It is 21 years, I realise with some amazement, since I began covering Grand Prix racing for Autosport, and in that time I have come to know a good many heroes and the occasional villain. Occasionally a reader accuses me of bias, and I rarely offer a defence, being only too aware that I am insufficiently saintly always to keep my opinions of people unaffected by my personal experiences of them. These opinions are not necessarily set in stone, however.
Through most of Nigel Mansell’s career, for example, I thought him an odd individual (even in a world where odd people are not hard to find), and undeniably he always had a wincingly unfunny sense of humour, but most of the time he was affable enough, and none could deny that he was a hell of a racer. When he took his Ferrari past Ayrton’s McLaren at the Hungaroring in 1989, with a move of brilliant opportunism, I cheered loudly.
To my mind, that Budapest victory stands as the greatest of his career, for not only did it involve overtaking Senna, but also came on a day when Mansell did not have the best car. And that season, remarkably, he was also at his most relaxed, with little of the hair-trigger tetchiness which became his later hallmark. On the face of it, Nigel’s going to Ferrari was like introducing nitro to glycerine, but instead he revelled in the glamour of Maranello, and in the way they kept his adoration quotient topped up.
Mansell’s victory in Hungary ’89 was the result of “brilliant opportunism”
Grand Prix Photo
The relationship with Ferrari went sour in Mansell’s second season with the team, when Alain Prost, previously the one man in motor racing for whom he had not a critical word, arrived. Paranoia about his team-mates, notably Prost and Nelson Piquet, both of whom, he darkly suggested, devoted every waking moment to undermining him, became wearisome, but it was only in the last couple of years of his F1 career that I, and others, actually came to dislike him.
Once back at Williams, in 1991 and particularly in 1992, Mansell had the fastest car, and as victory followed victory his self: esteem always well padded became bloated. And the more he pushed his achievements in your face, the more your inclination was to remind the world that maybe Frank Williams and Patrick Head and Adrian Newey and Renault were playing a part in this, too. There was also, let it be said, the compulsion to offer some antidote to the sycophancy heaped on Mansell by the tabloids.
Not that you could altogether blame the tabloid journalists, mind you, for essentially they were at Montreal or Spa or wherever not to report the race as much as to write about Mansell and his latest controversy. Invariably they took a sympathetic line, because Nigel was always hyper-sensitive to criticism, and if they lost contact with him they also lost the sympathy of their editors.
There was always something to talk about when Nigel Mansell was on the Formula 1 scene… and it usually made excellent copy for the tabloid press
At the end of 1992, unable to reach a new accommodation with Williams, Mansell went off to Indycar racing. Shortly before the start of the opening Grand Prix of ’93, at Kyalami, a colleague called for silence, said he had an announcement to make. “I’ve just realised,” he said, “that we’re about to have a race and he can’t win it!” The press room broke into applause…
Mansell is an extreme case, however, and whatever one may think of the man he became, while he was around there was always something to talk about; no one was indifferent. Wherever he was in the world, he had fresh problems flown in daily; even when he won, he came across like Shylock selling wholesale.
“You make a star, you make a monster,” movie magnate Sam Spiegel once said, but in fact this is by no means an automatic process in racing, as anyone will attest who knew Fangio or Moss, Clark or Stewart. To be a god in a racing car is not necessarily to be a pain out of it, as I know from my own experience of such as Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Gerhard Berger, and so on.