Twice as many race fans turned up for last weekend's TOCA Shoot-Out as came to Donington Park's other premier event of the year - the European Grand Prix. No one in the crowd was arguing about the reason: their hero had returned.
It was supposed to be Nigel Mansell's triumphant return to British racing - and for 30 laps, anything seemed possible to the massive crowd, here to hail the conquering hero. The script was as dramatically Mansell-esque as ever: a misfire in the early laps seemed to rule out any chance of victory, but then pace-car interventions bunched up the grid for the final laps of this made-for-TV spectacle. Misfire miraculously cleared, Mansell drove like a man possessed, and was up there challenging for third on the very ragged edge - when disaster struck.
Never one to go half-measures, Mansell pushed a little too hard and crashed out spectacularly in his Ford Mondeo at Starkeys. It was a big hit, but fortunately the Indycar champion suffered only minor head injuries and bruising to the right hip.
Obviously, everything else over the weekend was relegated to sideshow status only. David Leslie emerged the winner in an Ecurie Ecosse Vauxhall Cavalier, after hot favourite Paul Radisich and Steve Soper clashed in an ill-tempered six-lap restart.
Practice times from Saturday's two sessions would not determine the grid order. Instead, Alan Gow and race director John Nicol were charged with creating a starting line-up based on 1993 BTCC finishing positions, relevant experience and anything else handy at the time.
In fact, Paul Radisich's Ford Mondeo headed both sessions, with Steve Soper's Schnitzer BMW and David Leslie's Ecosse Cavalier next up. Anybody who reckoned these guys were only here for a laugh just had to look at the Schnitzer team's EEC-style Yokohama mountain to be convinced otherwise.
But all that 'fastest in the session' stuff just distracted from the day's main business: how had Our Nige fared?
The IndyCar champion was ninth in the morning session, over one and a half seconds off the pace set by his team-mate. It hadn't been the fairytale performance we might have expected, but there was still cause for optimism.
Mansell swapped to Radisich's softer sprung car (black five, thanks to the tape covering the first digit of Paul's race number 15) half-way through the second session, and found the handling more to his liking, immediately going half a second quicker.
'I'm starting to enjoy driving it now,' said a good-humoured Mansell. 'That last session was good fun. I think Paul's car is more stable down the hill - his front and back feel married. This morning, mine felt very twitchy.
'I can understand now why Paul's always faster than you, Andy [Rouse],' laughed Nigel mischievously, during a quick post-practice post-mortem. 'Now all I need is 50 inches of boost and 800 horsepower.' He wouldn't get that, but he would get the same settings as Radisich.
The different driving style in touring cars was beginning to take a toll on Mansell physically. 'I've got fairly well developed muscles,' he said, 'but my arms are really aching now. You have a huge steering wheel and you drive with your arms bent. It's all different muscles.'
Over at Park Lane Racing, Derek Warwick was finding things a little tricky in the Toyota Carina, too. A succession of engine problems had limited his track time, but his confidence was growing and he was sure the set-up would be there for the race.
Most impressive among the newcomers was Hayden Measham. Already experienced in front-wheel drive from his Renault Clio exploits, Measham was instantly on the pace in his Ecosse Cavalier, ending up fifth fastest in the first session.
The scheduled mini-shoot out between Dave Coyne, Ian Flux, Bobby Verdon-Roe and James Thompson - to fill the second Peugeot seat - failed to materialise: Coyne was placed in the car, and was immediately near to Gravett's pace. 'I had a power-steering pump failure,' he said, 'but then again, I haven't touched a kerb all weekend.'
With Guy Povey a no-show, Chris Rea completed an 18-car grid after a fraught time getting to grips with his Team Dynamics BMW 318i. 'I'm fine getting into and out of corners,' said the affable Geordie, 'but going down the Craner Curves, I have trouble selecting fifth gear - so I'm missing out on sixth altogether.'
'I'm still really enjoying it,' he chuckled, 'but I wouldn't like to be a proper modern racing driver - all those two-hour meetings sifting through tons of computer print-out...'
Sunday morning, and Mansell-mania was in the air. Traffic tailed back for miles on the circuit's approach roads, and eventually a staggering 60,000 fans were there to witness the Messiah's return - almost double the attendance for the European Grand Prix earlier in the season.
For most of the vast carpet of fans covering the banking around the circuit, the first glimpse of their hero came as Mansell emerged, parting the Red Sea of photographers, for the morning warm-up.
Again Radisich was fastest, with Patrick Watts second and Leslie third. Mansell was fourth, happy now with the handling, but complaining of a misfire. The engine would be changed for the race.
After the drivers' parade, and some demonstration laps by Mansell in the Mondeo, we were ready for the off.
David Pinkney would start from pole, with Klaas Zwart alongside. Behind it was Bengt Thenander, Alex Portman, Ian Khan and Ian Ashley, followed by Tiff Needell and Matt Neal. Next came Warwick, sharing row five with Coyne. Behind lay Measham and Watts, then Mansell 13th, Gravett beside him, followed by Leslie, Radisich, Soper and Rea - starting from the back at his own instigation.
As the lights turned green, the pack fattened itself out sideways for the drag to Redgate, with the fast men already scything their way through the midfield. It looked like they'd all got through safely until Portman, bedevilled by handling problems all weekend, lost it one last time and backed into the gravel.
For once a visitor to the Redgate gravel did not bring out the red flags, and as racing continued unabated, it was Pinkney leading from a fast-starting Khan, Ashley, and Needell - up from seventh.
As they crossed the line to start lap two, Mansell had snatched sixth, and Radisich was ninth. Further back, Rea was on something of a charge, having passed Thenander and Warwick. The Footwork Formula 1 man's race had started badly when he spun after clashing with Zwart through the Craner Curves - that also signalled the end of Watts's part in the proceedings.
Coming into the chicane for the second time, Khan neatly outbraked Pinkney to take a lead he would keep until lap 10.
By lap four, the pre-race favourites were beginning to figure among the lead action. Mansell was fourth, behind Neal; Needell was fifth and holding off Leslie, and Radisich was up to seventh, with Gravett and Coyne stuck on his tail.
Crowd euphoria was put on hold temporarily as Mansell, beset by another misfire, began to slide back down the field. Starting lap five he was seventh, then next time round he was eleventh. Would we witness the spectacle of Mansell being shown the black flag?
As Nigel faded, Soper began giving it some serious gun, latching on to the lead quartet of Khan, Leslie, Needell and Radisich. Also making spectacular progress was Measham: at the end of lap nine, he was challenging Gravett for sixth. Coyne, meanwhile, was down to 12th after an altercation with Neal.
The pace-car first appeared on lap 10, picking up new leader Leslie after Khan had finally succumbed, following an impressive and controlled performance. By now Rea was out, his gritty showing ending with two spins - the car unable to restart after the second.
After a single-lap holding rein, and with the field tightly bunched again, Will Hoy peeled the pace-car off into the pits as the remaining 13 cars rocketed out of the Chicane.
Leslie led the next two laps, but Radisich was on the move and soon past Khan. After hounding Leslie for a lap, the Kiwi was through into the lead on lap 13, and looking to dictate things at the front. Time for the pace-car again...
This time there was a plausible reason for its appearance: Khan was tapped into a spin by Needell at Redgate, and Measham, after an excellent afternoon, steered off at McLeans for reasons unknown even to himself. 'I just think I'm not quite used to the very edges of the car's performance,' said the disappointed debutant.
Two laps on and they were racing under greens again. Once more Radisich began to make a break, while Leslie pulled away slightly from Needell and Soper as the pair scrapped for third.
Now the crowd had something to cheer again: Mansell was back on the attack. Coyne was the first to succumb, when Nigel outbraked him up the inside at the Chicane. Gravett looked like being the next victim when - you guessed it - the pace-car made yet another appearance.
After a single lap, the pace-car pulled off again, but this time Radisich held the pack to a walking pace into the Chicane, then blasted away from a virtual standing start.
The ploy worked. Paul again had the upper hand over Leslie, Needell and Soper, while Mansell, making good use of the V6's grunt, was harassing Gravett. Going into Redgate for the 28th time, Mansell squeezed past into fifth. Immediately he was up on the tail of Soper, and looking for a way through as they came round to the Chicane. This was quite brilliant entertainment from the arch-dramatist of motorsport.
Next up on Red Five's task list was a bottle job on Needell braking into Redgate. Mansell locked up, but kept his nerve and squeezed through into third. Surely this was the time to bunch the field up for Nigel's final attack? An anguished roar from the other side of the circuit said otherwise. He had gone off in a big, big way. Out came the reds for Red Five.
As the remaining cars streamed past, the heavy damage to Needell's bonnet and front end gave a clue to events out of the Old Hairpin into Starkeys Bridge.
As the cars formed up in finishing order on the grid, Needell explained how Mansell had taken the big hit. 'Nigel had got past me with that dive-bomb into Redgate,' he said, 'but then got it a bit sideways out of the Old Hairpin. Me and Steve both went left to avoid him, thinking he was going right, but he over-corrected and came left. It was a real tank-slapper. He came across my bows and I hit him.'
The Mondeo went into a spin, hit the wall near the bridge parapet on the driver's side, then rebounded back on to the track.
Mansell was in the car for maybe 15 minutes before being cut out - still in his seat - and taken to the circuit's medical centre. There, initial diagnosis suggested a blow to the back of the head, bruising to the right hip, and possible aggravation of existing back injuries.
Mansell was taken to hospital in Nottingham for observation. The incident had put a major downer on proceedings, but for sections of the crowd to shout obscenities at Tiff Needell, an inadvertent participant in the events, was a pathetic spectacle.
Still there was a race to be completed: six laps would be run, with the grid-order as they finished the first part of the race.
Soper managed one of those BMW-patented 'sit down on the rear wheels and burst into the lead' sort of starts we've been seeing from the Schnitzer cars all season, but Radisich just hung on to first place.
Going down to the Old Hairpin, Steve made for the inside of Radisich's car, and dived into the diminishing gap. He was alongside at the apex, but sliding slightly, and pushed Radisich wide. Afterwards, Soper explained that it was a six lap race and, if the gap was there, it was a case of going for it. At the time, Radisich certainly didn't see it that way.
The pair touched again at the Chicane. Paul came down the outside and Soper moved wide to avoid him - but the BMW got well up on the kerb, lifting on to two wheels and momentarily looking like going over. In bringing it back down again, Soper touched the Ford. The incident served to further anger the Kiwi.
All this let Leslie move into the lead, a position he held until the end, claiming the £12,000 TOCA Shoot-Out jackpot.
'I'm glad we got another chance,' said a happy Leslie afterwards, 'because I was just where I needed to be in the first race when it was stopped. For the second, it was a case of taking no prisoners and going for it from the start. It certainly feels good to win, and to beat the top man from Monza and the last few BTCC races.'
That man, Radisich, held on for second, with Soper third. Needell had held fourth initially, but the taped-up Cavalier was soon demoted to sixth by the fired-up Peugeot duo of Gravett and Coyne; a man without his power-steering pump for the second time in the weekend.
As the top three finishers pulled up to the rostrum area, Radisich was out of his car before Soper and obviously fuming. The BMW man opened his door to get out, but Radisich kicked it closed. Words were exchanged, and icy glances passed on the podium: it was an ill-tempered end to what should have been a triumphant and celebratory day.