Before Silverstone, Nigel had talked to Frank Williams about going back to Didcot, but Frank had told him he was expecting to get Senna for 1991. Later it turned out that Senna had only been talking to Williams as part of his negotiation process with McLaren and, when McLaren confirmed that it was keeping Senna, Frank approached Nigel. Nigel demanded undisputed number one status, plus various assurances from Renault that he would be fully backed in his efforts to win the title. “Frank said my demands were impossible. I said, ‘Fine, I’m happy, I’m retiring.’” In September he put his Ferrari on pole for the Portuguese GP, and went past Senna’s McLaren to win. Prost, battling with Senna for the title, finished a disgruntled third, and launched a furious attack on Ferrari’s lack of team tactics. A month later, his demands fully met, Mansell signed for Williams.
In 1991 he fought a stirring battle with Senna for the title, winning five races and leading four more. “There were a few indiscretions by certain people, and when you’re leading a race and you come out of the pits on three wheels it doesn’t help” – referring to the Portuguese GP, when his right rear wheel came off immediately after a pitstop. In the chaotic final round in Adelaide, a lap before the race was stopped due to torrential rain, he hit a wall and, as he thought then, bruised his left foot. “When I got back to my home in Clearwater, Florida, I had it looked at and they told me I’d splintered the bones in two toes. They told me if I had an operation the recovery period would be two months. Well, I couldn’t do that, I wanted to train for the new season. So we made a Kevlar insert for my shoe, and I walked on the side of my foot without putting any pressure on the damaged toes. I never told anybody, I didn’t tell the press, and I got shit because at the end of the races I looked ghastly, or tired. The truth is I drove for a whole year with a busted foot. Some journalists chose to interpret my limp as play-acting. Pretty laughable – but I don’t think any of them have ever driven a Formula 1 car flat out for two hours, with or without a broken foot. And when they’re gone they won’t be remembered, but I will be. Anyway, as soon as I had won the title I went to the hospital and had it done, and I attended all the awards parties on crutches.”
That 1992 season, with the active-suspension FW14B, had been one of pretty total domination. Nigel won the first five races on the trot. Then came Monaco, where he led until, with eight laps to go, he had to stop for tyres, rejoining to finish second a few feet behind Senna’s McLaren. In Canada, trying to take the lead from Senna, he went off. Then he won the next three races, including his home Grand Prix once again, which he led from start to finish. By the Hungarian Grand Prix in mid-August, his life’s ambition was realised: he was World Champion.
Mansells sold their house for F3 drive in 1978
An ingredient in his success was a strong working relationship with his engineer at Williams, David Brown. “David and I complemented each other and respected each other, we ended up like brothers. If a driver tells an engineer, ‘Do this and it’ll go faster,’ and it does, he respects him because it makes him look good. David is pure and solid, a fantastic guy. I’d drive any car he engineered. He’s working in the USA now.”
Even before he’d clinched the title Nigel learned, to his dismay, that Prost was about to return from a year away from Formula 1 – to become his team-mate again. Nevertheless he agreed terms with Frank Williams in Hungary for 1993, as joint number one with Prost. But four days after his glory day in Budapest, the goalposts moved. Senna had come into the equation, offering to drive for Williams “for nothing”. This merely sowed confusion, for Prost had already got a clause in his contract allowing him to veto Senna as a team-mate. Still Williams and Mansell could not agree, and things came to a head at Monza. On race morning Mansell called a press conference. Just as he was about to speak, an emissary from Williams arrived and whispered in his ear. Nigel says now that the whispered message was total capitulation, agreement to all the original terms. But by now he felt he no longer had the support he would need to defend his title in ’93. He’d had enough, and he read out a statement announcing his retirement from F1.
“Looking back now, to be fair it wasn’t just Frank. The engine manufacturer was French, the fuel company was French, there were other factors. But winning the World Championship was the culmination of all I had worked for, all I’d dreamed about since I was seven years old. Then to have the rug pulled from under me, and not to have the opportunity to defend my title, that was very hard to bear. All these years later, even understanding the politics a lot more now than I did then, it shouldn’t have happened.”
In fact Nigel had already met Carl Haas in London, a week before Monza, and agreed a provisional deal for a seat in the Newman-Haas Indycar team. After Monza he signed a firm contract. He won the Portuguese GP, retired in Japan – having waved Riccardo Patrese past to win, and take second place in the championship – and then in his final race in Australia he tangled with Senna one more time, and they both went off. The new World Champion complained to the stewards, who decided there was no case to answer. Two months later, Nigel had his first test in an Indycar, and in March came his first race, at Surfers Paradise. He started from pole, and won.
On a charge in Hungary 1989 to net Ferrari another win
“Adapting to Indycar, plenty was different. The car was 50 per cent heavier, had less downforce, no active suspension, no carbon brakes, and a manual gearchange. But the most difficult thing to get used to was that I wasn’t defending my World Championship. It wasn’t my chosen path, I was in foreign territory. But having Paul Newman on the team was marvellous. He was a wonderful man, motivating, inspirational, and a lot of fun.”
Nigel’s first oval race came at Phoenix two weeks after Surfers Paradise. In practice, taking Turn 1 at 187mph, he spun backwards into the wall, sustaining concussion and back injuries. A fortnight later, with painkillers injected into his back, he finished third at Long Beach. Then he won on the ovals at Milwaukee, Michigan, New Hampshire and Nazareth, tying up the championship by mid-September. For one week, until Prost clinched the F1 title in Estoril, Nigel was simultaneously World Champion and Indycar Champion.