Guess who's back?

In a secret test session at Estoril, Nigel Mansell stepped back aboard a racing car to trade times with son Leo. Motor Sport got an exclusive view of the action
By Rob Widdows

You have heard of keeping it in the family. You have heard of sibling rivalry. You may be familiar with sons keen to emulate their fathers. You will know fathers who are ambitious for their sons. Until you have spent time with the Mansells, you ain’t seen anything.

Life is full of surprises. Life in motor racing is one big surprise. And never more so than with Nigel Mansell. I have recently returned from Estoril where I spent two intriguing, and surprising, days with the man and his two sons. In the heat of Portugal in mid-summer I have witnessed what I believe to be the imminent return of ‘Our Nige’ to the race tracks of this world. And the emergence of one of his sons onto centre stage, a position his father always enjoyed.

I can only write as I find, and I found a Nigel Mansell with whom I had not previously been familiar. At Estoril he was open, effusive, communicative and charm itself. We know he can be this way and, when he is, it’s a joy to watch him at work. He clearly felt comfortable, his two boys at his side, but he was quick to play down the importance of the occasion.

“We’re having fun,” he smiled, not very convincingly. “Nothing else in life has this excitement for me and it’s good to feel the adrenaline pumping again. The Lola-AER has 650bhp, it’s a big car and it was a bit of a handful before we got it sorted this morning. I’ve missed all this, you know, and we had this opportunity to work with Dunlop and Chamberlain Synergy, to show people what we can do. Most of all, I want to help Leo, to help him develop, because these cars will suit his style. He’s such a smooth driver and that’s what you need with this car. I’ll be psyching myself up for a real go, and I’m asking Dunlop for a few sets of their best tyres, but mainly I want to see what Leo can do.”

Outwardly Nigel has changed little. There is the ego – call it confidence, if you will – there is the dogma, the sometimes curious use of the English language and the pure theatre. As always, he is the centre of attention. That famous Red 5 adorns his cap, as does his long-time supporter Sunseeker (he has one at home in Jersey), while Mansell Raceway – his kart circuit at Dunkeswell – is a more recent addition to the apparel. He is, as ever, the showman and the racing driver. This is not a man who climbed the carpeted steps of the ‘staircase of talent’. No, this is a man who clawed his way to the top, clinging to the vertical through sheer guts, determination and bloody-mindedness. He has nothing to prove and yet he cannot resist one more challenge.

“Look, I want to race again, especially with Leo – maybe Greg as well – but it’s going to be a commercial decision,” he says, looking me straight in the eye. “Right now my heart says go for it. But my head says hold on, it’s a tough environment out there, there’s a recession, so who’s going to pay for it? We’re testing tyres with a great little team but it’s under-resourced, and to take on the big teams we would need some serious funding, some major development. You’re trying to get an answer – am I coming back to race? I’m telling you it’s not that simple. I’ve been impressed by Leo – surprised, even – and the car is great to drive. Coming out of the last corner onto that long straight, pulling almost 3g, and seeing over 300kph into the braking for the first corner, that brought back memories of my Grand Prix days here. But to tell you now that we’re coming back, that would be too early. There’s a lot of thinking to do.”

What was not in any doubt was the Mansell effect on the two days of the Dunlop test session. As the times came down, Nigel and Leo trading fastest times of the day, so people began to emerge from the woodwork. Rival teams tried to get a look at the telemetry screens, experienced sports car drivers wandered down the pitlane, pretending to take a casual interest. There was nothing too casual about the times. On the first day Nigel was almost a second ahead of the Le Mans Series regulars. Chamberlain Synergy is not a Dunlop-contracted team but the tyre company’s top man was paying close attention.

“It’s exciting, of course, and Mansell’s times are maybe not so surprising,” says Matthew Simpson, car development manager at Dunlop. “But it’s not an easy situation for me. He’s not with a contracted team, he’s here on his own, and clearly my priorities are with my regular teams. But yes, we’d like to give Nigel some tyres to go for a time before the two days are done. He’s already asking me what I can give him, what are the characteristics of the different tyres, what is the latest compound and what can he expect from it? He’s demanding, as you would anticipate from a World Champion. I’m not able to fulfil all his needs, but it’s what I would expect from him given his success. We’ve had the stopwatches on him and we’re impressed. Last time I looked, he was right there, and so is Leo who’s never driven this kind of car before. People are watching closely. In the future, this may be advantageous to us, but there is much to be discussed and decided before we get to that.”

Engine builder Mike Lancaster, whose AER V8 has been on the cusp of international success these past few years, has been watching the proceedings, eyes fixed on his laptops, with increasing interest. His motor, with its twin turbos and some clever electronics, now sits behind the shoulders of a man who’s had experience of some of the very best engines in recent Grand Prix history.

“Yes, it’s exciting to have the views of a World Champion,” says Lancaster. “We’ve had some success but there have always been financial constraints and the feedback from these two days can only help. There’s no doubt that Nigel will make demands that perhaps we have not experienced before and already he’s telling us how he wants the power delivered, where he wants traction control, where he doesn’t want it, and how he wants the car to respond.”

Nigel and Leo, 23, are wringing every last tenth from the Lola-AER, keeping the team on its toes and demanding a whole new level of performance from a squad that has been used to drivers who are, shall we say, more easily pleased. There is much family banter, and Greg – suffering still from a huge impact with a concrete wall at Mont Tremblant the previous weekend – watches from the sidelines.

“Another few tenths and you’ll beat the old man,” grins the 20-year-old as he and Leo watch the live telemetry from Nigel’s laps. “Look at that, you’re quicker there than him, but he’s faster into the next one. Let’s look at the on-board, see how much kerb he’s taking.” And so it goes on, the brothers relishing this rivalry, respecting the big man but desperate to get one over him as well. They exchange winks and smiles as a particularly rich and pithy comment comes over the radio. Nigel is constantly delivering his views from the cockpit. In the pitlane the team is hard-wired, poised to change the tyres, re-set the engine mapping, or respond to any other command that may come from their driver on his first ever acquaintance with a sports car. The mechanics are loving the adrenaline. Steve, known as ‘grubspeed’ on account of the brake dust and oil that covers his hands and face, never saw Mansell in his heyday. But he’s working flat out for him now. He looks as though he has emerged from the pits, and I don’t mean the ones that receive and service racing cars. The whole team is galvanised, they’re the fastest in the place. Mansell Sr is calling the shots, as he likes to do, but nobody is complaining despite the heat of Estoril.

Team owner Bob Berridge looks like the cat with the cream, and the treats, and the warmest bed to sleep on. He came to know Nigel through the ill-fated Grand Prix Masters series where he was race operations manager and has kept in touch. “He’s hugely knowledgeable, he’s an engineer,” says Berridge. “People think it’s all balls and bravery with Nigel but that’s not the case. He’s very smart, he understands how it all works, and he’s been through the mill. He’s often been called a whinger but I’ve never seen it. What he’s doing is trying to get himself in the best position, like a shepherd getting his flock to go in the same direction. Yes, he nips your heels every now and then, but he’s just getting people around him to produce the best result. And he delivers results. He’s here because he loves motor racing, with all its trials and tribulations, and now he has an opportunity to race again with his sons. They want to do it much more than he wants them to so yes, maybe he will come back, and already he’s quicker than guys who have been doing this for five years or more. I saw it in Grand Prix Masters – he’s just harder and faster, a real racer, and he can’t leave it alone.”

On the second, and final, day of the Dunlop test it is clear that Leo may have found what his father used to call his “comfort zone” in these big, heavy and powerful sports cars. Hitherto he hasn’t been anywhere near 650bhp, he’s never seen Estoril and his only racing experience has been with single-seaters. But he is immediately on the pace, less than a second shy of his father. Brother Greg stole the lion’s share of the plaudits during their time in British Formula 3 but the older, taller of the Mansell sons is fighting back.

“Sure, I’ve learnt a lot,” he smiles, “and there’s a hell of a lot more power than I’m used to. Where we go from here is up in the air. Obviously we’re interested or we wouldn’t be here and it’s great for me to get the experience. Where this leads, we’ll have to see, and it would be great for us all to race together. But there’s a lot of water still to go under the bridge and we’ll just have to see if the right opportunity comes along. The car is much more exciting to drive than I thought it would be – it’s big, it’s heavy, but it’s nimble and I’m learning a lot about how to get the best from it.”

As the test comes to a close Nigel is in a huddle with the men in the yellow Dunlop shirts. He wants some new tyres, he wants to go home with his name at the top of the timesheets. The man they used to call Il Leone is pacing around the paddock like a lion in a cage. Make no mistake, this is not a fun day out with the family, this is Mansell on another mission.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he says, tantalisingly, gently prodding my chest, “I want to show them what we can do and I want the fastest time. They’ve had the best of the tyres over the last two days (they being the Dunlop teams from the Le Mans Series) and in the last couple of hours I’m psyching myself up for a real go. I’ve asked for three sets of the new rubber and we’ll see what we can do.”

As the sun goes down, and the track begins to cool, out he goes. The times come down with every lap. Suddenly there are yellow shirts everywhere, Le Mans Series regulars go to the pitwall, while Berridge and Hugh Chamberlain pull on their headsets, all eyes fixed on the telemetry. The Lola is in for more tyres, a 1min 28.00sec on the board.

In again, another set, out again and he’s on course for a 1min 27.20sec – until a glitch in the paddleshift leads him to miss a gear. He steps out and hands the car to Leo with 10 minutes of the session left. At first he can’t find the groove but, as the marshals prepare to pack up for the day, Leo bangs in a 1min 27.94sec – leaving the Mansells as top dogs at the end of the two-day test!

There is much cheering and shaking hands, a delighted Nigel hugs Leo, wants to know where he found the time. They watch it back on the on-board video like two kids with a new toy.

“Yes, I’m happy,” says a slightly breathless Nigel. “And I tell you, I’ll be aching all over tomorrow. People have said I’m over the hill but I think I’ve shut them up today. My greatest pleasure is how well Leo has gone so we’ll have to see what happens. Anything’s possible.”

As is customary on these occasions great secrecy surrounds exactly who did what and on which tyre it was achieved. But what is not in doubt is that Mansell is back, a prospect that promises plenty more drama. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he is headline news. As the clan flew home to Jersey on their private jet, Captain Mansell at the controls, there will have been much to discuss. The man can’t help himself, can’t resist one more flourish. Stand by for fireworks. They don’t do damp squibs.