Surely no World Champion has provoked greater extremes of adulation and criticism than Nigel Mansell. From his earliest days in Formula 1 he was the darling of the British crowds: when he scored his first Grand Prix victory at Brands Hatch in 1985, and then went on to win his home Grand Prix four more times, the scenes of unbridled joy from the spectator banks were unprecedented. When he raced for Ferrari the Italian tifosi loved him too, and their name for him, Il Leone, was tribute as much to his lion-hearted courage as to his nationality.
Yet for much of his career he was castigated by some sections of the media. They wrote that he was difficult and paranoid with team managers and with team-mates, and prone to exaggerate the effect of painful injuries – accusations which Nigel robustly denied then, and denies now.
But, love him or loathe him, there was never any dispute about Mansell’s out-and-out speed as a racer. Nor his sheer bravery in the cockpit. And his climb up the motor racing ladder from humble beginnings bore witness to extraordinary determination and dogged self-belief. His Formula 1 career spanned 15 years, and during eight of those years he scored 30 victories. No sooner had he clinched the World Championship in 1992 than, unable to agree terms with his F1 team, he decamped to America – and won the Indycar Championship at his first attempt. He returned to F1, and scored a 31st win for Williams. Then, with a brief and uncomfortable seat at McLaren, a great career ended on an unhappy note.
Today Nigel is very busy, overseeing the racing careers of his sons Leo and Greg, and even getting back in the cockpit himself at the recent Autosport 1000Kms at Silverstone. He has sold his Devonshire golf club and leisure complex, but he’s now president of UK Youth, a charitable organisation which works to develop the skills and potential of 750,000 young people, supporting some 7000 youth clubs and 40,000 youth workers. When we met for lunch on the 28th floor of the London Hilton he was on a flying visit from his home in Jersey – he still uses his own private jet – to the House of Lords to raise youth issues about which he feels passionate. “Nothing is more important than young people. To incarcerate one child for 12 months costs £138,000. So whatever government is in power, you just have to do the numbers: if you can stop young people getting into trouble, and equip them with the skills and the ability to enjoy a constructive life, it’s got to be the best investment of all.”
The trademark moustache is long gone but Nigel, 56 now, looks as fit as he did when he was racing. His lunch is austere: plain roast chicken, no sauce, a few steamed vegetables and a Coke. He is relaxed, amiable and comfortable with himself, a far cry from the angry racer I remember in so many edgy press conferences. He is still bemused by the way some of the specialist press portrayed him at the height of his career, but in those days his huge determination and will to win was strangely overlaid with a thin-skinned sensitivity, and also an ever-present belief that he was on his own, fighting a lone battle for the common man against the motor racing establishment. And, not far below the surface, that belief is still there. When referring to himself he mixes his pronouns, as he always did, but there is no mistaking the fervour of his views:
“When I look back I say to myself, with what we were up against, we were so lucky and fortunate that we accomplished what we did. Because you realise the forces that were against you, the manufacturers, the sponsors, the politics, the governing body, the other competitors, seven or eight World Champions racing together – to have achieved what we achieved in that era of competitiveness… if the World Championship had gone on race wins, I would have won the title three times. When the big interests decide they want to do something in a different way, it doesn’t matter who you are, if your face doesn’t fit then it doesn’t fit. That’s why motor sport is one of the toughest sports in the world, because there are so many outside factors. If you play golf or tennis or you’re an athlete it’s up to you. You’ve got to have the right training and medical back-up, but ultimately you do it yourself. In motor racing you’re involved with hundreds of people, millions of pounds, big organisations, big business, all with their own agendas.”
And Nigel always seemed to have more than his fair share of dramas – team conflicts, contractual battles, accidents and injuries. “I was motivated by adversity, because I lived with it all the time. I don’t think there’ll ever be another driver who will make it into Formula 1 without any financial backing and resources. I got to F1 with nothing. I mean, nothing. What I brought to the table was commitment. I could dig deeper than probably any of my contemporaries, because of where I’d come from. Where we came from and where we’ve ended up is an extraordinary story. Lewis [Hamilton] was picked up by the age of eight. He’s been chosen, and that’s great for him.”
Nigel started in karts, winning several titles in his teens, despite suffering a serious head injury when his steering broke at Morecambe. His first racing car, a second-hand Formula Ford, was bought with the help of his wife Rosanne, who sold her own road car to fund it. They were married when Nigel was 21, and she has always been his strongest supporter. Despite indifferent equipment, results started to come, and in 1977 he was able to borrow a new Crosslé. He gave up his job at Lucas Aerospace to race full-time – and three weeks later broke his neck at Brands Hatch. Wearing a neck brace, he was back in the cockpit seven weeks later. He came to the final round of the Brush Fusegear FF Championship at Silverstone needing to win the race and set fastest lap to take the title, and he did just that.
Formula 3 had to come next, but despite working nights as an office cleaner, with Rosanne doing overtime as a British Gas demonstrator, Nigel had no funds to make the move. So they sold their house, which raised £6000, and he took the money to March. That gave him a works drive – for half a dozen races: then the money was gone. “March promised the earth, but it was the worst money we ever spent.” But for 1979 Dave Price hired him for the Unipart-backed team of Dolomite-powered F3 Marches. Journalist Peter Windsor and Team Lotus assistant manager Peter Collins had noted his speed, and at the British GP meeting they persuaded Colin Chapman to watch him in the F3 race. Soon afterwards, notwithstanding a cartwheeling accident at Oulton Park which injured his back, he was invited to a Lotus F1 test at Paul Ricard.
The other drivers being tried were Elio de Angelis, Eddie Cheever, Jan Lammers and Stephen South. Nigel spun the car on his second lap, but fortunately kept the engine running and settled down to turn in consistently fast laps. De Angelis was hired as number two to Mario Andretti – and Nigel was offered a testing contract. The following August Lotus ran a third car at the Austrian GP and, at the ripe old age of 27, he finally got his first F1 race. He did it in considerable discomfort after fuel was sloshed over him when the car was topped up on the grid, but he raced well until the engine blew. He did the Dutch GP too, crashing when the brakes failed. But he’d impressed Chapman enough to be hired as Elio’s number two for 1981. He did it for virtually nothing – his retainer was £25,000, but he had to pay his own travel and hotel expenses – but in May, after he had finished on the podium in Belgium and qualified third for Monaco, Chapman doubled his retainer. And at the end of that season Team Lotus signed him for three years. The deal made him a millionaire, four short years after he and Rosanne, penniless, had sold their house to fund an abortive F3 drive.
Nigel is unstinting in his praise of the Lotus boss. “Colin believed in me, he saw something in me that he liked, not just as a driver but as an individual. We had a fantastic relationship, he was like a father to me. So when he died at the end of 1982 it was absolutely dreadful. Part of me died with him.” At the start of that year Peter Warr had returned to Team Lotus as team manager, and almost from the start he and Nigel took a strong dislike to each other. And, after Chapman’s death, Warr was in charge. “I wish he’d tried to be himself and not tried to emulate Colin. He probably did some good things, he kept the team going, but he was vindictive and nasty. He wanted me out for 1984, but my contract was too strong for him. But he did manage to halve my salary.”
Biggest disappointment was when Nigel led the Monaco Grand Prix in the rain, only to lose the car going up the hill to Casino Square and clout the barriers. It was after this that Warr made his ill-advised comment, seized on with delight by the press, that “Mansell will never win a Grand Prix as long as I’ve got a hole in my arse”. Badly demoralised by his Monaco error, Nigel bounced back with pole position in the burning heat of the Dallas street circuit, leading for half the race and holding second place to Keke Rosberg’s Williams when his transmission failed with half a lap to go. He jumped out and pushed, collapsing with heat exhaustion just as he got the car to the line. “I was so angry, I just kept pushing. Then the lights went out and I woke up in hospital, on a drip in a bed packed with ice.”
By mid-season, with Ayrton Senna’s move to Lotus an open secret, Nigel heard he was on Frank Williams’ shortlist. But in late August, when Frank refused to give him an answer, Nigel told Frank to take his name off the list. After the difficult atmosphere at Lotus he was prepared to walk away from motor racing if he couldn’t drive in a team where he felt appreciated. That had the desired effect, and a few days later he was signed by Williams as Rosberg’s team-mate for 1985. It was the start of a very fruitful relationship.
By the end of that season the FW10B-Honda was a formidable racing car, and at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in October, Nigel’s 75th Grand Prix, he went past Senna’s Lotus to score his first Grand Prix victory. Two weeks later he won the South African race at Kyalami, from pole position. Brands provided many people with their first sight of Mansell-mania, as the British crowd went mad for their hero. Why did the fans love him so much?
“I think it’s because you can’t con the fans. I was honest. When I got into a racing car I wrung its neck. Whether I was leading or in 18th place, I gave 110 per cent, gave it the full money, and the fans loved that. They could identify with it. You have drivers, and you have racers. The driver waits for things to happen, the racer makes them happen. Long before I was World Champion I was the ‘People’s Champion’, and that’s an accolade only the fans can give you.”
For 1986 Nigel had a new team-mate in Nelson Piquet. As a double World Champion, Piquet’s contract made him number one, with a far higher retainer than Nigel. Clearly each regarded the other as his closest rival, and Nigel’s win at Brands, when he pressured Piquet into missing a gear, was a psychological turning point. As the cars went to the final round in Adelaide Mansell, with five wins, was leading the table by four points: all he had to do was finish in the top three to be World Champion. He started from pole and, with 19 laps to go, he was in a comfortable third place when, at full chat in sixth, the left rear tyre exploded. Having got so near to his life’s ambition, he was gutted. “It was pretty depressing. But the welcome I got when I flew home, you’d think I’d won the title 10 times over. You can’t buy that.”
In 1987 Mansell took eight pole positions, led 12 of the 16 rounds, and won six Grands Prix. His victory over Piquet in the British GP at Silverstone was a classic. The plan was to run without a tyre change, but one of Nigel’s front wheels lost a balance weight, giving him a severe vibration. Just after half distance he dived into the pits. He rejoined with 30 laps to go, almost half a minute behind leader Piquet. With his adoring British crowd whooping and willing him on, he turned in a relentlessly brilliant drive to chase Piquet down. With three laps to go he was on his tail, and at 190mph on the Hangar Straight he sold Nelson a perfect dummy. As Stowe rushed up he jinked to the left, Nelson jinked left to block him, and at once Nigel was diving for the right, deep and late into Stowe, and was pulling away to win. On the slowing-down lap his Williams ran out of petrol, and he was engulfed by his public.
But in Hungary a wheel fell off with six laps to go and he lost certain victory. At Monza and Estoril Nigel believed that, for political reasons, Honda was giving Piquet better engines than him: at season’s end both Honda and Piquet were leaving Williams for Lotus. He won in Mexico, but a practice crash in Japan injured his back and he missed the last two rounds. At season’s end he’d won twice as many races as Nelson, but Nelson was champion.
“I knew three different Nelsons. The youngster coming up through the junior formulae, when we raced in F3 together; the one whom a lot of people disliked; and occasionally the human one. He’s got all the ingredients to be a great person, it’s just that he chooses not to be. He’d lower his standards to attack people in a very cruel way. He did it to his fellow countryman Ayrton Senna [whom he accused of being gay], he’s done it to me, my wife and my children. He did that to try to destabilise me, because he couldn’t beat me on the track. All it did was make me stronger, more determined to beat him. After I passed him at Silverstone in 1987 he didn’t speak to me for ages.”
Williams could only replace the Honda turbo with the normally-aspirated Judd, and Mansell had a frustrating 1988. At Silverstone he qualified 11th but, remarkably, climbed up to second, setting fastest lap among the turbos on a high-speed track. Ferrari was after him – the Scuderia had first approached him in 1986 – and in the summer of ’88 he signed a highly lucrative two-year contract, with an option for a third year. “I was the last driver to be signed personally by Enzo Ferrari. He died a few weeks after I met with him. I was the last driver to have dinner with him. I cherish that.”
Nigel won his first GP for Ferrari, in Brazil. His other 1989 victory was in Hungary, and it was another Mansell classic. He started 12th, and by lap 53 he was second. Five laps later he was on the gearbox of Senna’s McLaren as they came up to lap Stefan Johansson’s Onyx.
Mansell and Senna had quite a bit of history. They’d collided in Adelaide in 1985, and in Rio in ’86, and again at Spa in ’87, after which Nigel went to the Lotus pits, grabbed Senna by the overalls and pushed him up against the wall. “Ayrton tried to intimidate other drivers. We weren’t too dissimilar except in how we achieved it. But Ayrton and I were born to compete with each other. Some of the best overtaking manoeuvres in the history books, Ayrton and I share them. It took years, but eventually the penny dropped with Ayrton. He realised I was the only driver in the paddock he couldn’t intimidate. When his red and white car came up behind anybody else they’d virtually cave in, but when he came up behind me, and equally when I came up behind him, it was different. Eventually there was mutual respect between us and we could race together, hammer and tongs, with an unspoken agreement that we wouldn’t try to kill one another – although it was pretty tenuous at times. But he hated it when I passed him in Hungary, boxed him in against Johansson and won the race.”
Alain Prost, wearing the World Champion’s No 1, became Nigel’s team-mate at Ferrari in 1990. In Nigel’s view, Prost worked on the Ferrari and Fiat management to persuade them that they were more likely to win the title if they threw their weight behind one driver, and that driver should be Prost. “I was brought up to compete with fair play, I wasn’t any good at politics. Ayrton was a ferocious competitor, but he had a lot more fair play in him than Piquet or Prost, those two were very political animals. They were prepared to do whatever it took, and they were very successful because of that.” By mid-year Mansell was very unhappy at Ferrari. Things came to a head at Silverstone, when he discovered that “his” chassis, which he’d put on pole for the French GP, had passed to Prost at Prost’s request. Even so, he took pole, and was leading when his gearbox failed. Prost won the race. Afterwards, Nigel astonished the world by announcing that he was retiring.
“People said it was a spur of the moment decision because I was upset after my car broke. Others said it was just a ploy as part of the driver negotiation market. Neither of those is true. It was a genuine decision. Rosanne and I had talked it through before Silverstone, and we’d decided we were being manipulated. I was nearly 37, I’d had a good career, been team-mate to three World Champions, won 15 Grands Prix. I knew I wasn’t going to drive for Ferrari any more, and I didn’t want to drive for a lesser team. I felt I wouldn’t have another opportunity to win the World Championship, so I decided not to play any more.”
Nigel Mansell joined Motor Sport for a Game Changers event where he reflected on his motor racing career in front of a live audience With a career spanning 30 years…
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.
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.
“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.
The first oval race he actually started was the Indianapolis 500, and he was leading when it was yellow-flagged late in the race. His inexperience with Indycar ways meant that, when the race went green, Emerson Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk jumped him and he finished a disappointed third. “I was walking away with it, and they put a full-course yellow out. They didn’t want me to win. How can you put a full-course yellow out when nothing’s happened? All that happened was that Lyn St James came into the wrong pit. There was no accident, no debris. It was politics again.”
Things didn’t go so well for Nigel in Indycar in 1994, when the Penske chassis had the legs of the Lola. Meanwhile Bernie Ecclestone was working behind the scenes to buy him out of his Indycar contract and get him back into F1. Senna’s tragic death came in May at Imola, and David Coulthard replaced him as Damon Hill’s team-mate at Williams. But the French Grand Prix in July didn’t clash with an Indycar round and, helped by Renault money, Coulthard was stood down and Nigel was back with Williams as Hill’s number two. Damon took pole, with Nigel alongside less than a tenth slower. He was running third behind Michael Schumacher and Hill when the oil pump drive broke. At the end of the season he did three more GPs, the last of which was the finale in Australia, when Schumacher resolved the championship by taking Hill off. “I put it on pole, but I was told not to interfere with the race. So I deliberately made a bad start and just sat behind them. I could read what was going to happen, it was just a matter of where and when. I’m a huge supporter of Damon, and I’d have told him to hang back and he could have had him, but he was a bit impatient unfortunately. They had their coming together, and I won the race.”
Nigel had agreed to do those four races for Williams on the basis that he returned to the team full-time in 1995, with a hefty penalty payout if the team didn’t take him. But in the end Williams opted for David Coulthard. So, with the Williams door closed, he signed for McLaren in its new partnership with Mercedes. His fee was said at the time to be $10 million – on top of the Williams payout. Early testing was disastrous: the car had handling problems, and Nigel was very uncomfortable in the tight cockpit. For the first two rounds he was replaced by Mark Blundell, while a modified monocoque was produced. It was ready for Imola, where Nigel qualified ninth and finished 10th after tangles with Morbidelli and Irvine. Two weeks later at Imola he qualified 10th, but the car’s handling was not to his liking and, after a trip across the gravel, he retired. Nine days later an announcement from McLaren confirmed that, by mutual agreement, their relationship was at an end.
Nigel is still reticent about the affair. When I asked him about Bernie Ecclestone’s involvement in his F1 return, he said: “I’m not permitted to talk about that. Let’s just say that, among all the power brokers, I was a small pawn in a big game. It was great to come back to F1, but not in the way it happened. There was a lot of politics behind it, and one day the truth will come out. I would have loved to have been driving for Williams for a full season in 1995. I’d have liked to win more World Championships, and I think I was able to do it. But I had to watch the car I should have been driving, knowing full well I could have won the title in it, while working with a team that had promised me a lot and then I couldn’t even get into the car. It wasn’t Ron’s fault, it wasn’t my fault, the engineers built a car that Mika Häkkinen couldn’t get into, let alone me.
“I still had contracts that bound me until 1997 and prevented me from driving anything else. I’m a simple person – all I ever wanted to do was drive a racing car fast. Then the lawyers show you that even when you think you’ve agreed something, that’s not exactly what was meant. I don’t regret not having a manager, because I don’t think he would have been able to do anything differently. When they can buy out three years of contracts in America from under your feet, and you turn up to do your job and your lawyers tell you that anybody can be put on gardening leave if they’re paid in full, and you can’t do anything about it – well, it’s not the way to finish.”
Today, 14 years on, and with both Leo and Greg in the sport, what are his views about racing now? “When I was racing there was a healthy respect between drivers, or if not for the drivers then for the circuits we drove on, because if you were to do some of the things that drivers do today you could end up crippled, or lose your life. And there were horrific accidents, and people did lose their lives. Since then the evolution of the racing car, with crushable structures to dissipate energy, big run-off areas, gravel traps that actually work instead of the ghastly catch-fencing we had, all that means drivers are coming through from the lower formulae who think they are bulletproof. They think they can’t get hurt, and they over-stretch their ability and they cause accidents. The officials should come down very hard on the drivers that cause those accidents, but sadly they don’t.
“There’s a number of drivers in F1 now, with power steering and driver aids, who wouldn’t have been able to do F1 in my day. We used to go haring into the first corner, 26 cars each with 55 gallons of fuel on board, but now you haven’t got the same weight or the tyre degradation to deal with. Before refuelling, the strategy was more important, when to push hard and when not to. So there was more difference of pace, and more overtaking, whereas now there are short sprints between stops, and the differences are very small. Banning refuelling is a great step in the right direction, and it’s long overdue.”
Despite his strong views, this is a more mellow Nigel Mansell than I remember from his time at the top of Formula 1. He is comfortable in the knowledge that, whatever his critics said about him, he was the greatest British racing driver of his era. He knows the people who mattered most to him – his fans – will never forget him. They’ll remember him not just for the statistics, his 31 wins, his 482 points and his world title. They’ll remember his move on Piquet at Silverstone in 1987, his dive past Senna at Budapest, and a score of other special moments. Some of us may remember the difficult, truculent Nigel; but perhaps it’s better just to remember Nigel the racer.