Il Leone rampante
1989 Hungarian Grand Prix Nigel Mansell (Ferrari 640)
Some snapshot moments instantly ingrain themselves into the very fabric of grand prix legend. Nigel Mansell is at the epicentre of a remarkable number of these. Has there ever been a more sensational pass than the one he pulled on Ayrton Senna in Hungary? But that move, borne of split-second instinct, was simply the climax to a remarkable drive that had begun from 12th on the grid.
Joan Villadelprat, now team manager at Prost, was then Ferrari's chief mechanic. "We'd had a very bad two days with the car, chasing grip," he recalls. "It was so bad that on Saturday, Nigel decided not to waste more time looking for a qualifying set-up and instead tried to get a good race balance. That night we invented Gurney flaps and stuff; a big panic. "Every driver gets difficult when things don't go well," says Villadelprat, "but Nigel wasn't too bad; I've seen plenty much worse. He was a good guy, a normal guy. Good with the engineers and mechanics."
Whatever magic they weaved, it worked. Mansell was quickest in the raceday warmup session, saying the car was as near perfectly balanced as any he had driven. But where to pass on as tight a track as the Hungaroring?
He made up four places on the opening lap to slot himself eighth behind Alessandro Nannini's Benetton; then the Italian stopped early for tyres on lap 12. Mansell's drive at this stage seemed unremarkable. Up front, Riccardo Patrese's Williams led narrowly from Senna's McLaren, but Nigel was biding his time, not overworking his tyres with a full fuel load. On lap 20 he got down to business, slicing past Thieny Boutsen's Williams and, a couple of laps later, Alex Caffi's Dallara.
"He just went round the outside of them at the first turn," says Villadelprat, "which put him on the inside for the next; that would be it." Mansell's team-mate Gerhard Berger made his planned tyre stop, moving Nigel up to fourth. Even better, the team found Berger's tyres hardly worn and told Mansell he didn't need to stop. At this stage, Mansell won the race. Pulling back a 17sec deficit to Alain Prost with a sequence of stunning laps, he exited the downhill right-hander quicker and surged past the McLaren on the following straight
By the 50th of the 77 laps, Patrese led Senna by 0.7sec, with Nigel just 0.3sec further adrift. Patrese defended immaculately until track debris went through his radiator. He was out.
On lap 58 Stefan Johansson's Onyx was exiting the pits. He'd been having a gear linkage problems, but saw the leaders approach — Mansell darting all over Senna as they all approached a right-hander — and kept well over to the left. Critically, the Onyx hesitated because of its mechanical ailment and suddenly Senna was boxed in. Without lifting, Mansell jinked right, missed Senna's gearbox by millimetres and passed both in one go. He stayed in front to the flag.
"In circumstances where things can go wrong, Nigel was unbelievable," Villadelprat recalls. "I've not seen anyone as good in such situations. When you'd worked so hard, it was great knowing he'd give everything out there."