Mansell's Qatar Solo
Tempers and temperatures soared into the red as Nigel Mansell proved impassable at Qatar, his blocking tactics provoking disdainful harrumphs
Race Report from Autosport - May 4 2006
by Tim Redmayne
Nigel Mansell seldom stinted on the superlatives during his Formula 1 career, but he surpassed his standards at the GP Masters weekend in Qatar.
"This is the toughest race track I've ever driven on," was his verdict immediately after his first laps of the Losail International Circuit. "This is the hottest race I've ever done," he said after celebrating his lights-to-flag domination of the race.
He was probably right on both counts. There was no disguising what a challenge this new circuit, built primarily for motorcycle racing, presented to the veteran grand prix drivers. The track was an exhausting, g-force-inducing beauty, and the ambient temperature was a staggering 39c at the green light, putting cockpit temperatures higher still. Yet despite the advancing years of the grid, they all rose to that challenge.
Most drivers arrived at Kyalami for the inaugural GP Masters race last November expecting a bit of fun. They were not exactly race ready. However, it was clear that everyone had upped their game in time for Qatar. No one was really open about how much work they had put in over the winter. But the closeness of the practice times added weight to speculation that some had been conducting high altitude training, hitting the gym, and even confining themselves to special diets to get an edge.
There was no doubting the commitment of the drivers as they learned this new circuit. From practice it was obvious that the pace of the field was much closer than it had been at Kyalami and it was also clear that Mansell was just as determined to win as he was during his glory days. He took a mesmerising pole position half way through the qualifying session, having already looked like going quickest before he was caught out by a red flag. He then went and raised the bar on his next run before sitting out the final minutes knowing his lap was good enough.
Christian Danner was three tenths of a second adrift, not that he was too disappointed to have missed out on pole - his best grid spot in Formula 1 was 16th when he drove for Zakspeed in 1987.
Mansell converted his pole position into an early lead at the rolling start. However, a former team-mate was already three quarters of a lap behind. Riccardo Patrese, who had qualified fourth, failed to get away on the dummy grid because of electrical problems. He was pushed back into the pits for the Delta Motorsports mechanics to get to work. When his dashboard did burst into life, he was directed onto the track straight away, while the others were on their two warm up laps, rather than being allowed to wait at the end of the pitlane for the start.
"There was a sensor that wasn't working properly and it was changed last night," Patrese said. "If they had held me there in the pits then I could have started a few seconds behind the last car. At least I could have a car to watch. But I was three quarters of a lap behind. That was boring, I would say."
At the other end of the field, Mansell was making things anything but boring. His early laps were four to five seconds off his qualifying best and the chasing pack, initially led by Danner, were on top of him. Along the main straight Mansell was weaving to break the aerodynamic tow to the cars behind - this, he claimed, was part of his tactical gambit to keep the field behind him.
"I knew we all had different wing settings," he said, having made use of the GP Masters 'open data' policy to check on his rivals' set-ups. "So I was on maximum wing, hole nine, and I was in front. Some of them were lower, on hole five and hole six, which gave them more straightline speed. I set my car up to get a good exit from the last four corners. I know people thought I was backing them up, but the truth was I couldn't get away. If I had overdriven the car, which you can with these cars, then I would have ruined my tyres and then they would have all passed me."
Derek Warwick, who ran third in the early laps, looked a good bet to get past Danner and challenge Mansell, but a small mistake enabled GP Masters new boy Pierluigi Martini to get by on lap five. Warwick tried to come back at him but spun and fell down the order two corners later.
"Every time I pulled away from Martini to give myself a breather," Warwick said, "the pace that Nigel was running was so slow, he [Martini] just caught back up again. It was diabolically slow. Everyone got backed up. Martini came by and I just made room for him. It looked like he outbraked himself at the next corner. I tried to go up the inside, he pinched me and I just spun on my own."
Warwick dropped to 13th, but he was able to keep with the pack when a safety car was called to recover Eliseo Salazar's car, which had rolled to a halt with a dead ECU. Since there weren't any gaps in the armco around the circuit big enough to accommodate a car, Salazar had to be towed back to the pits. This took five laps.
Eddie Cheever, who had taken second just before the safety car came out by barging Danner out of the way in the first corner, looked ready to give Mansell a stern test when the safety car pulled in. Instead, Mansell managed to drop him and already had a substantial lead as they took the green flag.
Cheever reckoned that a green flag had been waved prematurely at a marshal post three quarters of a way round the lap.
"I don't blame Nigel for going early," he said. "But he did have an 800m advantage on me. They should not have dropped the green flag there. In 30 years of racing I've never seen a decision like that."
Mansell would later claim that it was just strategy to put the hammer down early. Regardless, Danner was ready to turn the tables on Cheever and managed to get by when Cheever outbraked himself slightly into turn 1.
But Mansell's lead was not to last. Moments later, the battle between Andrea de Cesaris and Pierluigi Martini came to a head and de Cesaris ended up beached in the gravel at the first corner.
"I was overtaking Andrea and he closed the door," said Martini. "I was on the inside of the track, I braked late and Andrea did too, but when he reached the dirty part of the track, he was gone. I never touched him."
Out came the safety car for another four laps while the recovery trucks went to work. At the restart, Martini put Cheever under pressure, but it was Eric van de Poele (who had started 11th and put in some stellar passing manoeuvres to work his way up to fifth), who secured the last place on the podium, surprising them both with a lunge around the outside going into turn 4.
"When I saw Martini was so close to Cheever I thought maybe I had a chance," said van de Poele. "And it happened - it was perfect. This was one of my greatest drives ever."
Warwick, on the comeback trail, also passed Martini on the same lap but couldn't find a way past Cheever. At the same time Emerson Fittipaldi, who had been running as high as sixth, was falling backwards quickly with electrical problems.
At the sharp end, Mansell was putting in his best laps of the race and Danner had nothing for him. Mansell took the chequered flag by a margin of 0.562 seconds and compounded his opponents' ire by not looking that exhausted when he got out of the car to celebrate.
"The only problem I had was breathing in this heat," he said. "My mouth and my tongue got so hot and dry. I was sweating so much that I had to shake my head occasionally so it ran out of my eye. I know I won it, but I've never driven so hard or so technically."
Danner was happy with his second place, although he believed he could have done better.
"If he [Nigel] had given me a chance to overtake him then I would have taken that chance," said Danner. "Eddie seemed sound asleep when the safety car went back in and Nigel got a huge lead. I saw it coming and knew exactly what Nigel was doing but there was nothing I could do. It took a few laps before the grip kicked in and, by then, we had the safety car again."
Cheever finished fourth ahead of Warwick, with Martini (who had passed the minimum age limit of 45 the weekend before) a creditable sixth on his debut.
Since the Monza round of the series is likely to be cancelled this week, owing to noise regulations, the next race will probably be at Silverstone. Mansell has led every GP Masters lap so far, therefore it would be no surprise if Mansell mania 1992-style is the order of the day. As Warwick put it: "The British Grand Prix is actually on August 13 this year."
© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission