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Mansell en route to McLaren

EVER since Nigel Mansell was dumped by Rothmans Williams Renault in the first week of January, Britain's top racing star has insisted that he has no intention of retiring from F1. That sounded like a hollow claim because Mansell's only real chance was with the new Marlboro McLaren Mercedes outfit, and he and McLaren boss Ron Dennis have long been bitter enemies.

But Formula 1 folk never cease to amaze observers with their ability to forget, and now it seems virtually certain that Mansell will be Mika Hakkinen's partner at McLaren in 1995.

Martin Brundle's decision to sign with the Ligier-Mugen Honda team takes away McLaren's only other realistic driver choice for 1995, and although McLaren personnel continue to insist that no deal is done, everyone privately admits that it is only a matter of time before Mansell and Dennis join forces. Mansell recently visited the McLaren factory at Woking in the UK to look at the facilities.

For Dennis this will be a difficult announcement to make because in the past he has often been vocal in his criticism of Mansell and on several occasions the McLaren boss said he would never consider having Mansell in his team. But there is no such thing as never in F1, and Dennis has proved many times that he is the ultimate pragmatist - and will do what is necessary for his team. He may not want Mansell, but there is considerable pressure from major sponsor Marlboro and engine supplier Mercedes-Benz to sign up a star name driver for 1995.

It will almost certainly be Mansell's last season in F1, and it looks an odd choice for the 41-year-old because the 1995 season will inevitably be a learning year for McLaren and Mercedes. The car and the engine have both been designed hurriedly: they are both completely new and the two companies have not previously worked together. It takes time to forge a winning alliance, not least because Ilmor Engineering, which is designing and building the Mercedes V10, needs to expand its staff dramatically to be a similar kind of organization to Cosworth or Renault Sport.

Because of the late decision to form an alliance, the new McLaren-Mercedes car will not be ready until just before the start of the Grand Prix season, which means there are bound to be mechanical failures in the early races because there will have been no testing.

One of the major reasons for McLaren and Mercedes joining forces last year was so that the team could lure Michael Schumacher in 1996. Mercedes wants Michael because he is German, and McLaren and Marlboro both want him because he is currently the best driver. There are already indications that the basis of a deal has already been agreed with Schumacher for 1996 which means that unless someone is willing to pay for both Schumacher and Mansell - which is a rumored to be a salary bill of around US$30 million - in 1996, Mansell will have to move elsewhere. Marlboro did bankroll McLaren when it employed Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at the same time in the late 1980's, but it is hard to imagine that Schumacher and Mansell will agree to work together - both preferring a team in which they are clear number one.

The idea that McLaren would push ahead with Mansell alone - and forget about trying to sign Schumacher - is unlikely as Mansell is too close to retirement to be considering a long-term F1 future.

German sources suggest that Mansell is happy to do just one more F1 season and will then go on to become a Mercedes driver in the German Touring Car Championship, taking over from Dane Jan Magnussen, who will be named McLaren's third driver this year and will be hoping for a fully-fledged F1 drive in 1996 (which means that with Schumacher arriving from Benetton that Mika Hakkinen may soon need to start looking for work in 1996).

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