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MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK : Mansell Still the Man on Indy Circuit

March 18, 1994|SHAV GLICK

A new Honda engine, a new Reynard chassis, a recycled Michael Andretti, a retiring Mario Andretti and more teams have combined to give the 16-race PPG Indy Car World Series a distinctively new look as the season begins Sunday in Australia.

Over it all, though, looms the rather large shadow of Nigel Mansell, the British driver who forsook his Formula One championship a year ago to drive Indy cars and show the Yankees a thing of two about motor racing. Mansell, technically a rookie, won five races, the championship and driver-of-the-year honors.

And apparently Mansell expects more of himself and the new-model No. 1 Lola-Ford Cosworth than last year.

"This year I will be more in a comfort zone," he said. "Last year everything was new--the car, the tracks, the logistics, the people. This year we will know our way around the cities, the hotels and the places to eat. It will be much more comfortable.

"It will be more comfortable on the track too, because the new Lola is a much better package than last year's. Lola has done a fantastic job. Really, it's an all-new design and the results are remarkable."

Mansell has tested at Phoenix and Firebird in Arizona, Laguna Seca and Sebring, Fla., and has been the fastest at all four. On the mile oval at Phoenix--where he crashed last year during practice and missed the race--Mansell became the first driver to run a sub-20 second lap.

He started 1993 at the Surfers Paradise street circuit on Australia's East Coast by becoming the first rookie to win the pole and the race in his first start. He will be the favorite again when qualifying starts today.

The competition has also been improving, or at least trying to, and Mansell will see a different lineup when the 31 cars start on the 2.795-mile circuit.

Bobby Rahal, who did not win a race and failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 after winning the PPG Cup championship a year earlier, has assumed the task of developing a Honda engine for his Indy car team. Mike Groff, who will drive a second Rahal-Hogan car, spent last season testing the new engine, which was built by Honda Performance Division in Santa Clarita.

Reynard will become the third British-built chassis--with Lola and Penske--in the Indy car series. Michael Andretti, the 1991 Indy car champion who is returning after a dismal year in Formula One, has tested Chip Ganassi's new Ford-powered car for 2,475 miles in preparing for this season. Five others, among them Teo Fabi, Jimmy Vasser and Mexican rookie Adrian Fernandez, will have Reynard chassis.

Fernandez is replacing Al Unser Jr. and Danny Sullivan on Rick Galles' San Diego-based team. Unser switched to the potent three-car Roger Penske team with Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil and Paul Tracy of Canada, and Sullivan was let go in an economy move that left Fernandez as Galles' only driver.

Whereas Michael Andretti is returning, his father Mario, 54, is departing--after a farewell season that is being heralded as " Arrivederci , Mario." The racing legend says he expects to have a successful conclusion. His victory last year at Phoenix ended a 73-race winless streak that dated to 1988.

The makeup of the drivers of the 31 cars entered in Australia indicates that not much will be different from last year, when 14 of the 16 races were won by foreign-born drivers--a number that included Mario, the Italian-born but naturalized U.S. citizen. Sixteen of the 31 entries are foreigners, headed by Mansell and Tracy, who won five races each last year, and Fittipaldi, who won three.

Among the more intriguing newcomers are Jacques Villeneuve of Canada, whose father, Gilles, was one of Formula One's finest drivers before he was killed; Davy Jones, a former sports car champion who has replaced Robby Gordon as A.J. Foyt's driver, and Scott Sharp, a two-time Trans-Am champion.

Another newcomer will be Andrew Craig, who will replace Bill Stokkan as president of CART on March 31. In keeping with the Indy car pattern, Craig is an Englishman who most recently has worked in Switzerland.

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