Nigel Mansell became a pearl at Williams. But as Damien Smith explains his four full seasons at Lotus provided the grit in the oyster…
Key scenes. Act One: first Formula One test. He snaps up the chance to take part in a Lotus young-driver try-out at Paul Ricard — just weeks after breaking his back in an Oulton Park F3 shunt. Popping painkillers like sweets, he tells the team he is perfectly fit and is the last of the eager quintet to go out. As darkness falls he completes 35 laps, ignoring his agony until he is out of the car. It’s worth it: he’s rewarded with the test driver role for 1980.
Act Two: first grand prix. Lotus runs a third car at Zeltweg and the test driver steps up to the plate. It’s an unforgettable day — for all the wrong reasons. Mechanics spill fuel down his back as they top-up the car on the grid. They drench him in water to dilute the petrol, but it’s no good: he suffers severe burns to his backside and legs. His ordeal ends when the engine blows after 40 laps. Then he struggles to walk away; fuel has shrunk his… hamstrings.
Act Three: first podium. Shaken by a moment of horror at the start of the 1981 Belgian GP at Zolder — Arrows mechanic Dave Luckett is crushed between his team’s cars as Siegfried Störr runs into the back of a stalled Riccardo Patrese — the Lotus driver thinks he has just seen a man die and wants no part in the restart. But his wife, his staunchest supporter, urges him to stay in the car. Two hours later he stands on the podium beside Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite.
Pain, bravery, drama: it could only be Nigel Mansell.
Later — much later — would come 31 GP victories and back-to-back F1 and Indycar titles. This, though, means little to Peter Warr, the man who kept Team Lotus afloat in the turbulent wake of Colin Chapman’s unexpected death. When Mansell moved to Williams for 1985 Warr famously said: “He will never win a GP as long as I have a hole in my arse.” Amusing, yes, but a mite rash with hindsight. But still there’s no hint of regret: “I assess Nigel now no differently than we did at the time — he wasn’t as quick as he was made out to be. It’s a fact that Nigel at Lotus was not the racing driver he subsequently became. That’s the kindest thing I could say.”
Mansell’s was certainly a long F1 apprenticeship. After two GPs and a DNQ as third driver during 1980, he landed a full-time seat for ’81. He was 27, and would partner Elio de Angelis for the next four seasons, scoring five third places, one pole position and 38 points. In the same period de Angelis would score 73 points, one win and two poles.
Mansell was second-best.
“Nigel wasn’t as quick as Elio, and he never would be,” says Warr, “which begs the question that had de Angelis survived and enjoyed Nigel’s luck what sort of F1 world champion would he have been?”
Warr is adamant that Mansell was a “late developer” who eventually flowered at Williams because of its superior cars and no-nonsense approach. But that’s too glib, surely? Better machinery, yes, but Frank Williams and Patrick Head are not renowned for driver management skills; yet Mansell grew into a regular winner with them. Exactly where does that leave Lotus in the talent-nurturing stakes? True, the racer’s racer who would mug Ayrton Senna in Hungary in 1989 and conquer Indycars at his first attempt in ’93 would have been hard to spot in the early ’80s — but Chapman had seen something special in him, hadn’t he? Not the next Jim Clark perhaps, but something worth developing. And there were others convinced by Mansell’s talent. Problem was, it lay dormant at Lotus, buried in results that hardly dazzled. But there were nuggets of potential if you bothered to look— and looked hard enough.
Mansell’s rise through the ranks had been a financial grind punctuated by two crashes that could have left him paralysed. But it was a rapid one. When he joined de Angelis, Stephen South, Eddie Cheever and Jan Lammers at Paul Ricard in the autumn of 1979 he was only four years out of karts. And yet he was clearly the outsider. He felt it too, as he always would. His way-in was tortuous: de Angelis was snapped up as Mario Andretti’s team-mate for 1980 and South was offered the testing contract; it was only when the latter balked at signing on the dotted line that Mansell gratefully accepted the deal.
Derek Warwick was racing for Toleman in Formula Two and was widely tipped as Britain’s next F1 title hope: “Nigel didn’t have much of a record. When he came into F1 everybody thought, ‘What’s this all about?’ There was confusion. But once he got there he was stunning.”
Those doubts were understandable. Nigel played only a bit part in F2 in 1980 aboard a works Honda-powered Ralt at the beginning of its development curve. Team boss Ron Tauranac saw talent, but admits it was raw: “Nigel was inexperienced. I remember him qualifying sixth at Zandvoort. It rained during the race but he continued with his usual dry line and was frequently passed by slower but more experienced men. Afterwards he admitted this and took my comments in good part.
“I don’t regard myself as a good enough judge of driving talent to pick a future champion, but he did have the determination, the drive, to overcome obstacles.”
Mansell carried out his test duties for Lotus at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, impressing with his pace. “We were just relieved that he was not a wanker,” admits chief race engineer Nigel Stroud.
Team manager Peter Collins and F1 journalist Peter Windsor were vociferous Mansell fans and badgered Chapman to give him a full-time race seat. He did, for 1981, but insiders doubt the strength of the much-vaunted Chapman/Mansell axis. It wasn’t clear exactly what the Old Man thought of his new driver.
“I don’t think Colin believed in him that much,” says Warr. “But he did have a hankering to sign another British driver. He’d had one or two unsuccessful driver relationships; the last decent one had been with Andretti (whom Mansell replaced). Deep down he was searching for another Jimmy-type relationship.”
Mansell, though, was no Clark — a man who rarely complained win or lose, mainly because he tended to win; in contrast Nigel’s ‘whinger’ tag was already beginning to stick. But Stroud possibly saw what Chapman liked about him: “Nigel was a good bloke — but very emotional. When Luckett was hurt at Zolder, Nigel was weeping in the car, really crying. I was sent to get his wife Roseanne to help calm him down. He was probably the sort of bloke who could wind himself up into that kind of state — but he was sincere.”
His third place in that restarted race showed a resilience that was fast becoming a Mansell trademark. Fourth in a blisteringly hot season finale in Las Vegas gave an indication of his physical strength, too. The bloke had grit, an essential trait as this famous team went through turmoil during the early 1980s. Its cars were off the pace — and then Chapman died in December ’82; Mansell had lost his mentor, one of the few prepared to keep faith in him. Chief designer Martin Ogilvie sums up the attitudes Mansell was facing: “We didn’t think he had a great deal of talent; he was always complaining and never showed any real spark in a Lotus. Man, machine and company just never hit it off.”
More bad news: Collins jumped ship to Williams and Warr, who had just returned to the Lotus fold, was now in charge. He promptly secured a Renault turbo for 1983. But the problem for Mansell was precisely that: a turbo engine. Just the one. Mansell had failed to threaten de Angelis’s position as team leader in ’82 and there was no question which of them would be given the V6. For eight races Mansell would struggle with a Cosworth-powered 92.
Fortunately, he wasn’t missing much. The Renault-engined 93T was a dog. Warr had to act fast; the out-of-favour Alfa Romeo designer Gérard Ducarouge entered stage left. “He arrived in May and looked at the 93T,” says Warr. “You could tell by the way his nose wrinkled up and his shoulders shrugged that he thought it was a heap of crap.”
In just six weeks Ducarouge and a revitalised team came up with the 94T. Mansell made his turbo debut in it at Silverstone — and finished fourth. Another nugget.
But his relations with Warr did not improve. Despite having a firm contract, signed with Chapman, his place was under threat for 1984. John Player Special’s demand for a British driver saved him this time, but Mansell knew he needed a new team for ’85. Williams had shown interest as long ago as ’81…
Equipped with Ducarouge ‘s 95T, the best Lotus since the ground-effect 79, Mansell battled on. He finished third at Dijon. And only then told the team that his mother had died three days earlier.
Then came Monaco. Act Four: first (should-have-been) GP win. Mansell turns it on in foul conditions and overtakes Alain Prost’s McLaren for the lead. He continues to lap 2-3sec quicker than the rest, possibly to prove his detractors wrong. Then up the hill the black car slithers on a white line and slaps the barrier. Over and out. In more ways than one?
Had Warwick not turned down Williams for 1985 would Mansell have disappeared without F1 trace? Maybe. For Lotus cast a long black shadow over this sensitive soul. But there was a golden lining. He hadn’t been entirely convincing at Lotus, but he still had a strong conviction: he was too good to simply peter out.
Lotus in turn now had Senna in what turned out to be its final realistic tilt at a return to the glory days. Mansell got his second chance (and ultimately third in 1991-92) with Williams. Both upped their games. But whereas their preceding civil war had been too close to call in terms of culpability, victor and vanquished, there was a clear winner of this all-turbos-blazing, them-and-us second phase.
It wasn’t Lotus.
Nigel Mansell said in his autobiography: “I don’t think I ever drove a good Lotus F1 car.” He might have a point…
81B (1980/81): Development of the 79 in wake of the Type 80 disaster. Too long in the tooth to be competitive. Mansell drives longer-wheelbase B-spec three times in 1980 and in the first four GPs of ’81 taking third at Zolder.
87/B (1981-82): Designed in anticipation of legality problems with 88. Mansell’s best finish is fourth in Las Vegas.
88B (1981): Controversial twin-chassis that is never allowed to race. Carbon-Kevlar composition used to keep weight down. Peter Warr: “It was a flight of fancy, another of (R&D guru) Peter Wright extravagances. To be kind, it never ran enough to prove whether it would have worked. To be unkind, insiders thought it would never make it.”
91 (1982): Attractive design by Martin Ogilvie. Features carbon-Kevlar tub used on types 87 and 88, and attempts to save 10 per cent of weight on most major components. Mansell finishes fourth at Monaco; de Angelis wins in Austria.
92 (1983): As emphasis turns to first turbo car, Type 93, Mansell has to start season in a revised 91. Rules demand a flat bottom as FISA moves to thwart ground-effect designs. Also featured active suspension and Cosworth DFY. Mansell finishes sixth in Detroit.
94T (1983): Gérard Ducarouge’s quick fix for the unloved 93T; builds replacement around Type 91 chassis. Mansell storms to fourth on its debut at Silverstone. Later finishes third in European GP at Brands Hatch.
95T (1984): All-new Ducarouge car. Team has also switched from Pirellis to Goodyears. Strong chassis but Lotus and Renault cannot compete with McLaren-TAGs. Mansell scores two thirds and spins out of Monaco lead.
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