After all the years of disappointment, Nigel Mansell faces his sternest test as he dons the world champion’s mantle
Adelaide 1986 seems so very far away now, doesn’t it? Nigel Mansell drove such a perfect race there, avoiding confrontation, holding back, putting himself in just the right position and taking nothing more out of the Williams-Honda than he had to. Third place was all he needed to win the World Championship. Who can forget the puncture that dashed his hopes then, and how he emerged stunned from a shattered dream? But now, in his finest hour, such disappointments can all be forgotten.
Since then, of course, we have seen much from this man. The conflict with Senna at Spa in 1987, when he tangled with the Brazilian on the track and later grabbed him by the throat in the pits. The war with Nelson Piquet and its ugly aftermath when the Brazilian made cruel remarks about his intelligence and his wife, Rosanne. Being carted out of the 1987 championship struggle on a stretcher in Suzuka. Tangling with Senna in Portugal in 1990. Losing a wheel there a year later. Losing Canada on the last lap that same season. Spinning out of the 1991 Japanese GP.
If it was going to happen, it always seemed to happen to Mansell.
In Dallas in 1984 he collapsed with heat exhaustion while pushing his car to the line. He concussed himself hitting the wall at Detroit the following year, then was hospitalised after a 201mph tyre failure on the Mistral Straight at Ricard in the next race. There was dehydration at Brands Hatch in 1986, where he swayed precariously on the rostrum, the toothache and subsequent headache from hitting an overhead gantry in Austria in 1987, the Suzuka shunt that ended his championship chances that year. Chickenpox at the Hungaroring in 1988. Cut fingers after winning in Rio 1989… Announcing his retirement at Silverstone in 1990. Oh, could we ever forget all the hoopla that surrounded that!
The bottom line is that whatever he does Mansell is news, and to the national papers in particular he is more than good copy. He is a travel ticket to the Grands Prix. Without him, Fleet Street (sic) would virtually ignore the sport. Nothing is ever dull in his races. He either wins, usually spectacularly, or his failure is equally dramatic. Like Senna, he is frequently the centre of some sort of storm, a driver about whom everyone invariably has a strong opinion, be it good or bad. Where he differs so much from the triple World Champion is that he is such a ragbag of contradictions. One sometimes wonders why a man who can drive a racing car so well can appear so insecure out of its cockpit. Senna, he had the front to suggest in a recent interview with the French sporting daily L’Equipe, is ‘still the king of theatre’, a reference to the Brazilian’s genuine exhaustion after the San Marino GP when Prof Watkins had had to give him a saline injection before he could finally climb out of his McLaren’s cockpit. Yet has there ever been a more theatrical performer than Nigel Mansell? Images come to mind in particular of Monaco 1984 as he sat, head-in-hands, on the Armco barrier at Massenet; and this year as he swooned without a trace of self-respect in front of Prince Rainier and his family before a sudden surge of energy saw him chasing Senna with the champagne before being ‘struck down’ again. And what could have been more melodramatic after his charge after Prost at Silverstone in 1990, than to walk home, throwing gauntlet and gloves to the adoring crowd? Or the scenes at Silverstone this year?
The truth is that Mansell is every bit as complex a man emotionally as Senna is, and to understand why you need to look at his background. The Englishman, so they say, fights best with his back to the wall. Mansell was no exception in his early years, until he finally discovered that the best way through was just to knock the wall down. It took him five years to learn the art of that destruction in F1, but once he had it mastered, only uncompetitive machinery, Senna or Prost could hold him back.
There is a strength that runs right through him, and it is not purely physical. From the earliest days he exuded incredible fortitude, and so did Rosanne, the quiet figure in the background who has stood by him every step of the way. At times that must have been pretty damned hard to do. It’s true that he was a qualified engineer working for Lucas Girling, and thus had that to fall back on should his aspirations fail to materialise, but to surrender all that, on what at the time was little more than a whim fuelled by relentless determination, took a special kind of courage. From both of them.
F3 entrant Dave Price recalls that Mansell complained even then, as he later would about every team-mate he has ever had with the exception of Keke Rosberg. “In all honesty, he never lived up to my expectations. His character hasn’t changed at all. He whinged then and he still does! He was always convinced that Brett Riley had a better engine than him. Well, there was no such thing as a good Dolomite! They were all awful! That was a fact of life. He used to overdrive, I think, to make up. I always got the feeling he felt he wasn’t getting the best deal, but I don’t think either of them were, in all honesty. We had a good deal with March and people used to reckon the Dolomite engine had I 70bhp. I reckoned they used to lose 20 while they were being delivered!”
Nevertheless, that sense of purpose, that inner strength, did not always have a negative manifestation. Lotus team director Peter Collins has good reason to recall the use to which Mansell put it when he got into trouble swimming in Rio in 1981. “I’m not exaggerating when I say I would be dead if it wasn’t for Nigel. I was breathless and my arms and legs had gone. All the while he was swimming with me, pushing me, swearing at me to keep going…”
It is the theatricality that starts to grate when you are close to Mansell for any length of time, the ‘speaking to you as a person…’ the ‘all I can say is that…’ or the ‘speaking with my police cap on…’ prefaces. The on-record stuff that later becomes off-record. And the inferiority complex, the hard-done-to attitude. This from a man now worth millions. You begin to understand why one senior Williams management figure once said of him: “It’s a shame you can’t just helicopter him from his hotel, plant him in the cockpit, and then just helicopter him away again immediately afterwards…” Like the long-gone Indianapolis star Eddie Sachs, Mansell loves to be loved, needs to feel appreciated. He feeds off sympathy, surrounds himself with acolytes (collectively known within the F1 fraternity as Brown Five, in deference to his racing number, Red Five). In the car he gives his all, but he needs to know that the effort has been fully recognised and appreciated. To understand the man, you have to understand that. At times it smacks of almost endearing vulnerability, but it can be akin to having to assure a friend continually that he still is a friend. The constant struggle to prove himself left an indelible scar on a sensitive personality, and no amount of subsequent success seems to have been able to heal it.
Balanced against the histrionics, though, there is always the bravery, and Nigel Mansell is Brave. I remember watching spellbound at Brands Hatch in 1983 as he literally fought the appalling Lotus 93T around during the Race of Champions in the automotive equivalent of alligator wrestling. It was a terrible car, but there was absolutely no questioning the commitment with which he willed it over Brands’ notorious bumps and dips.
His pole-winning laps at Silverstone in 1990 and 1991 were also awesome as he balanced his machinery right on the very edge. So too was the move he pulled on Berger in Mexico in 1990. But for me it was a competition in which John Player pitted one of its racing cars against one of its racing catamarans at Holme Pierrepoint in 1982, that really illustrated the depth of his competitive commitment. He and Bob Spalding indulged in a series of drag races, which was fine for Bob since HoIme Pierrepoint is a watersports park, but Mansell only had a narrow path to run down, and grass at either end of it to act as run-off and braking area. Despite that he didn’t bat an eyelid, and would nonchalantly spin his Lotus 91 to a halt at the end of each pass. Three litres of Cosworth V8 propelled him to 116mph in 5.4s compared to three and a half litres of Johnson V8 pushing Spalding’s Velden to 100 in 5.7s. It was only a fun contest, but he was determined to win and he did. Sadly, 10 years later he would let himself down very badly with his lack of grace during a Camel F1 quiz staged at the British GP, between his team of journalists and Martin Brundle’s, which won.
Brave, too, was his drive from the pit lane to fifth at a pluvious Estoril in 1985 when he overtook car after car blind by listening for the change in its engine note as the driver ahead backed off, then counting one before doing likewise as he dived past. So was his conduct at Monaco in 1985, where during first qualifying his Williams’ throttle wasn’t closing properly which in turn put excessive strain on the brakes.
Grey-faced, he reported: “It’s one of the few times I’ll ever admit to being scared in a car. It’s the one thing you don’t need round here.’ He refused to drive the following day if the problem persisted, but it was cured. And after a stunning lap on Saturday afternoon, he started that race from the front row, alongside Senna…
Williams’ current team manager, Peter Windsor, was one of the first to spot Mansell’s ability, and provides an insight into his character when he recalls Zandvoort in 1981. “I think that was really the big point in the year. Elio had qualified with 20 minutes to go and Nigel had the 81B again and wasn’t in. Colin Chapman let him out in Elio’s car. It was one of those times when all that hard work and drama could have gone one way or the other. A moment of truth. He qualified it just three tenths off Elio’s time. It was just stunning. One of the most impressive things I’ve seen. When you looked at Moreno and Palmer in similar situations in later years, not doing that really set their careers back. Nigel just maximised that opportunity and did the job.” Nothing summarises his career better.
I have seen Mansell victorious, aggressive, explosively angry, injured, theatrical and melodramatic, but I have only ever known him to give up races on two occasions, at the very nadir of his relationship with Ferrari in 1990 during the German and Belgian GPs. At the end of the day, what really matters is how a driver performs on the track. Give him the right equipment, and he will challenge for the lead, and over the years some of his exploits have been nothing short of breathtaking. His fans adore him, not only the normally phlegmatic British who invade home tracks when he wins, but also the fickle tifosi. Perhaps the specialist press is just too close to the man and his occasional failings, as opposed to his achievements, the way the nationals felt they were with Ian Botham and Daley Thompson. However you cut it, Mansell has got where he is by sheer hard work and determination, but there is abundant natural talent there too. He can unquestionably lay just claim to being one of the three best F1 drivers in the world. Perhaps it is only the romantics who wish that today’s heroes could be thoroughly good blokes as well.
If self-belief, ruthless determination, towering commitment, uncanny car control and sheer grit were their own reward he would have won a title long before now. As it is, all the frustrations have only made the ultimate triumph the sweeter.
There is a case for suggesting that the era has come to Mansell, insofar as the active Williams FW14B requires a degree of brute force if the driver is to extract its best and thus suits his style perfectly, but few would ever begrudge him the crushing – and overdue – success of 1992. Nor can any patriot’s pulse not be stirred by the emergence of the first British F1 World Champion since James Hunt in 1976. There is no doubt that Nigel Mansell is what Graham Hill used to be: a champion for the people. That is not necessarily the same as saying that he will also be the champion for the sport that the Londoner was, but then one could argue that we have not seen many of them in recent years. Hopefully the real man will now emerge to bring fresh lustre to what has sometimes become a tarnished World Champion’s crown. Perhaps he may even relax more emotionally and cease to see conspiracy in every dark corner, be more the man he was in his first year with Ferrari. He has a golden opportunity to repair his numerous broken bridges, while also making a positive contribution to motorsport’s image, particularly on the domestic front. Much will depend upon how honest he can be with himself, and what pressures he faces. Quite possibly his greatest test is just approaching. D J T