Lots of Wins, No Titles : Formula One Driver Mansell Goes After First Championship

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the past 30 years, England's Stirling Moss has been heralded as "the greatest driver in Formula One to have never won a championship."

Now another Englishman, Nigel Mansell, has moved up to share equal billing for the not-so-desirable status.

Their careers are remarkably parallel. Both have won 16 Grand Prix races. Moss finished second in points four years in a row, 1955 to 1958, three times to Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina. Mansell has been second twice, in 1986 to Alain Prost of France and in 1987 to Nelson Piquet of Brazil.

Moss retired in 1961 after a bad crash at Brands Hatch, England, but Mansell, 37, is still chasing the dream.

"I am looking forward to the '91 season with more enthusiasm than ever before in my Grand Prix career," he said after arriving here for today's start of the 16-race world championship season. "I'm back at home with an English team again."

Mansell will be in a new Renault-powered Canon Williams car for the third annual Iceberg USA Grand Prix, 82 laps around a 2.312-mile circuit through the downtown business district. During the past two seasons, he drove a Ferrari.

For a time last year, it appeared that Mansell would join Moss as an ex-driver. In July, during the British Grand Prix on his home turf, Mansell stunned his followers by announcing his retirement, effective at the close of the season.

Mansell said he was fed up with racing, the Ferrari team and its politics, and that he had decided to retire to his home on the Isle of Man and relax with Roseanne, his wife of nearly 20 years, and their three young children.

And how was Mansell going to satisfy his competitive urge after giving up the frenetic world of Grand Prix racing?

"I want to qualify for the British Open," he said matter-of-factly. Mansell's golf handicap has been as low as one and is a frequent links partner of Australian Greg Norman.

But Frank Williams, a fellow Briton who had been Mansell's car owner during his most successful years, talked him out of his retirement plans.

"I felt that his announcement was premature," Williams said. "I knew the frustrations he was having with Ferrari and I felt he had many good racing years left in him."

No small part in Mansell changing his mind was the reported--and never denied--contract of $14 million from Canon Williams. Mansell downplays the money factor.

"Money is incidental," he insisted. "It has no bearing on how a person drives. It doesn't mean a thing, except for your family."

Williams had tried to talk Mansell out of switching to Ferrari after the 1988 season, but the lure of driving with the Prancing Horse of Modena was too much of an attraction. Nearly ever Formula One driver who ever raced has dreamed of driving for Ferrari, but like Mansell's, many of the dreams turned to nightmares.

When Mansell was hired by Ferrari, he was told he was to be the team's No. 1 driver. He was for a year. He won his first race, in Brazil, and won in Hungary after starting 12th in what he says was "definitely the best drive of my career."

Then Prost, the reigning world champion, became available in 1990 when his feud with McLaren teammate Ayrton Senna created a split in the team. Ferrari signed him and paid Mansell a bonus to accept the three-time world champion as a co-No. 1 teammate.

"I thought it was a good deal at the time," Mansell said. "I had played a lot of golf with Alain and we were good friends, and I thought I could help myself by working with him."

It didn't work out that way. Prost, who speaks fluent Italian, soon became the undisputed leader of the team and Mansell saw himself on the outside. Even though he won the Portugese GP and sat on the pole at Silverstone for the British GP, his mind was made up to retire.

"Alain turned out to be the type of person who wants to take over the team, and he did just that," Mansell said. "By the time we got to Silverstone, I knew there was no way I could continue. I had been on the road almost constantly for 10 years and I felt it was a good time for me to go home and stay."

Williams, whose team has won three driver and four constructors championships since it was formed in 1977, started talking with his former driver in early September and by Oct. 1, the day after the Spanish GP, he and Mansell announced their reunion.

"It was a happy day for me," said Williams, who has been confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed from the waist down after a passenger car accident just before the start of the 1986 season. Even though Mansell failed to win a championship for Williams, his 13 victories for the team are more than any won by the team's three champions--Alan Jones, 1980; Piquet, 1981; and Keke Rosberg, 1982.

With a refreshed outlook on racing, Mansell dedicated his off-season to familiarizing himself with the Renault V10 engine and the Williams chassis. His progress was amazing. In a test at the Paul Ricard track in France, driving last year's model Williams-Renault, his time was quicker than his 1990 pole-sitting time on the same track.

As a testament to how much effort he spent with the team, Mansell's golf handicap slipped from one to five.

"We went as far as we could with the old car, but Riccardo (Patrese) and I desperately wanted the new car to test before we came to Phoenix," he said. "Unfortunately, we got no more than 20 laps on it before it arrived last Wednesday. We tested briefly at Firebird (south of Phoenix), but essentially it was a brand new car for qualifying."

Mansell qualified fourth Saturday at 100.424 m.p.h. for a second-row start behind pole-sitter and defending Iceberg champion Senna's McLaren-Honda (102.208), Prost's Ferrari (101.087) and Williams teammate Patrese (100.809).

It was the 53rd pole for Senna, 20 more than the late Jimmy Clark, who is second in all-time standings.

"I think, considering this is the first time the car has run in anger, it should give the team a little bit of optimism," Mansell said. "I am very happy and I think Riccardo did a great job. It shows we have a lot of work and a lot of potential to come.

"The first two races, here and Brazil, are very much a testing ground to sort out the inevitable problems that always arise with a completely new car. I do hope to finish in the points in both races and then return to Europe in a good position. I still want that championship. I came so close, I know it is possible."

Few drivers have come so close and missed as Mansell did twice.

In 1986, he arrived in Adelaide, Australia, for the final race needing only to finish third--even if Prost, his chief challenger, won the race.

The prerace plan was running according to form late in the day when Mansell was cruising in third place while Prost and Piquet were battling for the lead. About 20 laps from the finish, Mansell was preparing to stop for new tires but before he reached the pits, disaster struck. The car was nearing the end of Adelaide's long straightway, flat out in sixth gear at close to 200 m.p.h., when the left rear tire exploded.

Mansell struggled to keep the car off the wall as it fishtailed down the track, but his day, and his championship hopes, were over. Prost went on to win his second championship--by two points.

British sports fans appreciated his effort by voting him sports personality of the year in a poll of BBC viewers.

The following season's scenario was even worse.

With two races remaining in 1987, Mansell had won six races, eight poles and had the fastest lap three times en route toward what looked like his first championship. On the first day of qualifying for the Japanese GP, he crashed and suffered a spinal concussion and a crushed vertebra.

Piquet, his Williams teammate, went on to become the champion. He had only three victories.

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