Nigel Mansell: “If Colin Chapman had still been around, I’d have won the world title a lot sooner”

Hardly a low-key figure himself, Birmingham’s F1 world champion recalls major racing personalities from ‘mesmerising’ Chapman to ‘eerie’ Enzo 

The first surprise is that the Jersey taxi driver is Glaswegian, the second that Nigel Mansell seems to be in a good mood and happy to wait for us to set up the audio and video equipment. 

Before flying down to The Mansell Collection in Jersey to interview the 1992 world champion, I had been warned how I’d need to watch out and phrase my questions carefully. Not a bit of it. Il Leone – moustache back in full bloom – seemed to have not a care in the world. Outside the sun was shining and the only sign of autumn approaching was the cold wind whipping up off the English Channel.   

If you go to The Mansell Collection website, you could be mistaken for thinking it was purely a car dealership. After all, the first thing that appeared on the screen when we checked was a Skoda Rapid 1.4 TSI… But while the Art Deco building in St Helier does house a dealership, there’s also a large room dedicated to Mansell’s career. Alongside the trophies, race suits, pictures, medals and memorabilia sit his 1991 Williams FW14, 1989 Ferrari 640, GP Masters car and the Ginetta-Zytek GZ09S in which he contested (four laps of) the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours with sons Greg and Leo.

While we connect the final bits of audio equipment, we start talking about his new autobiography Staying on Track. “Some of it looks at how it was then and now, which you can only do 25 years on,” he says as the recording lights turn red. Deep breath and we’re rolling. 

The next hour covers everything from oval racing (“terrifying”) to Enzo Ferrari via Colin Chapman, that move at Silverstone in 1987 and his relationships with Piquet and Prost. 

There are times spent dwelling on the struggles, the injuries and his constant battle against better-supported team-mates, others when he talks of his great relationship with Chapman and, of course, his fans. He’ll always split opinion, Our Nige, but very few question his ability behind the wheel.

Colin Chapman

“For me he was majestic and charismatic; he walked into a room and everyone stopped what they were doing. He carried himself so well and had a wealth of knowledge, an incredible entrepreneur, an incredible designer. For me,
a father figure. 

“We got on really well although we did have some misunderstandings. He’d sit me down, explain things to me and told me to trust him – which I did. He also told me how things were going to be with the press – and he was absolutely spot on. 

“He was an amazing man. Unfortunately he departed prematurely and a great void was created when he died. I do often wonder ‘what might have been?’ The sad thing was that Peter Warr tried to emulate Colin, which was a huge mistake. I had zero relationship with him. If Colin had still been around, and I’ve thought this many times, I would have won the world title a lot sooner. If Colin had been around for a long time the chances are I would never have driven for anybody else. 

“What would have been? You never really know, but what I do know is that Colin was one of the great names of motor sport, an incredible legend of his lifetime and afterwards.”

1986 Australian Grand Prix

The race in which Mansell lost the F1 world championship after his left rear tyre gave way. 

“It was devastating. Absolutely devastating. Even all these years on, 29 years later, it’s still devastating. Sport can be cruel, life can be cruel. But no matter what’s thrown at you,
you bounce back. 

“It’s like that with life: you pick yourself up, you dust yourself down and as long as you can still walk, talk and perform, you get on with the job. I learnt an awful lot from it, but I wish I didn’t have to experience it.”

Nelson Piquet

“I’ve always acknowledged Nelson as a great world champion. On his day he was a sublime racing driver. What I’ve always maintained is that his tactics off the circuit were quite deplorable at times. He knows that, he actually admits it and that’s his personality. It’s a great shame, and he said some things I am sure he regrets. It’s a shame because he was a great driver and he didn’t need to stoop to those levels.”

Keke Rosberg

“Keke was a thoroughbred racer. He didn’t suffer fools easily and we got on very well. 

There were no issues or problems with Keke. He was fantastic. If I went quicker he’d just want to know how. He’d raise his game, be ultra-competitive and be quicker than me again – or at least we’d be very close.”

Enzo Ferrari

“The thing that was so striking was that you’d go out for a meal with him and – bear in mind the Italians are very noisy – as soon as he moved everyone was absolutely silent. It was eerie, you could hear a pin drop. You just thought ‘wow’. He hadn’t even said anything! When they realised he didn’t want to speak there was instant noise again. You wondered, ‘Did that really happen?’ Just extraordinary. 

“He’d move his finger, everyone would be silent, he’d say a few words and then once he finished everyone started talking again. Three or four minutes after this he moved – again, instant silence – but he only went to pick up the salt. As soon as they realised that off they went again. Instant respect – absolutely mind-blowing.” 

Ayrton Senna

“He was totally committed in every single way. There wasn’t really a flaw in his driving other than the fact he thought he was bullet-proof. I think he believed that he was better than anybody. I don’t think you can think you’re better than everybody. He covered every aspect and it was interesting to watch him.”

Alain Prost

“Very good, revered and very accomplished. Some of the way he went about achieving that wouldn’t get my vote, though. I have to take my hat off because, given my time again, perhaps I should have learned something from all four of the top drivers [Senna, Prost, Piquet, Schumacher]. I look at it and think, ‘It would have been nice to achieve what they did in a different way.’ But I didn’t have an engine manufacturer like Renault in my pocket; I didn’t have a fuel company like Elf. You look at those drivers and say, ‘Well, no matter what I did,
I wouldn’t have been able to compete.’ They were able to perform in the car, but they also had their country behind them whether that was the government or a fuel company.” 

Oval racing 

“Oval racing was horrendous. It was an experience that you can’t even try to describe. You have to just do it. Going around a mile oval in less than 20sec, averaging 186mph, you get dizzy. It’s monotonous and then you throw 33 cars into the equation. There’s traffic everywhere and an accident waiting to happen every second. One word? Terrifying.”

Emerson Fittipaldi

“Emerson is funny, he’s great. I love Emerson – he’s a proper, true racer. He’s never done anything underhand that I can see. He’s just a great champion, a great driver and a great tactician. A wonderful ambassador for the sport.”

Mario Andretti

“Like Emerson, a great driver, a great world champion, but less great off the circuit. Mario could be quite political and underhand, but a great guy nonetheless. He just did things a different way.”

Motor Sport: What do you mean?

“I’d rather not comment!”

The home advantage

“People have debated this and some know what you’re talking about and others will say it’s tosh. They have no idea. Even team managers in rugby will say, ‘Let’s make use of the home advantage.’ That’s what you do on home soil. 

“In any race, if it’s at home you can raise your game, which means you’re more focused, you’re more committed, you’re wanting something more than perhaps other races you go into. You shouldn’t, because if you’re a professional you should want it just as badly no matter where you’re racing, but home rule overcomes a lot of things. 

“That can transmit into a faster time. More important than faster lap times is that you put everything in place to have the perfect weekend to get the best out of yourself. You manage your body, you manage your mind, you manage the car and you pull things out of the hat that you wouldn’t normally be able to do at other races during the year. I was always able to raise my game, quite significantly, at a home Grand Prix because my comfort zone was there. 

“We used to stay and live at the circuit [during the British Grand Prix] and the fans and marshals were fantastic. The team always had BBQs because the families used to come so it was just one big party.”

Driving with world champions

“I was privileged to be with such great team-mates over the years. Many of them were world champions. If you challenge a world champion, though, go quicker than them, they’re not going to like it especially if you’re
a number two driver. 

“I thought I was employed to do the best job I could, to go as fast as I could. I found out that if you were driving with a world champion that’s the last thing they wanted! But that’s their problem, not mine!” 

1987 British Grand Prix

“The team and I were doing the maths on whether we’d catch Piquet [after making an unscheduled stop, Mansell emerged from the pits 28sec behind with 28 laps remaining] and we knew that I could probably get close. 

“But then Nelson raised his game because they were obviously telling him that if he could maintain a certain pace there was no way I could catch him. When he did that, I held my breath on some corners, I found the strength to hang onto the car and I said to myself, ‘Right, two or three qualifying laps and let’s see how much I can gain.’ I gained an extra second and then an extra half a second… I was on fresher tyres and thought, ‘If I can maintain 18 qualifying laps then I can get him with a lap to go.’ 

We were doing the maths all the time, so was the whole circuit, all the fans. What I didn’t anticipate was doing quite so many qualifying laps… I remember breaking the circuit record 11 times in 15 laps, which is very unusual in a Grand Prix! 

“The crowd… We had this Mexican wave for lap after lap, they were cheering, you could hear it over the engine and as soon as I could see Nelson at the end of Hangar Straight as I was coming onto it I could then visualise it. I could then also see the strengths of his car, where he had good speed and where he had less speed than I had. I was planning a strategy from there on in and it worked out perfectly.

“I knew his driving tactics and if he had a chance to, he’d force me off the road. I knew I had to sell him a dummy and make sure it was good enough. The biggest part of it was the closing speed. I had to sell him the dummy while I still had enough time to switch so that
I didn’t lose any momentum. By the time he looked in his other mirror – at 200mph you don’t have too much time to do that – I wasn’t there and when he went the other side I was alongside him. He had nowhere to go.  

“When I won, the outstanding thing was the crowd. I could see them getting a bit excited and there were a few people wanting to try and tear the wings off or the mirrors off for a memento [after running out of fuel on the slowing-down lap]. I shouted, ‘If anything goes missing from that car I will be disqualified instantly!’ I then had hundreds of instant security guards so no one touched it. The fans were electrifying, they were brilliant and then they lifted me above their shoulders, manhandled me until the marshals came to
take me to the podium.

“It was just a brilliant end-of-the-race feeling. It was magnificent.”