The thin white line

Nigel Mansell 1984 Monaco Grand Prix

A wet Monaco is as tough and unforgiving as it gets. Adam Cooper talks to a man who saw his probable first win snatched from his grasp

So many victories slipped from his grasp that Nigel Mansell could perhaps fill this series on his own. Indeed he could single-handedly keep The Championship That Got Away going for several months, should we ever decide in change the theme.

Of the many races that didn't work out for him the one that stands out is Monaco 1984, a race that could have produced Nigel's first victory. It was the first time he ever led a GP, and it ended in tears.

"It was very early in my career," he recalls, "but I remember it very vividly. The Lotus wasn't too bad, although it wasn't as quick as any of the frontrunners. Obviously the McLaren was very, very strong, and Williams were very strong. We had a good balance, or at least a reasonable balance."

Most agreed that Mansell did a brilliant job to qualify second, behind Alain Prost's McLaren. Then Sunday brought torrential rain. It was a day for just bringing the car home.

"Monaco is a very special circuit where especially in wet conditions you have to be a little bit brave and stupid to be quick. It's probably the worst circuit you could conceive of having a wet race anywhere in the world. Why? If you go to any other circuit in the world, you've got run-off areas.

"In Monaco you're just corralled. You've got Armco either side, you've got a few little run-off areas which are really just slip roads. If you lose the car at Monaco unless that run-off area is straight in line with where you're pointing the car, you're going to hit something. So 90 per cent of the time you do hit something."

And that's exactly what many people did. Renault team-mates Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay were eliminated at the first corner, and several big names fell foul of the conditions.

"It was the most extraordinary race. Many, many cars dropped out I remember I was in a great fight with Alain Prost One time he almost lost the back end going through the tunnel, and he had to back off big-time. I managed to slip by at that point So I got into the lead and was pulling away nicely."

It was only lap 10, and it was apparent that the pace was so slow that the race would be stopped at the two-hour mark. Nigel still had a long way to go.

"I was concentrating so much on staying on the circuit. It was maximum concentration, and that's all you're thinking about — trying to stay out of the barriers, because every lap you came round there was another car off."

"Once I was in the lead I was very elated, but I was more concerned about staying on the circuit It didn't really matter what track position I was, it was more important to keep going, and as I say every lap or every other lap there was debris you were trying to avoid. Then going up the hill I lost the back end..."

He'd been in front for just five laps when the Lotus snapped sideways and swiped the barriers on the run up to Casino Square. Nigel got going again, but the wing was crunched and his right rear wheel was now set at a drunken angle. At Mirabeau the crippled car spun again, and it was all over. On his return to the pits he made it clear why he thought the car had spun.

"It was a bit strange, but we found out that if you get on a white line in very wet conditions, you aquaplane. In those days the white lines weren't painted over with tar like they are today".

"It was a huge disappointment, but the biggest relief when you have an accident like that is you're able to get out of the car. You look at the cars we were driving then — our feet were within four inches of the nosecone. So the last thing you wanted to do was have an accident, because you'd get hurt. All these people who said you're pushing too hard or you're doing this, you're doing the other, they really don't know what they're talking about. The last thing a driver wants to do is hurt himself."

If there was any pain involved in the Monaco shunt, it was probably self-inflicted.

"I wasn't kicking myself as such. I knew what had happened. You have luck going your way or you don't. If people hadn't crashed at the first corner, and Niki Lauda hadn't gone off, perhaps I wouldn't have been in the lead anyway. They all had their crashes, but I got all the flak as one of the last ones to spin off!" Indeed, the white line saga became part of the Mansell legend.

"I think the press at the time were very unfair in saying, 'What an excuse!' and I'd just like to point out all these years later that those things do happen, and many drivers have had problems. So much so that the circuits now paint lines over. My tyre was punctured as well, and even these years later we don't know if that was due to impact, or whether I had a puncture as well from running over people's debris..."

"It was very unfortunate for me from the point of view of losing the race and having an accident What was so frustrating was that within a few laps the race was stopped, half points were awarded, k and Alain was the winner".

"It was definitely the one that got away."

The media criticism hurt him for a long time, but Nigel's new role as a Formula One pundit has given him a chance to sample life on the other side of the fence.

"One thing I'm very proud of is that I'd rather give the drivers the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. I can be hard on drivers too, but I'll get my facts right before I jump. Whereas a lot of people who don't know what the facts are jump because they're prejudiced."

Mansell never did win a grand prix with Lotus, and 16 months passed before he finally broke his duck with Williams at Brands Hatch.But bad luck continued to haunt him even when the victories started coming."The only time I remember hitting the steering-wheel really hard and being incredibly frustrated was when I made a pit stop at Estoril in 1991," he recalls."I was in the lead, and came out on three wheels instead of four.I think any driver is justified in feeling quite frustrated at times like that!

"And I remember the '87 race in Hungary when I was 19 seconds ahead of Nelson Piquet, and you saw on the television my wheelnut went straight out and I was down to three wheels again. Another one got away there. There were quite a few of them..."