The Grand Prix driver turned TV pundit remembers the day he got the better of Aryton Senna and his team-mate Michael Schumacher
For sheer driving satisfaction there are three races I’ll always remember above the rest. The first was in 1988 at Delmar, California, in an IMSA Jaguar, when I was nerfed down the escape road into last place just after the restart, then came back through the field to win. The second was the 1989 Monaco Grand Prix. I started fourth in a Brabham-Judd, and was fighting for third when my battery ran out of juice. I had to pit, but had made it back to fifth at the finish.
However, my greatest race has to be the 1992 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the year Nigel Mansell won and there was a huge crowd invasion. That race had everything for me: I beat Michael Schumacher, who was my team mate at the time. I had an epic dice with Ayrton Senna and came out on top. And at the finish my Benetton was the best-placed car after the two Williams-Renaults, which were just about unbeatable, so I got to stand on the podium in front of the biggest home crowd I’ve ever seen. It was awesome.
Things went well from the beginning. I practiced sixth, which was about what the car was worth, so I started on the third row with Mansell and Patrese in the two Williams, plus Senna and Schumacher ahead. I’d finished third in the French — behind the Williams pair. So I reckoned I was on a bit of a roll.
Everything went perfectly at the start. The engine revs were exactly right, the clutch bit perfectly, I got just the right amount of wheelspin, and I rocketed straight into fourth, past Schuey and alongside Senna. Michael tried to re-pass me on the outside into Becketts, but the move was a bit ambitious even for him, and he had a big lock-up. The whole of the first lap was a dogfight, but going into lap two I was third, with Senna behind.
Thus began the biggest and most exciting battle of my career. For the next 56 laps Ayrton and I went at it head-to-head, no holds barred. It was the first time in nine years — since we’d battled nearly every weekend in F3 — that we’d had a straight fight in cars that were more or less equal. We just went on and on; I wouldn’t give in and neither would he.
Pretty soon a pattern developed. Ayrton’s McLaren was much quicker into Becketts than my Benetton, so he’d try to go around me on the outside. But my car was quicker out of Club, so I’d lead on each new lap. Neither of us made a mistake or gave an inch, and it went on like this for most of the race. I’ve never had another dice quite like it.
On lap 57 we came up to lap Damon Hill’s much slower Brabham. I reached him first, and he held me up into Copse. That allowed Ayrton the extra momentum to get alongside going into Becketts — where he was faster—and this time he had the inside line. I had to give way and I was furious about it, because I’d lost the lead without it really being my fault.
Then a shock. On that lap — on that very lap Ayrton’s car just rolled to a stop. Amazingly, it was the second year running that his car let him down at Club Corner, and I know he was completely gutted about it. I can remember driving through Club, punching the air with elation because I’d come out on top: I think there’s a picture of me doing it, because after the race Keith Sutton, the photographer, asked me what I’d been doing waving my arm around with the race nowhere near over.
Anyway, there I was in third place again, without any immediate threat but with Schumacher only about eight seconds back, working to close the gap. So I got my head down again and crossed the line about six seconds ahead of Schuey, which gave me a lot of satisfaction. I’d been gaining on Patrese, too, and finished a respectable nine seconds behind him. But you couldn’t beat the Williams-Renaults that year. Not if they kept going.
On the slowing down lap, the crowd started invading the pitch like nothing I’ve ever seen. Adults were sticking their kids in front of you, just to show them what an F1 car looked like. Others would stand in front of you, looking through the viewfinder of their camera, without understanding how close you were. It was crazy.
I kept thinking of the regulations, which say you’re not allowed to stop on the slowing-down lap. I wasn’t about to throw my third place away. So I kept going, desperately trying not to run over people, just as desperate to get to the parc ferme.
Actually, I was the only one who made it, and when I got there my car was steaming like a kettle, because F1 cars aren’t built for threading their way through crowds. When they weighed my Benetton it was under weight because it had boiled off so much coolant. But when they replenished it, everything was okay again.
What we saw from the podium was incredible. The circuit was absolutely full of people, as far as you could see. The atmosphere was highly patriotic, shall we say, and everyone was chanting Nigel’s name over and over. After a while, they started chanting mine, which was nice. Then we got into the champagne spraying, which was a bit predictable. But I had to join in. The previous week at the French GP I’d kept my magnum for the mechanics, and people had given me a bit of stick for looking glum and not joining in. So that time, I just sprayed everyone in sight.