Friday, March 2, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- Nigel Mansell

I figured that with Rubens Barrichello making the announcement that he was indeed coming to IndyCar for the 2012 season, it was time to look back at the last time a Formula 1 driver made such a splash when he came to the States.

Of course, Mansell is one of several great drivers who drove IndyCars after an F1 career. Emerson Fittipaldi -- a favorite of 15DIM, by the way -- drove for 10 years in CART, winning the Indy 500 twice and his 1989 championship started a run of six straight seasons where he finished in the top five in points. Danny Sullivan and Eddie Cheever also drove F1 before earning wins at the Speedway, and a handful of other drivers had solid careers as well.

But none of them came to CART as a reigning world champion, as Mansell did when he joined Newman-Haas Racing in 1993. With Michael Andretti moving to his ill-fated season with Ferrari that year, a seat was open, and Mansell, who at the time was locked in a contentious war of words with Frank Williams, slid into the No. 5 Lola/Ford.

In 15 seasons in F1, Mansell drove in 187 Grand Prixs and posted 31 wins and 32 poles while driving for Lotus, Ferrari and Williams. His championship season featured nine wins and three runner-up finishes.

Mansell and Mario

Mansell picked up in CART right where he had left off in F1 by capturing the pole and winning the season opener at Surfers Paradise, Australia. His season looked in jeopardy, though, when he crashed at Phoenix weeks later and suffered extensive back injuries. He soldiered on with a third-place finish at Long Beach before heading to Indianapolis.

Despite no oval experience, Mansell drove on sheer will and talent and qualified a solid eighth at 220.250 mph. On race day, he was in the mix from the beginning and took his first lead at Lap 70. Having never driven more than 200 miles in a race before in his career, Mansell led 34 laps and was on the point for a restart with 16 laps to go.

With no experience with restarts, Mansell got a slow jump at the green and was passed by Fittipaldi, who eventually won the race, and Arie Luyendyk. Despite brushing the wall several laps later, he came home third and won Rookie of the Year honors in a race I called in a post last year my favorite 500 ever. .

He showed he was a quick study on the ovals, winning at Milwaukee the next week and then capturing the Michigan 500 later that season. Mansell finished with five wins and captured the championship to become the only drive to hold the CART and F1 titles simultaneously.

The honeymoon had unfotunately ended by the time Mansell returned for the 1994 season. Prickly, boorish and rude, Mansell burned every bridge he could find that year and finished winless on the year with just three podium finishes and seven DNFs. He finished 22nd at Indy after being involved in a bizarre crash with rookie Dennis Vitolo where Vitolo's car finished on top of Mansell's in the north chute warmup lane.

Mansell returned to F1 the next year and drove two races for McLaren before abruptly retiring at age 40.

Despite a sour ending to his CART career, his impact on the series in the 1993 season cannot be denied. With CART at its peak and featuring the best drivers of that generation, Mansell showed talent and brilliance in his driving that had to be seen to believed. I was glad that I had that opportunity.

1 comment:

  1. I wasn't a big fan of Mansell (especially in his second year over here), but man, could he ever drive.