Thursday, April 13, 2017

Nigel vs. Fernando

I have to admit, I was as stunned as anyone by the announcement yesterday that current McLaren Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso will be driving for Andretti Autosport in this year's Indianapolis 500. Not only can't I believe the announcement, I also can't believe that it was all pulled off with so much secrecy.

Big props to Michael Andretti for getting the deal done, and a tip of the cap to Stefan Wilson, who put the pursuit of his own program for May on hold so that they could get everything arranged. I'm sure that wasn't an easy decision, Wilson, like Pippa Mann, works pretty much year-round to secure funding for a 500 ride, so to eschew that for a year for a greater good has to be absolutely commended.

There is no doubt that this is huge news, and the impact of it covered the entire planet. To me that shows two things: 1) the popularity of F1 and its drivers and 2) the legitimacy of the Indy 500. I hope that the people who think that the 500 has lost popularity and luster are paying attention, because the news and the reaction to it show that rumors of the demise of the 500 have been greatly exaggerated.

Many are comparing this to 1993, when reigning F1 World Champion Nigel Mansell signed a two-year deal with Newman-Haas Racing, finished third at the Indy 500 and went on to win five races and the CART title that season.

So if you had to put each situation head-to-head, which one is "bigger"? Mansell taking America by storm or Alonso giving up his McLaren seat for the Grand Prix of Monaco for a one-off in the 500?

You know, with the spread of information and the power of social media that exists, and the following Alonso has makes the news of his announcement bigger, but having experienced Mansell in 1993, I think that was a bigger deal. Maybe not in terms of current metrics and the idea of "moving the needle" because Alonso will probably do both on a greater scale, but from a racing standpoint, Mansell's 1993 season to me ranks as one of the greatest of all-time.

Mansell came here off of a 1992 season that saw him win nine Grands Prix and finish second three times in the 15-race schedule. In 1991, he had won five races and notched four runner-up finishes while finishing second in the World Championship standings behind Ayrton Senna.

Like IndyCar, Formula 1 racing was at an absolute apex in the early 1990s. When I heard the news that Mansell was coming to drive in the US, I thought it was a "larger than life" announcement. Here was a guy who not only was the reigning F1 champion, he was at the absolute apex of his career.

It was so exciting to think about Mansell coming in and banging helmets with the likes of 1992 CART champ Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk, and others who were at or near the apex of their careers as well. Not to mention, he was teammates with Mario Andretti, who won the final race of his illustrious career and finished sixth in the seasons standings at the age of 53.

Then Mansell comes out and absolutely manhandles the car and the field to win at Surfer's Paradise! After a bad crash at Phoenix that saw him suffer a back injury that caused him to miss the race, Mansell returned to finish third at Long Beach. So by the time he got to Indianapolis that year, the excitement for his debut was pretty much off the charts.

I was there when he went to qualify, and the buzz was unmistakable. And the race? Well, you can read my recap of the 1993 race here.

Yes, I'm biased. The 1993 race remains my most favorite of the 500s I have seen in person, and I was rooting hard for Mansell to win that day. I still believe his drive in that race was nothing short of phenomenal. It's hard to explain if you haven't seen it, or have the context of that era, but he drove that race on pure talent, and he raced so incredibly hard. In the end, it was his inexperience that got him, as he was snookered by Fittipaldi on a restart with 16 laps to go.

He eventually won four more races that year, including the ovals at Milwaukee, New Hampshire, Michigan and Nazareth. In all he was just a Tasmanian Devil that year, winning races with talent and brute force. I still look at that season with amazement to this day.

That's why while I am happy to see Alonso running the Indy 500, love the exposure he's bringing, adding to the buzz of the 101st Indy 500 and have a hope that he kicks ass because it would be super cool, it's just so hard to compare that to the impact Mansell made. I'd even feel that way if Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel were doing the same thing, a one-off is just that, a come-into-town-and-leave sort of thing. If they were here, at the height of their career, for a full season, maybe I would think a bit differently.

I guess that's why I see Mansell's deal differently, because the buzz started as soon as he signed, and it didn't let up all year long. He was also a guy you either liked or didn't, and his flair for the dramatic -- like his over the top grimacing when he got in and out of the car after his back injury -- gave him a kind of had a "black hat" thing. And then there was his talent, which was absolutely prodigious.

In the end it's an apples to oranges thing, and there is nothing wrong with that, because this discussion doesn't have a wrong answer. It just depends on your point of view. I choose Mansell because I saw it happen and got to experience it myself. If you didn't, chances are you may not feel the same way.

I guess I just wanted to share my experience in 1993 for the purpose of context. I love IndyCar 2017, but Nigel Mansell circa 1993 was pretty cool too.

What are your thoughts?