Straight to the heart.

To a man of Nigel Mansell’s renowned sensitivity, the messages will have been like razors to the heart. ‘Nige retire!’ said one.

‘Nigel, we love ya. But give Coulthard the keys.’

They hung in full view, on banners that even the myopic FIA stewards who missed Michele Alboreto’s mischievous disposal of Damon Hill into the gravel on Friday could have seen, right opposite the Williams pit. Mansell, of course, saw them. He even joked about them. But you may be sure that they lanced his fragile ego.

This is a difficult time for the 41 year-old Briton, who only recently declared that he could ‘Win another World Championship without batting an eyelid’ but for whom such a feat seems increasingly more onerous. The mountain that he finally conquered two years ago shows every sign of refusing his fresh advances on this occasion, as the younger climbers approach its peak.

In Estoril recently there was none of the adulatory fan turn-out that characterised his return at Brands Hatch earlier this year as he tested prior to Magny-Cours. Instead, there was a media representation that was now less in need of a story. Back then Mansell had been wanted. Despite his superstar behaviour at the end of 1992, when his demands and omissions had enraged Renault Sport boss Patrick Faure to the point where he had indicated very firmly to Frank Williams that any suggestion of his return in the future would mean divorce between team and engine supplier, by curious imperative the very same M Faure wooed him back.

There was a mood very close to panic within Renault at that time. Senna was dead. Hill, having collided with Hakkinen at the start at Monaco (where a McLaren-Peugeot finished second), was perceived to be indicating that he did not have the qualities necessary to stop Schumacher’s seemingly unstoppable charge to the world title. Mansell was offered every blandishment and, true to form, extracted the maximum from Renault as they negotiated the deal with Bernie Ecclestone. Renault needed a good story on the eve of its home GP, something big that would detract from the growing development of Peugeot. And Bernie was equally anxious to have something positive with which to eradicate the memories of Imola, and to stop viewers the world over switching off their TVs whenever they heard the words Grand Prix or Formula One.

Mansell exploited the situation ruthlessly, envisaging himself as the knight in shining armour riding back atop a white charger to rescue everyone from the dragon that breathed tragedy and mediocrity.

Nothing lasts forever in this sport. Mansell, in fact, lasted only 46 laps in the French GP, having been blown off by Schumacher and Hill, not to mention Berger, Alesi and Barrichello. Then Hill began to hit his stride, winning races as Schumacher either ran into trouble or was penalised for misdemeanours and technical shortcomings on his car. And the rise and rise of David Coulthard, who might have won either race in Italy and Portugal, possibly even Belgium, was further indication that the New Wave was crashing over Mansell’s beachside sand castle.

The Briton had been very clever. Besides that one-off at Magny-Cours, he had demanded and been granted the final three races, and the possibility of a full-time ride in 1995. He was to be paid something in the region of $1.5M per appearance in 1994. And if, at any stage prior to the last three, Williams or Renault decided that they didn’t want him to run after all in Jerez, Suzuka or Adelaide, they had to put another $3M on the table. Deals like that don’t come along every day, not even for past World Champions.

“Motivation in our sport is something very special. Commitment is something very special. I am not motivated by the finances,” the man at the epicentre of this fiscal earthquake insisted, and some even believed him, overlooking that one reason why he eventually put himself in a position where he had to leave Williams in 1992 was because he had fallen out over the $13M offer to re-sign made to him earlier that year in Mexico, long before the bottom temporarily fell out of the driver market. It’s not everything to him, but he’s no philanthropist, that’s for sure.

The Estoril press conference produced all the familiar Mansell rhetoric, and some nostalgia for his IndyCar days. “I am grateful that I have had a couple of circumstances over the last couple of years which have proved to me without any question that you should take nothing for granted,” he said. “You think I am sidestepping the question of what is going to happen in the future. I am actually telling you the truth I have actually given up trying to tell you what might and might not happen. I am very grateful for what has happened in the last few years, you know. We made history, and history goes down in history books.”

Few had expected it to be recorded anywhere else. . .

“I have to look at the whole two years as a whole picture and what we did last year was something very special and I think I didn’t realise how special until this year. This year has put the whole two years into perspective. I never appreciated how quickly all the teams could move and the competitiveness in IndyCar in two years has increased.

“It’s very important to have the experiences in my portfolio. I have the wealth of experience to be able to sit there and say I know what it’s like over there. To have actually raced on a superspeedway such as Indianapolis, Michigan – I now have a whole round portfolio of racing experience through the whole spectrum of the world. It is something very special.”

Some of his remarks were breathtaking: “The other thing that is difficult to quantify is that F1 covers two-thirds of the world, the other third is covered by IndyCar. So the other phenomena that has happened to me in the last two years is that there are parts of the world which have only just discovered Nigel Mansell. The fact that we did the double championship back-to-back had quite a big effect on them.

“I will be as quick as I can this weekend,” he pledged, referring to the European GP. “By Japan I think I will be getting faster, and in Australia even faster again.”

In Jerez he was as good as gold out of the car, avoiding controversy, keeping his head down as Hill stoically, and with great dignity, swatted away Schumacher’s contrived and foolish verbal attack on his abilities. But he wasn’t quick. Not in the way we have come to expect of him. Nor from a man with his remunerative motivation. There was only one lap of qualifying in which he looked even remotely like his old self. He did his legal share 23 each morning, 12 each afternoon but there was only that one, his fastest, when he looked truly hooked up. Rough, ragged even, but hooked up. In days gone by he would have wanted to win every lap.

Whisper it, his performance strangely mirrored some of his driving in IndyCars this season, following Dennis Vitolo’s arrival on his head at Indianapolis. The big qualifying lap, followed by a curiously muted air thereafter.

Heresy? Once upon a time, yes. Scratch your head, pick your teeth for a while, settle back in the armchair with a Scotch, and you might come up with those odd two races at Hockenheim and Spa back in his upset days at Ferrari in 1990 and say, ‘He gave up, didn’t he. . .’ but otherwise Mansell has always been a fighter. It’s his greatest asset.

But Magny-Cours? He got tired in the race and was a shadow of his former self.

Jerez? Oh, dear. He’s forgotten how to start and how to stop, as witnessed by his getaway and then by clobbering debutant Hideki Noda, whose Larrousse was going slowly stuck in second gear. And after that he forgot how to stay on the grey stuff. Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine both marvelled how he appeared to take a different line to each corner, on each lap. For someone in his first GP, he would have looked impressive. But this was no rookie. This was Nigel Mansell. 1992 World Champion. The veteran of 183 Grandes Épreuves. The setter of 31 pole positions and 30 fastest laps. Front row starter on 55 occasions. A man who has spent 2063 miles leading Grands Prix. and who won 30 of them. As he reminded us only recently, the third most successful driver in the all-time victory stakes. The 1993 CART/PPG IndyCar champion.

A man, lest we forget, receiving the sort of money for four races that would all but solve Team Lotus’s current financial plight overnight.

At several stages he was asked if he was convinced that he would be in F1 in 1995. “I am convinced in my mind that I will do what I want to do in the future,” he responded coyly. “Everyone will have to be patient. I have shown commitment in coming back already. I have lost 10 lb in the last month that’s called commitment. Exercise and diet.”

Formula One needed him, he insisted “Because I am a romantic.” The cynics amongst us chuckled and wondered if semantic wouldn’t have been more apposite. “People forget that I have raced in F1 for 13 years. I wouldn’t say I’m a showman, but I respect the public.”

And up until now, the public has respected him. But those banners hanging opposite the Williams garage were not the banners of detractors. They were the banners of his fans, the people from whom he has drawn so much in the past. They spoke of shifting affections. It remains to be seen quite what effect such a public volte face from some of them has on a man who has always, deep down, just wanted to be loved.

As one daily paper rightly described, he launched into what sounded like a job application while speaking to the press in Estoril, “What I am saying to you here,” he intoned, “is that if I am given another opportunity to do the job on my commitment, which I have already shown, and get the encouragement that every driver needs I have no problem with age or whatever’

His driving in Jerez was hardly in the shattering category that it is known he must produce if he is to oust David Coulthard from the team’s affections. And given that he will not be testing again before Suzuka it is difficult to envisage a significant change in his level by the time we get to Japan. The quick qualifying lap in F1 is no longer everything, now that fuel stops have rendered Grands Prix short-spurt sprints between pit calls. Literally, it has become survival of the fittest and the signs are that one old lion may no longer have what it takes to paw away the playful cubs.

Times are achanging in F1 now anyway. With the rise of Coulthard has come the hard-edged return of IMG, pushing itself firmly against the door of a fresh sport in a search for a foothold in a new power base. The sponsors love Coulthard, care little either way for Mansell, something in itself that tells you much about the way things have altered since his exile. Time was, they would have disembowelled themselves if that was what it took to get his signature.

Is Il Leone too old at 41? In IndyCars, no. In Formula One, possibly but not necessarily. But from what we saw of the package Nigel Mansell presented to the world in the sherry region, Williams won’t be doing anything nasty to itself to push a contract across the table to him for 1995. DJT