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Mansell to miss the first two GPs

Nigel Mansell will miss the first two Grands Prix of the season with the Marlboro McLaren Mercedes team because he cannot fit into the new McLaren-Mercedes MP4/10 chassis. His place is to be taken by former McLaren test driver Mark Blundell.

The announcement - made last Friday - is a public relations disaster for the team, which has tried to limit the damage by arguing that the car was designed around David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen. Whatever the case, Mansell was signed and he does not fit the chassis, so someone, somewhere, has made an appalling error which is likely to have serious long-term implications for McLaren.

Marlboro, Mobil and Mercedes-Benz are not going to be happy with the bad publicity from the debacle, although Marlboro must take some of the blame for forcing McLaren to take Mansell. There could be further trouble because the Marlboro McLaren Mercedes combination was put together in order to sign up Michael Schumacher for 1996 and the German may now be less inclined to join the team.

In the short-term, the affair must have a detrimental effect on the relationship between Mansell and McLaren boss Ron Dennis. McLaren would obviously have preferred Mansell to race in Brazil and Argentina and thus avoid becoming the laughing stock of F1. Nigel proved in testing in Estoril that he can drive the car for a few laps at a time and could have struggled through the events for which there is little expectation of McLaren success, as the new car has proved to be difficult in testing and the Mercedes Benz engine is completely new.

Such a policy would have saved the team from public humiliation - which Dennis would have appreciated - even if it would have compromised Mansell's performance. As things stand, Blundell is not likely to produce any startling result in Brazil and Argentina as he is completely new to the car; and Mansell's season has been compromised because he will now start the year two races and one month behind the opposition.

Now that the disaster has been made public, there will be pressure to find a scapegoat so that McLaren can rebuild its image and its confidence with a revised management structure. The problem is that no-one can agree on who is to blame.

Ron Dennis must accept some of the blame because he allowed himself to be bullied by Marlboro into accepting Mansell, even though he did not want him.

The team's internal communication must take some of the blame because the problem did not become apparent until a month after Mansell had signed his contract. If the problem had been discovered, a bigger chassis could have been made in time for the new season.

The technical staff must also take some of the blame because they took the risk of building a narrow chassis, before knowing the size and shape of the driver.

All indications from Woking are that the engineers will ultimately take the blame, and there are strong rumors suggesting that chief designer Neil Oatley will have to go.

Dennis knows that he could win back a lot of confidence and good publicity if he were to hire a high profile engineer from another top team. The obvious choices are Ross Brawn from Benetton, Adrian Newey from Williams or Gary Anderson from Jordan. The departure of any of the three would not only enhance McLaren, but would also do serious damage to their current employers.

Of the other designers available, several have worked at McLaren before and do not agree with Dennis's policy of refusing to have high-profile engineers. This will also scare away other, ambitious engineers who want their talents to be recognized: men like Chris Murphy, formerly of Team Lotus, or Harvey Postlethwaite's number two at Tyrrell, Mike Gascoyne.

One possibility who might fit the bill is Gordon Kimball, a former technical director of Benetton, who has been enjoying a sabbatical from F1 for the last couple of years, doing design consultancy from his home in California.

In the meantime, McLaren's testing at Estoril has continued with the team running at Estoril early last week; Mika Hakkinen setting the fastest time yet recorded by a McLaren-Mercedes, minus its complicated mid-ship wing.

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