Mansell Masters Emmo

They may be well passed their prime, but that didn't stop winner Nigel Mansell and his fellow F1 veterans from thrilling a large crowd in the inaugural Grand Prix race at Kyalami.

Race Report from Autosport - November 17 2005

by Tony Dodgins


Steve Olvey, the Grand Prix Masters' medical officer, summed it up best: "I've never seen a group of drivers happier than this weekend," he said. "Those in good physical shape did tremendously well. They felt great, and we like a bunch of kids at Christmas."

It was true. There had been scepticism about GP Masters, which, given the time frame in which it was pulled together, isn't really surprising. However, as so many said, this sport is about people, and with the drivers involved in South Africa, you were always going to have a show.

I don't know how it came across on TV. As a pure motor race, it might not have been spectacular, but at a circuit as technical as Kyalami, where overtaking is difficult and with tyres that didn't have enormous grip, that, too, was perhaps no surprise.

There are disparate views. One is that tyres that need to be looked after dictate intelligent driving and, even if it's not popular with the drivers, cars slide and the people paying at the gate are entertained. Drivers make mistakes and there is incident.

If the guys in the cockpits are 20-year-old hotheads, maybe that's true, but when they are fifty-something former world champions, it's a bit different. These guys tend to drive within the car's envelope and don't chance anything that's unlikely to work.

Nigel Mansell, pace-setter all weekend and a narrow winner from an inspired Emerson Fittipaldi, said, for instance: "If there'd been a stickier tyre, it would have given more chances for passing, and there'd have been sterner moves. But I'm pleased there wasn't!"

"To be honest I had a bit of a mental problem out there early on. I'd been quick in qualifying to get the pole, I'd been quick in the warm-up, but hard as I pushed, Emerson was still there. That kind of gets to you! But I enjoyed it as much as any of my GP wins, and given the learning curve we've all been on, they've done a fantastic job."

It was no PR fluff, but a sentiment heart-felt by any one of the 14 drivers at Kyalami - and we'll come back to 'they' later.

Forgetting the race itself for a moment, it was the event that was such a success. There they were, all in one big garage, all talking to each other, winding each other up, some working with telemetry for the first time, and all having a ball. Alan Jones, for one, openly admitted he had underestimated the cars before pulling out with neck problems.

And paddock humour was back with a vengeance.

Derek Warwick, in the first press conference of the weekend, said: "It really is a thrill to be here with all these great drivers..." Then, turning to Mansell, "No, not you!"

Then Del Boy did his PR bit: "Actually, we really do have to thank Altech for getting behind us all. Sponsorship is a very different market for us these days. It's all BUPA and Viagra, although I gather Stirling [Moss] has got that one sewn up."

Then a question to Andrea de Cesaris: "When was the last time that you drove competitively?"

Response: "I'm not sure that I ever did!"

Eddie Cheever: "Hell, nothing's changed. The last time I was in South Africa, Nigel was quick and I was pissed off!"

Slightly more seriously, Cheever didn't reckon much had altered in the manner of driving either.

"I'm kind of annoyed with myself for not doing the Silverstone test," he said. "I wasn't really that interested until Stefan [Johansson] got on the phone and said I'd really got to do it because the cars were a lot of fun. I was intrigued, and there's a lot of camaraderie until you get out onto the track, where it's the same thing all over again. It's like going back in time - the same people in the way when they're slowing down. I thought, 'Oh fuck! Not you again!'"

Mr Arnoux, perhaps?

"I'm not naming any names, but, yes, he's small."

Much of the engineering effort to make the series happen was co-ordinated by Bob Berridge, a switched-on, straight talking bloke, who is no mean pedaller himself. Berridge it was who established a base set-up for the cars and then worked with the drivers to hone it.

"The psyche of these guys is really interesting," he said. "Nigel, for instance, has been superb. Once he makes his mind up to do something, he really gets his shoulder to the wheel. When he came for his fitting, I was looking out for a Bentley or something, but he turned up in a Sprinter van because he'd been working on his son's kart."

"Also, it's one thing to turn up in the sunshine at Kyalami and be a star, but Nigel pounded round Pembrey in the pissing rain for three days, staying in the same hotel as us to help us get it sorted in time."

"However, even these guys need reassurance. Once, after the car had been shimmering, with Nigel obviously hooked up and great to watch, he turned to me and asked, 'How do you think I'm doing? Is it okay?'"

"I said, 'Nigel, you've got **** written right across your forehead!' He looked a bit worried, and said 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Well. I'm Bob Berridge from Middlesbrough and you are the 1992 World Champion."

Initially, of course, Alain Prost had been slated to do the race, and many were looking forward to a Mansell/Prost war. There were many stories about why the Frenchman pulled out; he was worried that Mansell might be getting a penny more; he was upset that Mansell got to drive the car at Pembrey before him. And so on. What was the truth?

"As far as I'm aware," Berridge said, "Alain didn't feel he was ready, and I think he made a good call. A lot of people were saying it's going to be a few old farts tossing around, but the reality is that you've got Johnny Herbert and a couple of aces in the two-seater Minardi F1 cars with V10 engines, and we're going four or five seconds a lap faster. Alain realised that these cars weren't going to be toys and that he'd have to prepare for them."

In the end, it didn't matter. Into the breach stepped Fittipaldi. Even when he got to South Africa, the Brazilian wasn't sure. And neither wa his young wife, Rosanna. A few laps on Thursday convinced him and he committed.

"It's a bit like falling off a horse," he said. "If you hurt yourself, you are better getting back on quickly. I hadn't got back on for 10 years. I had a mental barrier to go through. Once I convinced myself about that, I was okay. Everyone in Brazil was quite excited when I finally decided to do it. Except for my mum!"

Fittipaldi had a huge shunt in a Champ Car at Michigan in '96 and has 16 metal plates in his back as a result. Just for good measure, he was involved in a light aircraft accident a year later. He's also pushing 59.

One man particularly delighted Fittipaldi decided to go ahead was Colin Bennett, who engineered him in '71. That was another nice touch. The three chief engineers involved (Bennett, ex-Williams man Les Jones and ex-McLaren man Colin Morgan) had five cars each to manage. Seeing familiar faces (Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, for instance, worked with Jones at Williams) made the drivers feel comfortable immediately.

"I reckon Emmo will win it!" Bennett said on Friday. "He's a fantastic driver and he's as smooth now as he was then."

The engineer's prediction wasn't far wrong, and Mansell freely admitted if he hadn't taken the pole, he wouldn't have won.

Initially, though, the pair found it hard to break away from the pack.

"I knew I had to look after the tyres, and I didn't push when the car was heavier," Mansell said. "But I still cooked them anyway. It was like being on ice for the last five laps. Not nice. But I know all about Emerson's skill, and I didn't reckon he would do anything that would take us off."

"Actually," Fittipaldi smiled, "I nearly clobbered his gearbox on the last lap, but I got away with it! I only did two seasons with Nigel in F1, but when he went to Champ Cars, Ayrton Senna said to me, 'You'll have to watch Nigel's car control. it's fantastic.' And he was right. Today, his car was better in the fast corners. I had better traction, but there was nowhere to get by him."

Patrese, also a factor all weekend, hung onto third place throughout, with Jan Lammers in pursuit until his tyres gave out and the Dutchman dropped down the order. Patrese was 20 seconds shy of Mansell/Fittipaldi at the flag and only just held off de Cesaris.

The latter had been elbowed down the field by a determined Warwick early on.

"My car was good enough for the top three," the Briton said, "but I couldn't get passed Jan, and the next thing there's Andrea barrelling up the inside. I could have turned in, but we'd have both been off."

Make no mistake, they were getting stuck in, even if passing was nigh on impossible. Nobody had told Hans Stuck, though! He was more sideways than ever, and in a personal war with Christian Danner got more out of shape at Turn 1 than was remotely feasible. He pulled of a save of which Germany's goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, would have been proud and, sixth at the finish, was beaming.

"That," Stuck said, "was one of the best days of my life!"

Stuck also publicly thanked Berridge and the engineers for coming up with such a great car. It was a genuine sentiment, and praise that was well deserved.

Yes, Mansell was the star, but GP Masters' boss Scott Poulter and his crew can take a bow. The concept is excellent, and the 68,000 people who went to Kyalami last Sunday - more than attended the 1992 and '93 South African GP's - thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

"I probably won't get a Christmas card from Bernie [Ecclestone]," Nigel said, "but motor racing really doesn't have to be that complicated."

© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission


Position Driver Grid Time
1 Nigel Mansell 1 50m 55.154s
2 Emerson Fittipaldi 2 50m 55.562s
3 Riccardo Patrese 3 51m 15.816s
4 Andrea de Cesaris 5 51m 16.854s
5 Derek Warwick 6 51m 17.007s
6 Hans Stuck 9 51m 18.355s
7 Christian Danner 7 51m 19.272s
8 Eddie Cheever 8 51m 27.359s
9 Jan Lammers 4 51m 27.932s
10 Eliseo Salazar 12 51m 38.573s
11 Patrick Tambay 13 52m 06.738s
12 Rene Arnoux 11 52m 07.890s
13 Jacques Laffite 14 -17 laps
14 Stefan Johansson 10 -28laps