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F1 History 29

Roebuck’s legends: Mansell in the media

Taken from the February 1998 issue of Motor Sport

It is 21 years, I realise with some amazement, since I began covering Grand Prix racing for Autosport, and in that time I have come to know a good many heroes and the occasional villain. Occasionally a reader accuses me of bias, and I rarely offer a defence, being only too aware that I am insufficiently saintly always to keep my opinions of people unaffected by my personal experiences of them.

history  Roebucks legends: Mansell in the media

These opinions are not necessarily set in stone, however. Through most of Nigel Mansell’s career, for example, I thought him an odd individual (even in a world where odd people are not hard to find), and undeniably he always had a wincingly unfunny sense of humour, but most of the time he was affable enough, and none could deny that he was a hell of a racer.

When he took his Ferrari past Ayrton’s McLaren at the Hungaroring in 1989, with a move of brilliant opportunism, I cheered loudly.

To my mind, that Budapest victory stands as the greatest of his career, for not only did it involve overtaking Senna, but also came on a day when Mansell did not have the best car. And that season, remarkably, he was also at his most relaxed, with little of the hair-trigger tetchiness which became his later hallmark. On the face of it, Nigel’s going to Ferrari was like introducing nitro to glycerine, but instead he revelled in the glamour of Maranello, and in the way they kept his adoration quotient topped up.

The relationship with Ferrari went sour in Mansell’s second season with the team, when Alain Prost, previously the one man in motor racing for whom he had not a critical word, arrived. Paranoia about his team-mates, notably Prost and Nelson Piquet, both of whom, he darkly suggested, devoted every waking moment to undermining him, became wearisome, but it was only in the last couple of years of his F1 career that I, and others, actually came to dislike him.

history  Roebucks legends: Mansell in the media

Once back at Williams, in 1991 and particularly in 1992, Mansell had the fastest car, and as victory followed victory his self-esteem – always well-padded – became bloated. And the more he pushed his achievements in your face, the more your inclination was to remind the world that maybe Frank Williams and Patrick Head and Adrian Newey and Renault were playing a part in this, too. There was also, let it be said, the compulsion to offer some antidote to the sycophancy heaped on Mansell by the tabloids.

Not that you could altogether blame the tabloid journalists, mind you, for essentially they were at Montreal or Spa or wherever not to report the race as much as to write about Mansell and his latest controversy. Invariably they took a sympathetic line, because Nigel was always hyper-sensitive to criticism, and if they lost contact with him they also lost the sympathy of their editors.

At the end of 1992, unable to reach a new accommodation with Williams, Mansell went off to Indycar racing. Shortly before the start of the opening Grand Prix of ’93, at Kyalami, a colleague called for silence, said he had an announcement to make. “I’ve just realised,” he said, “that we’re about to have a race – and he can’t win it!” The press room broke into applause…

Mansell is an extreme case, however, and whatever one may think of the man he became, while he was around there was always something to talk about; no one was indifferent. Wherever he was in the world, he had fresh problems flown in daily; even when he won, he came across like Shylock selling wholesale.

history  Roebucks legends: Mansell in the media

“You make a star, you make a monster,” movie magnate Sam Spiegel once said, but in fact this is by no means an automatic process in racing, as anyone will attest who knew Fangio or Moss, Clark or Stewart. To be a god in a racing car is not necessarily to be a pain out of it, as I know from my own experience of such as Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Gerhard Berger, and so on.

Is this still a sport? I rather concur with Frank Williams’s assessment: “Yes it is, between the hours of two and four on a Sunday afternoon. All the rest of the time, frankly, it’s just commerce.” On the surface, at least, Grand Prix racing is infinitely more politically correct than it used to be, not in terms of detecting any paradox in the siting of a glitzy paddock within shouting distance of favelas, but in the sense of being careful what you say. By and large, today’s generation of drivers seem more afraid of speaking their minds than they are of Eau Rouge, which is why the presence of Jacques Villeneuve – a man clearly fearful of neither – is so refreshing.

In that regard, Formula 1 has changed out of sight in 20 years, primarily because there are more important people to offend these days. Even drivers without a win to their name own private jets in the late ‘90s, and you can get used to that sort of thing. Through the last 20 years, exposure of the sport has mushroomed, and sponsorship has kept pace; more than that, the arrival of the major manufacturers, as engine suppliers, has transformed the business.

It was easier, 20 years ago, to say what you thought. All right, if you were a team owner, you wanted to keep your sponsors sweet, and yes, if you were a driver, you wanted to keep your ride. Essentially, though, most Formula 1 teams were what Enzo Ferrari liked to patronise as ‘garagistes’. They designed a chassis, bought engines from Cosworth and gearboxes from Hewland, and they went racing. There was no dependence on a Renault or Honda or Ford, no fear of ruffling the feathers of a monolith.

history  Roebucks legends: Mansell in the media

There has been a trade-off, that’s all: more money, less fun. And lest I sound holier-than-thou, this extends throughout Formula 1, even into the press room. I might lament the fact that folk don’t come out with juicy quotes the way they used to, but neither, God knows, would I trade my living now for the one I had back then.

Twenty years ago, Grand Prix racing was a more fluid thing than it is today. By no means did every team go to every race, and constantly adjusting to different helmet colours helped to keep you alert: believe it or not, in 1977 no fewer than 61 drivers took to the track, at least in qualifying.

That was the season Riccardo Patrese first appeared in Formula 1, and my relationship with him was the very opposite of that with Mansell, in that we began badly, but eventually became good friends. I thought Riccardo arrogant when he was young, and one day, after receiving what I thought a rude response to an innocent question, I decided to bother him no more. We didn’t speak for close on 10 years, and I greatly regret that now, for when finally we had made our peace, we got along famously.

Patrese was Mansell’s favourite team-mate, for very good reasons. For one thing, he was usually – although not always – slower than Nigel, a quality any racing driver values above all in a team-mate, and for another, his ego – apparently so rampant in youth – was firmly under control, so that he was quite content for Mansell to commandeer the limelight.

history  Roebucks legends: Mansell in the media

For three seasons they worked together, bringing different strengths to the team. Undoubtedly, it was to Nigel that everyone looked for the banzai pole position lap, the opportunistic passing manoeuvre, the once-and-for all speed; when it came to testing at Silverstone on a cold December afternoon, though, Riccardo was the one who always made himself available, the man who loved to drive a racing car even when no crowd was present.

A team player, in short. Patrick Head, a man not easily impressed, was among Patrese’s keenest supporters, not only for his excellent technical feedback, but also because he was a pro in the best sense, who didn’t make waves, who simply got on with the job.

When he squarely beat Mansell in the Mexican Grand Prix of 1991, the British specialist press, never known for its chauvinism, did not disguise its delight.

And neither, it may be said, did a great many in the Williams pit.

Click here to read more from Nigel Roebuck

history  Roebucks legends: Mansell in the media

Add your comments

29 comments on Roebuck’s legends: Mansell in the media

  1. Pat O'Brien, 1 November 2013 11:36

    Thanks, for the article, Nigel. As usual, my sentiments expressed more clearly than I am able. Mansell, on a good day, was as good a show as any driver. Too bad he never knocked that chip off his shoulder. You would have thought he’d have dropped that when he came to the States; the atmosphere here is very different. I always got a laugh from his comments about what a titanic struggle the race was after he had just won by a lap in the Williams.

  2. michael klausmeyer, 1 November 2013 14:38

    i remember his extreme bad luck in the 86 finale when his tyre burst at around 300 kmh and the way piquet took the piss of him in 87…poor nigel….but i will never forget the nigelmania in silverstone, when he overtook piquet late in the race – also 87, i think – , when he got out of the car and kissed the track – after winning the race – where he had overtaken nelson and the crowd went crazy….it was spartacus in the arena…..our nige, they called him then, i think….

  3. Richard Craig, 1 November 2013 14:53

    I really can’t help thinking that Hamilton is the equivalent of Mansell these days: stupendously quick, but perhaps not the most complete of drivers, fond of complaining, no real personality to speak of, and the only focus for the red-tops’ F1 writers.

  4. john miller, 1 November 2013 15:19

    Whilst I was never a fan of Mansell the person, he was terrific in a racing car.

    In his defence, I would make a couple of points.

    He had the great misfortune to be confronted by that inveterate old snob, Peter Warr, following the death of Chapman. If ever there were a couple born to irritate each other beyond reason it was Warr and Mansell, the ex-Guardsman and the working class Brummie.

    Then he drove for Williams and Head. Good chaps though they are, they are famous for regarding drivers as merely employees and not exactly sympathetic – ask Damon Hill! One could argue that Nigel was fighting his corner but went too far.

    His years in F1 after Chapman were an uphill struggle and the die was well and truly cast. Mansell was just not the man to break the mould.

  5. chrisb, 1 November 2013 18:50

    excellent,but what irritated me the most were these ‘so-called’ fans who crashed through patiently waiting fans to watch their ‘nige’ at a GP – heavily fuelled by one of Frank’s sponsors they just barged past people who had waited patiently to watch the GP for many hours and tried to commandeer the best spots, fortunately i am well blessed with a short fuse etc at least one drunken bunch subsequently tried elsewhere.

    the overtake that stuck with me was Berger at Mexico – he really could be awesome and held in such high regard but isn’t.

  6. daveyman, 1 November 2013 20:49

    I first started watching Grand Prix in ’86. Mansell was a big part of the excitement, I wasn’t reading any motoring press, just relying on Murray & James and I liked what I saw of Nigel. His pass of Gerhard in Mexico ’90 stands as one of the all time great passes. It was only when I started to read the motoring press that I heard the negative side to the guy but it didn’t really matter to me. His world championship was well deserved. I appreciate N Roebucks comments on Patrese as well. I became a fan of his in ’89. He had a great season and presented himself so well and in ’91 he ran Nigel pretty close. A much underrated driver.

  7. Chris Hall, 1 November 2013 23:49

    I take it the £5 he still owes you for petrol continues to rankle then Nigel ?

  8. Rich Ambroson, 2 November 2013 00:41

    As chrisb and daveyman have noted, that pass of Berger in the Peraltada in Mexico CIty 1990 (and the entire penultimate lap) was just magic. I was a fan of Mansell’s, for all that I read of his “tetchiness”, or his lack of acknowledgment of how good the car was in ’92.

    It was great to read this article concluding with praise for Patrese as well, as Riccardo was another favorite of mine. I still remember both that Mexican GP win from ’91, as well as the San Marino GP win when Patrese got to stand on top of the box in his home country, and not all that far from Padua, either.

  9. Dusty Studebaker, 2 November 2013 03:12

    Bottom line on Mansell: no team he drove for was sorry to see him go.

  10. kowalsky, 2 November 2013 11:49

    i was there in 1991 mexican gp. That victory and the one i saw in turquey 2009 by button, the two victories i remember with less fondness.
    Fans and journalists think differently i must admit, and i am glad it’s that way.

  11. Impala 1959, 2 November 2013 18:06

    Bloody brilliant driver. One of the reasons, along with the likes of Lauda, Villeneuve and Alonso, that I watch(ed) this sport for so long.

  12. Anthony Walsh, 2 November 2013 22:47

    Here we go again, Mansell was a good driver but, etc etc….
    Was it really necessary to dig up an article from 1998?
    The fans liked him, but what do we know?

  13. RichS, 3 November 2013 00:55

    Ahh “our Nige”- I was a young F1 fan in the Mansell Mania days and started watching around 1990. He was my hero then, and being young I didn’t think he could do any wrong. I still think he’s a better driver than many give him credit for, and I’m sure it makes a few shuffle uncomfortably when they think that things didn’t have to have gone that much differently for Mansell to have been a 4 time champ.

    Yes, really – with no tyre blow out in 86, no accident in Japan in 87, and a more reliable Williams in 1991. That would have been Nigel 4 times WDC, Prost 3, Senna 2…imagine that?

    He is and was the ultimate “victim” though and it is highly amusing to hear him list the things he was supposedly up against when he talks about his career. Some of it is true, most is over-cooked nonsense.

    But I still will always remember being an 11 year old in 1992 and thoroughly enjoying my hero of the time winning most races by a minute, and standing on the hill at Craner Curves infield a year later as our Nige took part in the TOCA shoot out at Donington in front of about 80,000, most there to see him, and him slicing through the field before Tiff Needell shunted him into the bridge. Proper racer, our Nige, and that’s why we loved him

  14. alan burden, 3 November 2013 08:56

    A very nice article but a little kind to Mansell. When he was in Formula 3 ,if I recall correctly, he drove with Brett Riley In their pit, one day, I noticed Mansell’s Dolomite engine had an horizontal cam cover whilst Brett Rileys had one angled towards 20o. Mansell was standing by and I asked him why there was this difference. He launched into a tirade the essence of which was that Riley always got the best modifications leaving him to soldier on at a gross disadvantage. Even then, though admiring him in many ways we all called Mansell ‘ the whinger’

  15. Anthony Jenkins, 5 November 2013 01:32

    Nigel Mansell won one world championship in patently a car leagues above any other that year.

    I direct comparison with Alain Prost ( multiple world champ) at Ferrari he was nowhere, very second rate and on one infamous occasion that season simply parked a good car and quit.

    A career of much over-drama, moments of speed, huge jingoism but in the grand scheme of things, not one of the greats.

  16. Phil R, 5 November 2013 14:01

    Please get Ricardo on your podcast!

  17. John NZ, 7 November 2013 07:10

    In the fastest car, and as victory followed victory, his self-esteem- always well-padded has become bloated.

    No, not Mansell a certain little boy called Vettel

  18. Impala1959, 7 November 2013 17:32

    I dont remember Mansell being “nowhere” against Prost at Ferrari. Sure Prost was, from an overall perspective, superior, albeit in a team that was incapable of running more than one car at the time. They were equal in qualifying but Mansell had many more retirements than Prost, and lost a number of wins/good results through car failure (Imola, Silverstone etc). I often wonder what would have happened if Mansell had won the first race that year for Ferrari and the team had got behind him instead of Prost.
    Both were top drawer drivers though. Mansell was more boring out of the car and Prost more boring in it is my recollection!

  19. Rich Ambroson, 7 November 2013 18:55

    Phil R, absolutely! Patrese would be a wonderful podcast guest!!!

  20. Terry Jacob, 11 November 2013 14:36

    Competent driver when his ego was sufficiently massaged , just a shame about the personality by-pass ; not one of the true greats .

  21. JonM, 26 November 2013 12:51

    Wow, how times change. Drivers who haven’t won a race owning private jets? How many drivers in 2014 will command a salary of any sort from their team? I can think of Alonso, Raikkonen, Button, Hamilton, Rosberg, Hulkenberg. I think the rest all have to bring cash in one form or another. Yet the sport is as lucrative as ever.

  22. JonM, 26 November 2013 12:52

    Oh yeah…and Vettel!

  23. Rob Christoph, 4 December 2013 12:52

    Whatever your opinion of Nigel, the one thing we all definitely miss is his aggressive driving style. You know what? In my opinion he was the one driver that Senna feared on the track because of that do or die style. Senna always seemed to have a healthy respect for Nigel’s proximity.

  24. Philip Senior, 4 December 2013 13:02

    Anthony Jenkins wrote: “Nigel Mansell won one world championship in patently a car leagues above any other that year.”…isn’t that what Vettel / Red Bull have done for the past few seasons?

    I believe Patrese used to treat the whole Williams team to an end-of-year dinner / party, and they loved him for it [I think he is welcome to visit Grove anytime] ….but the better paid Mansell made no similar gesture…

    I confess I rooted for him, being a Brit capable of winning the title….was very disappointed at the blowout in 86 and the accident in Japan ’87…after he announced his “retirement” at Silverstone in 90, when his Ferrari packed up, I was disappointed at him not having achieved the title and we didn’t have another brit capable of doing so,,,,,

    The 86 British GP at Brands remains 1 of my favourites….Mansell 1st, Piquet 2nd and Prost a lapped 3rd….Mansell’s average lap time was faster than 1/2 the field had achieved in qualifying !!

  25. Nick Jordan, 4 December 2013 16:45

    I am glad, that a journalist, especially one with such ‘mana’ (esteem) has finally come out and confirmed what I always thought of Mansell.
    He brought to an end, for good, the last vestiges of amateurism.
    Jacques Laffite once said he raced, not for the money, but for the race. Mansell was the opposite, and he brought to an end, for me, the joy of F1. A joy that has not been fully rekindled, and whilst I don’t entirely blame Mansell. He led the way of the sound bite, the whinger, the “I am” attitude.
    For me, the abiding memory of Mansell was not in F1, but when he raced BTCC in a Ford Mondeo. He crashed into a bridge, and many worried as he lat ‘unconcious’ in the car. Then flames started to lick from the engine bay. Amazingly, Mansell quickly regained consciousness, and got the hell out of the car. He finally, thankfully retired to his golf course in South Devon.
    I worked for the company that built the (club)house, and the most expense went on his trophy room. Says a lot. I will never miss him or his play acting.

  26. Nuno Maia, 5 December 2013 14:16

    Sorry Nigel Roebuck, I don’t care about your opinion of Mansell, or of any other journalist. Nigel Mansell was my last F1 hero.
    I never talked to the man nor to any other F1 driver…well I spend 20 minutes talking to Senna, in 82 in the Silverstone paddock, when he was driving in the FF 2000 championship. So I’m not concerned if he was polite, nice, whatever. But I always enjoyed seeing him driving, on that aggressive and viril way. I never fell asleep watchin him racing.
    Did I mentioned I’m not British ?

  27. Anthony Jenkins, 12 December 2013 11:47

    The point, Nuno, is that while Mansell did run some good races particularly when he had a good car, he never acknowledged the latter or the work of the team in a success.
    That, in addition to his whinging nature and tendency
    to blame others for poor results made him hugely unpopular with the teams for which her raced, with his teammates ( Mario Andretti a respected straight-shooter if ever there was one loathed him) and with the racing press.

    His ‘Our NIge’ histrionics were only bought by gullible fans and the mass media who catered to them. He was, and remains, a overrated and overblown jerk.

  28. zantimisfit66, 8 January 2014 16:36

    Well each to their own Anthony, and you obviously know best. But I can imagine for example there are many people who can’t stand you, but I’m sure that doesn’t make you bad at your job

  29. Greg, 17 January 2014 05:53

    Rob Christoph has hit the nail on the head! Mansell seemed to be the ONLY driver that the great Senna could not intimidate. Enough said.

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