The legendary Nigel Mansell gives us his thoughts on this weekend’s Lotus Motorsport triple bill…
Nigel, for those of us brought up on Formula One, oval racing is a bit of an anomaly. I know it’s much harder than it looks, but can you explain to us the challenges involved with those cars at those speeds and at those angles.
Well the biggest challenge is concentration because at those speeds – averaging 200mph – if you have an accident, which is all too easy to do, it is going to be a really big one. You cannot relax for one second. After a few laps you’re already into the backmarkers, so there’s always someone in front of you. Then there is the drafting. It’s a different animal altogether from Formula One.
This weekend we’re at the Texas Motor Speedway. Is there a big difference between one oval and another, or are they roughly the same from the view of the cockpit?
No, they’re very individual, with different degrees of banking and different surfaces that they’ve laid the tracks with. So the level of grip is totally different from one track to another – as is the set-up.
The grandstands in Texas promise to be filled to bursting. What is the atmosphere like at an IndyCar race and is it dramatically different to grand prix racing?
I think it is. I remember winning at New Hampshire, which is quite a small oval, in 1993. I’ll never forget it because it was August 8 – the day of my 40th birthday – and the whole crowd, a sell-out 90,000 of them, sang me Happy Birthday from the grandstands. I’d never witnessed that before at any race in Europe. It was a very different experience, and I was very touched.
Tony Kanaan won in Texas in 2004 en route to the title. Can he do it again this year with KVRT-Lotus?
Based on recent results I think you have to say it’s unlikely, but he had decent pace in Indianapolis.
In Texas, they’re holding two short races back-to-back, and the grid for the second race is being picked out of a hat. Would you have been up for two races in one day when you were racing, and how do you feel about a grid decided by luck and not merit?
Yeah, two races at half distance, with split points, that could work. It means more entertainment for the spectators, but it also means more work for the teams. As for deciding the second grid by pulling names out of a hat I have never heard of anything so crazy. There’s some merit in reverse grid qualifying (like they do with the top eight in GP2 and GP3 in Race 2), but as for this raffle draw you’re talking about, I have never heard this happen in professional motor racing before. Some people will get lucky, but most teams and drivers are going to end up being very unhappy.
Turning to Formula One, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve always seems to host dramatic races. How did you find it personally?
I like Montreal, it’s one of the great cities of the world. There’s a great atmosphere between the two rivers. The circuit itself presents some strange challenges. Because it isn’t used much there is very little grip, and the car slides more there than on any other circuit. It’s both a challenging and demanding track, and I think we’re in for a tremendous race. I have good memories from Montreal. A few sad ones too, mind, but some great ones particularly from the turbo era, winning in 1986. Canadians are terrific supporters of motorsport, and I always looked forward to going there.
It’s a mix of long straights and tight turns. Does the emphasis on mechanical grip over aerodynamic grip level the playing field a bit?
It can do on a track like this, yes, and factoring the Pirelli tyres into the mix will make it all the more unpredictable. The word ‘compromise’ comes to mind, as no one will have the perfect car. You’ve got the chicanes when the emphasis is on brakes and grip, and downforce does come into play, but you also need a car that is slippery and fast enough down the straights so as not to get overtaken. You compromise one for the other, and I think that’s why Canada has thrown up some great races in recent years.
What do you make of DRS and KERS?
I like to see a level playing field, and KERS give some teams an advantage over others. It is a very expensive bit of kit. Some teams do it better than others. Other teams don’t do it at all because they can’t afford it. But, then again, you don’t want to stop progress and KERS is a fascinating technology. The thing is, now overtaking comes down to a technical system, where one driver can keep his wing open and lower his drag and the other can’t. I believe overtaking should come down to driver skill not driver aids. But the jury is still out on both, and I’m going to reserve judgment on this until later in the year when we’ve seen more races.
Nick Heidfeld has scored two seconds here. How do you rate he and Vitaly’s chances this weekend?
If they can get the balance of the car right and do what I call the most perfect laps they can do, I think they can be up at the front. But they need to be patient and hit the sweet spot of the tyres to take advantage of that one lap. One lap and another can be half a second apart due to the sweet spot of the tyres and how they fall off. That half second makes an enormous difference when it comes to your placing on the starting grid.
You’ve won the F1 World Championship, you have won the Indy Car title. You would still love to wear the laurels at Le Mans, wouldn’t you?
Yeah, and I would be there again this year but the sponsor support didn’t come through. Last year was my first year doing it, and it was a special experience to do so with my sons Leo and Greg. In the end it was massively disappointing though, for we had a tyre failure at 200mph five laps in. We were on the wrong tyres – Dunlop did us no favours at all. We should have been on Michelins. If we had, I’m sure we’d have had no problems.
Sounds like it’s still a sore subject. Is this the toughest race in the world?
I wouldn’t say it’s the toughest, but I would say it’s the most demanding. I’ve done tougher grands prix, in terms of being exhausted at the end. Le Mans isn’t exhausting, you’ve just got to concentrate. But it is very dangerous, and what you’re worried about is what’s going to break. It’s mostly about the endurance of the car rather than the human body. Twenty-four hours flat-out without skipping a beat – from that point of view, Le Mans is awesome.
Lotus is excited to be returning to La Sarthe with the new Evora GTE. Have you been following the progress of the Lotus Jetalliance team in preparation for the event?
They have to find a lot more pace from what I understand, but they’re working extremely hard and with time they’ll get competitive. It’s a super car, the Evora, with massive potential, but you don’t make a Le Mans winner overnight. These things, as everything in racing, take time.