Silverstone at 70: 1980s

Shell Oils British Grand Prix, July 12 1987

Nigel Mansell recalls an epic chase to victory on an afternoon that raised ‘Mansell mania’ to a whole new level

Nigel Mansell celebrates on the podium for the 1987 British Grand Prix with Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna

He’d won at the circuit in Formula Ford and F3, but in Formula 1 Silverstone had always been something of a fickle mistress for Nigel Mansell… until 1987, and a British Grand Prix that perhaps defined his pugnacious spirit better than any race before or since.

But first a little background.

In June 1980 he’d been at the track to christen the Ralt RH6-Honda, the car that went on to dominate – and effectively kill off – the European F2 Championship, but it was a troubled, low-key debut and he finished a twice-lapped 11th.

At that point there was little to suggest Mansell might soon be a salaried Grand Prix driver, but Colin Chapman realised his potential and three F1 outings with Lotus late in 1980 – remember the long-lost benefit of teams occasionally being able to enter extra cars? – convinced him of the 27-year-old Englishman’s worth.

For ’81, he was in.

His first British Grand Prix should have been a landmark moment, but it was the year of the controversial twin-chassis Lotus 88, which had been outlawed since the start of the campaign on the grounds that it broke the rule banning movable aerodynamic devices. Chapman was convinced of his concept’s legality and duly presented a revised version of the car – the 88B – at Silverstone, where it was passed by the UK stewards and allowed to practise on Thursday… then outlawed by the FIA at the day’s end. The team was forced to strip the cars down and rebuild them as more conventional Lotus 87s, but with preparations compromised team leader Elio de Angelis scraped in towards the rear of the field and Mansell failed to qualify.

There was little sign of what lay ahead, but six years on he was firmly established in the national conscience as a Grand Prix winner and championship contender. The breakthrough had come in the GP of Europe at Brands Hatch in 1985, his first season with Williams-Honda, and one year later he came within an exploding Goodyear of lifting the title. He’d won two of the first six races in 1987 and Williams arrived at Silverstone (where Mansell’s best F1 result had been a fourth place, in 1983) as clear favourite: power track, Honda power. Its drivers Nelson Piquet and Mansell were in touch in the title race, just a few points behind championship leader Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. They duly qualified their FW11Bs on the front row, with Piquet the faster by seven hundredths. He got the jump at the start, too, and was a couple of seconds clear when Mansell peeled in for an unscheduled tyre stop after the 35th of 65 laps.

“That was my call,” he says. “A wheel was out of balance after I’d somehow lost a couple of weights and the vibration was such at high speed that I could barely see the corners and the steering wheel was bouncing around in my hands. The car had become almost undriveable. It was necessity rather than tactics, but it was also important to get it done sooner rather than later so that I’d still have time to try to catch Nelson. Ideally it would have been nice to stay out on one set of tyres and race him fair and square to the end, but destiny dictated that I had to make a stop.”

He came out almost half a minute adrift, but still in second place.

“Initially I felt incredibly disappointed and frustrated, but after my first flying lap on new tyres I realised that I’d taken more than a second out of him and thought, ‘Wow, if I can maintain that kind of pace I might have half a chance.’ That immediately focused my mind and I just put my head down, but after 10 laps I realised I wasn’t catching him quickly enough. I have clear recollections of thinking, ‘Right, I need to treat the rest of the race as though I’m doing qualifying laps.’ So I did. Patrick [Head, technical director] was on the radio, telling me to be careful at Stowe because the TV images were showing me almost falling off the circuit – ditto at Club.

“I first got a glimpse of Nelson when I was coming through Becketts and could see him between Stowe and Club – and every lap after that felt really good because I could visibly measure my progress.”

“If I was going to run out of fuel, so be it. You can’t drive like that for so many laps and then meekly back off”

Mansell broke the lap record several times during his pursuit (leaving it at 1min 09.83sec, 153.059mph) and no stopwatch was required to calculate the gap as the race drew towards its conclusion. On lap 63 he looked towards the right at Stowe, dummied to the left… and then dived through to Piquet’s inside as the Brazilian moved across to cover him once more. Careful pre-planning, or instinct?

“It was mostly instinct,” he says, “but there was some planning involved because as I was catching I knew that I’d have only a couple of laps at the most to attempt a pass… and there was only one place I had a realistic chance, at the end of the Hangar Straight. There was a bit of planning from that perspective, but the dummy I sold him was instinctive. As soon as he closed the door – we didn’t have the ‘one-move’ rule in those days – I realised I’d need to switch to the outside to get him to come back across and leave me space.”

Wearing Williams T-shirts and brandishing Union Flags, many in the 100,000-plus crowd went berserk… unaware that the final few miles were no formality. “I’d been getting radio messages warning me about fuel usage,” Mansell says, “but it was my home Grand Prix and I decided that if I was going to run out of fuel, so be it. You can’t drive like that for so many laps and then meekly back off.”

He crossed the line almost two seconds to the good, then ran dry halfway around his cooling-off lap. As they returned to parc fermé, other drivers had to pick their way through swarms of fans that invaded the track to mob the stricken Williams and Mansell eventually made his way to the podium incognito, in the back of a service van.

“It’s the crowd response that probably sticks most in the mind,” he says. “They’d been winding me up for about the last 12 laps. There was this incredible Mexican wave going on all the way around the circuit, pretty much as quickly as I was driving it. The response was just sensational and I certainly look back on it as one of my favourite wins, because I felt I’d really had to earn it.”