In 1993, then-current Formula 1 World Champion Nigel Mansell made the shock switch from the sport to America’s top open-wheel series, CART. It signalled a real momentum shift towards the IndyCar series, with Mansell joining the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti in a star-studded lineup.
It would be Mansell and Fittipaldi who contended for the title all season long. Their intentions were made clear from the season-opener in Surfers Paradise, Australia. Sensationally on his debut, Mansell qualified on the pole, and despite relentless pressure from Fittipaldi, gradually eased away to become the first driver to win on their IndyCar debut since Graham Hill won the 1966 Indianapolis 500.
Such was the hype around the Englishman’s debut, over 800 press passes were handed out, a then-record for a CART event, excluding at Indianapolis.
However, Mansell’s title hopes were dealt what at first appeared to be a fatal blow at the next round in Phoenix. In his first ever oval event, Mansell crashed hard in practice, provoking the back injury that he suffered at Suzuka in 1987.
As the Englishman was forced to sit out the race, Fittipaldi and the Team Penske juggernaut failed to capitalise as they suffered a rare off-colour weekend.
After being given the all-clear, Mansell returned for Round 3 at Long Beach, where a young Canadian driver would steal the show and take the victory.
Paul Tracy was in his first full season of IndyCar and would win an impressive five times for Team Penske in 1993. He led the series in laps led, and would be voted as the most improved driver of the season by his peers.
13 of the 16 races would be won by either Mansell, Fittipaldi or Tracy. Andretti became the oldest ever IndyCar winner at Phoenix, Danny Sullivan won in Detroit, and Al Unser Jr. won at Vancouver, a bright patch in a tricky season for the American racing legend.
Mansell’s championship success was built on his remarkable form on the oval tracks. The Brit won four of the five oval races he entered (remembering he couldn’t start at Phoenix), only missing out cruelly at the Indianapolis 500 when he was passed on a restart by Fittipaldi with just 16 laps to go.
His points margin at the top was only 8 points by the end, but that was exaggerated by problems in the final race in Monterey whilst Fittipaldi finished second.
Sadly, 1993 would be one of the last seasons of IndyCar racing before the infamous split, which tore American open wheel racing apart, and left revenues and TV ratings in tatters.
Many argue what could have been for the CART Series had the split never occured. With Mansell, Andretti, Fittipaldi and others leading the way, and with exciting cars that pushed the limits of speed and downforce, there was a real chance to rival Formula 1 as the biggest open wheel series in the world.
As it is now, IndyCar still hasn’t fully recovered from the damage caused. The reunified IndyCar Series is now stable, and is producing some of its best and most competitive racing in years, but apart from the Indy 500, hardly anyone watches it.
Yet in 1993 IndyCar racing was a truly global phenomenon. Whilst coverage was stuck on ESPN, it was one of the channel’s biggest hits at the time, with ratings that could compete with the likes of the NBA and NASCAR. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see America’s top open-wheel series reach those heights again.