1992: Nigel Mansell
Monza, 1989. As we walked through the paddock, Nigel Roebuck, Alan Henry and I, a forlorn figure limped towards us. The moustache bristled. “Ohh,” Nigel Mansell groaned theatrically, before we’d even had a chance to offer greetings. “I’m not sure if I can race this weekend…”
“Why ever not?” we asked, dutifully, imagining some horror that must have befallen him. A shunt we hadn’t heard of, perhaps?
“I dropped the sock drawer on my foot, it’s killing me…”
Strange, when you look back on such a great career, how initial thoughts should so often fall upon the endless anecdotes about self-told tales of personal damage, rather than his derring-do on the race track.
But let’s forget the litany of ailments, which he still trots out almost by default even today. The chips he appeared at times to carry on both shoulders. The grating tendency to whinge. At a birthday party in August 2010 he was still talking about what the ACO described as a “bump on the head” when he crashed 17 minutes into the Le Mans race, claiming he’d sustained a hit with significant g-force. He looked fine, though a conversation a year later with a team engineer suggested that he had indeed received a much heavier blow than was thought at the time. Then there was the story he told when he cycled around Britain in July that year raising funds for UK Youth – how he heard his Achilles’ tendon snap as he first began to pedal. Somehow he managed to complete the ride despite such a crippling injury… He’s doing another ride soon from John O’Groats to Paris; he was driver steward in Monaco, where he was nursing a broken collar bone after a tumble from the bike.
But let’s put all this aside; Nigel Mansell’s towering achievements on the track deserve more than that.
Look behind the easily identified character flaws to the abundant talent; impressive physical strength; mental strength, too, which made him all but impervious to pressure even from the likes of Senna; the ability to find grip; the refusal ever to let his head drop in adversity – can you ever recall him driving a poor race?
Once you understood the secret of Nigel Ernest Mansell, the rest was simple. He was desperately insecure. He needed to be loved. He needed to be to be seen as the hero who had overcome vast odds to earn the triumph that would capture the hearts of spectators. That very insecurity, that need, was the well from which he drew his fantastic determination by the bucket-load. Quite possibly, no driver ever had more. It was his greatest asset, the thrust that propelled him, slowly at first, from nothing to something.
When the chance of a Lotus test arose at Paul Ricard at the end of 1979 he shrugged off a fractured vertebra and refused painkillers so he could stay sharp. He was the last of five drivers to run, did only 10 laps, but got down to a decent time faster than the more experienced Eddie Cheever and Jan Lammers. That performance earned him the test drive that he parlayed into a race seat.
When he made his GP debut in Austria the following year he went to the startline sitting in a bath of fuel. Where Tom Pryce had suffered in silence en route to fourth place at the ’Ring five years earlier, Nigel needed to have his fortitude recognised. That could be wearing, but it was the way he was. “There I was, about to start my first Grand Prix, and I was getting the most incredible stinging pains in my backside,” he related. “Everyone kept asking me if I wanted to get out, but how could I? There was no way. You just don’t do that when you’re about to make your Grand Prix debut!”
They poured water into the cockpit but it soon evaporated, yet he soldiered on until the engine broke after 41 laps. What was it the great Jack Dempsey said? “A champion is somebody who gets up when they can’t.”
I watched Mansell at Brands Hatch in 1983 wrestling the awful Lotus 93T, and his driving was nothing short of breathtaking. But though the fearsome determination and bravery were the cornerstones of his career, there was much more besides. Forget all that mumbo-jumbo about him being a grafter who made up in effort what he lacked in ability. There was massive natural talent there.
“Nigel was a very, very quick, strong, determined driver who knew what he wanted and was very clever at setting up a car,” designer and race engineer Frank Dernie says, before making a valuable distinction. “And he was forceful rather than aggressive.”
Lotus and Williams team manager Peter Collins, who gave him that Ricard test, concurs. “Everyone said that Alain Prost was brilliant at chassis setting, but when they were at Ferrari in 1990 Nigel sorted out his 641/2 much quicker. And he was one helluva race driver.”
Indeed. He was a warrior, a superb racer. Every test session, let alone practice or qualifying session, he needed to be fastest. That’s the way he was. He always attacked.
Who can forget his string of Grand Prix victories on home soil, especially the one that came with that brilliant dummy he sold Nelson Piquet before destroying him at Silverstone in 1987? That wonderfully opportunistic pass on Senna in Hungary in 1989? His majestic domination in the Williams FW14 and 14B, and that side-by-side, spark-raising battle down the main straight with Senna in Barcelona in 1991? From late 1985 onwards there was never any question that he was the real deal. A World Championship, 31 GP wins, 32 poles and 30 fastest laps attest to that.
At a key stage he lost the vital support of one of the men who believed in him the most: Colin Chapman. Thereafter his relationship with Lotus boss Peter Warr was a burden to them both and it was not until he switched to Williams in 1985 that his true ability shone through. But he never gave up during this troubled period, and therein lies the key. Mansell never quit.
And it wasn’t just in victory that he shone. The way that he lost the 1986 title in Adelaide was typically spectacular, as his left rear Goodyear exploded. Fortune of the cruellest kind. Yet he took the defeat stoically like the sportsman that he always was, and came back stronger than ever when a lesser man might have been crushed.
Read James Allen’s excellent biography, and I defy you not to get caught up as the hard-trying Brit claws his way to the top. There was always something special about his appeal as the man of the people, from an ordinary upbringing, who could do such extraordinary things.
He might have worn his insecurity like a badge, but he always believed in himself. And his guts and commitment, allied to that rare skill, stand even today as an inspiration to all aspiring racers, an example of where moxie, self-belief and sheer determination can take you.
And that means so much more.
Grands Prix: 187
Pole positions: 32
Fastest laps: 30
Other achievements: 1993 CART Champion