Will a winner take it all ?

Five years after their battle for the World Championship, such are the vagaries of F1 that while old adversaries Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet are ‘retired’, Nigel Mansell is focussing on his best ever chance of winning the crown.

I’m leaner and meaner and more focussed now. I know the areas on which I need to concentrate.”

As ever at this time of a season, Nigel Mansell looks trim, athletically determined. Brimful of confidence. Clearly, winter in Florida has suited him well and, truth be told, it’s difficult to see when his chances of winning that elusive world title have ever been better.

Cut past the usual humorous glibness – of Floridan life: “It’s wet. It’s windy. It’s quite cold, in fact! The nice thing is that it’s normally 65 to 70 degrees, and when it does rain it’s tepid rain. It’s warm, unless it’s torrential!” – and you can see how relaxed he is. On the flipside, though, in testing at Estoril early in February all who watched him commented on just what good shape he is in, physically and mentally.

“Florida changed my life because obviously I do a lot more travelling. It’s been quite an experience being there. I should point out that we’re only there for the winter. I’m on the road now, and my family will join me in Europe for at least three months. I’m stronger and fitter now than I have been in any year prior to a Grand Prix” – for which read very strong and very fit – “and that’s simply because the weather conditions have enabled me to get out, whether it be to ride a bike, do a bit of training, or play golf. I’ve been eating more sensibly, and there’s no question that when there are blue skies around, you have the feeling of doing more things, or of eating less.”

Weight, of course, has been an abiding problem, and for more years than he cares to be reminded of, Britain’s top contender has been the F1 heavyweight.

“I’m very happy with my shape and disposition. I’m more focussed,” he vows, sounding like a boxer talking before a major title bout. “I know the areas where we’ve got to concentrate, and therefore I’m very quietly confident. Certainly I’m in very, very good shape myself, better, I would say, at this time of year than in any previous year mainly, I would say, because of our change of environment over the winter. And I can honestly say I’m no heavier!

“The nicest thing for our family is that for the first time in 10 years I’ve become – I hate to say it – but almost a normal human being. I can go out to a McDonald’s with my three children if I want to, I can go shopping, or to Disney – although we saw more English and Europeans there! – and do many things which you take for granted being family men. Even in the Isle of Man I hadn’t been able to do that. To do that, without being challenged apart from by the odd F1 fan in a shopping mall, has been delightful. I really have found that it’s given me a new lease on life, a new hunger, a new appetite, for lots of things I didn’t have before.”

That lease extends to the technical side of his job, too. “As a team we all have even more commitment. From my driving I honestly don’t believe I can add anything in that sense. From other areas, which maybe could use better direction, we need just a few more per cent. The good thing this year is that we’re not starting with a new car, engine and gearbox. The FW14s only ran at Ricard a week or so before Phoenix last year. Now we’re starting with the same or similar car, the same gearbox, the same or similar engine to start with, and this year we have put many thousands of miles and several GP distances behind the FW14Bs.”

He is keen to refute suggestions that he doesn’t like testing, pointing out the sessions he did at Ricard before Christmas, and more recently in Portugal. “Ayrton, why I don’t think he’s even sat in a car since Australia! I’m going to live in Europe most of the summer, and I’ve told Frank that I’ll only need half an hour’s notice to go testing. That’s the biggest commitment I’ve ever made.

“We’re coming off the starting blocks, if you like, on a scale of one to 10, with maybe a seven or eight of confidence. Whereas last year it was probably only a three. But remember, there are no limits to Formula One technology, in fuels, in engine development, in car design, in aerodynamics.”

1991 like 1986 and ’87, was ultimately to be a year of cruel disappointment, but one which yet again fuelled the Mansell legend as he electrified crowds the world over with his dramatic chase of Senna, only to have Fate work against him. Looking back, he refuses to see anything in a negative light, just as he still refuses to admit a mistake in Canada, even though Williams and Renault personnel have said on more than one occasion that what happened was down to him letting the revs drop in a manner he had been advised to avoid. “I switched the ignition off, didn’t I?” he retorts in response to suggestions of culpability. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to be facetious, because I should have tears in my eyes. I mean, there was a mistake in Spa where somebody changed something on the car which I won’t mention, which shouldn’t have been done, they weren’t authorised to do it. And there was an electrical failure due to it. I was in the lead again. Mistakes myself? Maybe, you know, I should somehow have had the feeling in Estoril that I only had three wheel nuts on. I want to take part of the blame for it, we’re a team. I drove out, and it wasn’t ready. Maybe the only thing I’ll criticise myself, is that I was pushing pretty hard in Japan. I did have a problem with the brake pedal and I gave myself no margin. But then up until that point there wasn’t a problem with the brake pedal. But yes I went off the circuit. It was my fault, my responsibility. But other than that I think I had a great year. I think it was a very, very good year, a very positive year.”

1991 was a two-horse race, between Mansell and Senna. The Brazilian would now appear to be the only driver whom he truly respects as a rival of equal ability. “There is only one driver who is willing to go down the wire like I am, and that’s Ayrton,” he says cheerfully. “I hope this doesn’t come across the wrong way but I think that I’m the only driver who will go down to the limit racing with Ayrton, as demonstrated at some races last year.”

Why is he the one driver who can do that? he was asked recently. “I’ve no idea. I think that’s for everyone else to judge and me to stay quiet about, because I’m pleased I have it! I think Ayrton and I have a very high regard for one another now. I wouldn’t like to say. Obviously I do know, I’m just avoiding the question because I don’t think it’s for any driver to divulge why we’re able to do certain things. What I would like to say, because I find it amusing and have done for quite a number of years although I’ve matured a lot over the years both on and off the track – and I’ve no problem admitting that – is the fact that there’s not many drivers on the circuit that are sometimes capable of doing what Ayrton does. People have said in the past that I have to work at my driving, but I would say that some of the things that we do, if you don’t do those instinctively, or purely as a racer, you can’t work at things like that. They come naturally. Perhaps these people have been converted gradually over the last few years…”

Patrick Head has on more than one occasion voiced the opinion that the idea that a driver can ‘work’ at his craft to the extent that he can do what Mansell does, is nonsense. “To do what he does requires a lot of natural talent: you can’t just ‘work’ at that.” Likewise John Thornburn, the man who effectively discovered Mansell, has always voiced high regard for his ability, claiming: “That lad’s got the most talent I’ve seen since Jimmy Clark. I’ve worked with Keke Rosberg, and I’d say Nigel is even better!”

Thornburn helped him at a vital stage in his career. Mindful partly of that, Mansell tried to set up a scholarship for young drivers when he bought into Madgwick Motorsport. Now, however, that episode in his career is cloaked in sadness and disillusionment.

“What happened to Paul Warwick hit me very hard, and you can’t do what I do as a job and be responsible or feel responsible or be part of a team or associated with a team, whereby others are at risk. It takes something from you. I can’t describe to you because you’re not race car drivers, I know you have all the feelings that I do, but I have to be totally focussed and maybe when I’m finished with my own racing career that will be the time when perhaps I will look again.”

The disillusionment is heartfelt, too. “I will say one thing that with all that we achieved there – and we won two championships on the trot – I am embarrassed to say that we did not have one good company, other than Renault, to support us. Hardly anyone else supported that team or helped. I’m incredibly embarrassed about that because young drivers need support. I’m not accusing the press, because you need headlines, but we had very little or no support. I’ll finish on that, because obviously it’s a very emotive subject for me.”

From the upcoming to the long established: how does Mansell feel about the ‘plight’ of drivers of the calibre of Prost and Piquet, the men who respectively deprived him of the 1986 and ’87 titles?

“I’m pausing for the correct reason, because I think it’s none of my business to comment on triple world champions who are without drives,” he said slowly, “because I think if possible everybody should be in charge and be responsible for their own actions. There does come a time, perhaps, when one has to bow out of any sport. I’m not saying that either of these two triple champions should bow out now because I’m not going to sit in judgement, but I must say that I’m more interested in what I do with Williams, with Renault, with Elf and with associated sponsors. We have a fantastic opportunity this year to actually consolidate on what we built last year, and therefore regrettably, until the question was asked, I hadn’t even thought of it. And now it’s been asked, I’m still not going to think about it. Because I’m not interested! I’m interested in getting this team at least the Constructors’ Championship this year, as partners in crime with Riccardo, and hopefully one of us — and obviously being just a little bit prejudiced, myself! — the World Championship this year. And believe me that takes a lot of thought and energy just concentrating on what you’re doing yourself. So I haven’t been reading any magazines or papers, even in America I haven’t read any English papers or watched any American television. I’ve been concentrating solely on my personal programme, my personal family, to get my objectives focussed for this year to do a better job, I might add, than any previous year.

“In one word, I’ve simplified my life. Sold the personal plane, got rid of the hassle of dealing with pilots. No offence to pilots, but they’re different people. You stay in a top hotel and they want to stay there. They want your only FOCA pass…

An obvious question, but a necessary one. Does he really believe that he is destined to win the title?

“It’s very difficult, isn’t it?” he admits. “21 wins, three runner-up slots. The answer has got to be yes, that’s why I’m here. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be sitting here this morning. I really do believe I have a better opportunity this year… I’ve got to finish, got to score points. Regularly. And we all know who set the standard for that. But to answer the question: Absolutely. I want the championship. I’m certainly gonna try…” DJT