thing to think of. The best way is to set the car up to push, rather than be loose. It’s not something I want to do, but these superspeedways aces can now and then.” This is from a man who is now capable of racing anyone on any American circuit, but who has a big enough heart to recognise superiority where it exists in another driver. Again, it’s hard to imagine in F1…

“He will have to go through two stages. First, he will start training by himself, probably at Phoenix, to get used to the oval tracks, get used to the set-up of the car, and to learn the technique of setting it up. The second stage will come when he has to go racing.

“It is difficult to imagine, I know. At Indianapolis we are approaching Turn One at 240mph — that’s close to 400 kmh! — and when you are behind two or three other cars, the turbulence is so great. That is another experience that Nigel has to go through, not just driving by himself but going through traffic and dicing. He will need lots of miles and plenty of time to get used to it. The car has different reactions when you are behind someone, and this is the second stage to which he must adapt. Provided that he works with Mario, in a very competitive team like Newman/Haas, he should be able to go through this stage much faster than I did. I think the learning process is going to be much faster for him…”

The full-course yellow is another aspect of lndycar racing which takes some learning, along with the multiple pit stops, generally two a race, for fuel and tyres. On the road courses drivers generally run as long as possible before pitting in the hope of catching a yellow. If he can make the fuel last an extra lap or two, there is always the possibility of an incident which would enable him to pit under the yellow while the rest of the field trundles around behind the pace car, having already pitted under full ‘green’ racing conditions. That way he loses less ‘racing’ time.

On the ovals, where full-course yellows accompany even the most minor incident and are thus a lot more frequent, the situation becomes a great deal more complex. Do you pit early to take advantage of a yellow — effectively gambling that there will be others — or do you stay out? Arie Luyendyk won the 1991 Phoenix race basically because he didn’t pit under an early yellow, and so was able to move up from 11th to second when the early leaders did. Later he lucked into another yellow the lap before he would have run out of fuel…

Emerson remembers his worst experience of yellows. “I had fought through and taken the lead, then I pulled clear,” he recalled of his maiden CART victory in the 1985 Michigan 500. “It was one of those days when everything went right — tyres, pit stops, working the traffic. Everything! Then everything went wrong with a yellow right at the very end. The track went green with a lap to go, and there right behind me was Al Unser Senior! All round that lap I was flat. I had never taken that chance before. I thought for sure he’d pass me. But I did take the chance that day, and I finished in front but with him still right on my gearbox! A fantastic moment for me!”

There are other factors to consider, such as single lap qualifying (already familiar to him from the days of Goodyear’s F1 qualifiers), rolling starts, the constant traffic of 22-second laps on the mile ovals, the unique pressures of the month of May at Indianapolis. And dealing with a press that expects — demands even — that the drivers are available and approachable after the race. We await with interest the reaction if and when Mansell does his first whining conference once the inevitable honeymoon period has faded away.

One thing he won’t miss is the endless polemics of F1. Political intrigue does exist in CART, particularly at Indianapolis, but it is in its infancy in comparison.

One thing he definitely will miss is the car advantage he enjoyed in 1992. “Formula One is in a technical war that will destroy it,” predicted Fittipaldi. “For two years Penske worked on an electronic gearbox, then two weeks before it was due to run the CART Board said it didn’t want anything like that and it was banned. Likewise active suspension. It was the best thing. It is good for racing not to have a technical war, it keeps the balance between the teams. You can have Penske building specialist cars in Poole, in the south of England, and then you have Lola building production cars. You can buy a Lola and a Ford or a Chevrolet and go racing and be really competitive. But this technology here, it stifles the sport.”

Therein, along with the sheer speed on the ovals, lies the greatest change Mansell will face, for the sport is still uppermost in lndycars. In truth, though, his switch may not be so much a matter of how Nigel Mansell adapts to Indycars, as how F1 adapts to life without him. Will there be a big television switch off from F1 in Europe, and on to lndycars? The indications are already there. The European ground stations are bidding seriously for the rights, and even that most Establishment of BBC programmes Sportsnight, which normally cares not a jot for motor racing, recently devoted time to a feature on Mansell, Paul Newman and Newman/Haas Racing. Perhaps it’s writing, rather than blood, that is on the Indy walls?

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