It is 21 years, I realise with some amazement, since I began covering Grand Prix racing for Autosport, and in that time I have come to know a good many heroes and the occasional villain. Occasionally a reader accuses me of bias, and I rarely offer a defence, being only too aware that I am insufficiently saintly always to keep my opinions of people unaffected by my personal experiences of them.
These opinions are not necessarily set in stone, however. Through most of Nigel Mansell’s career, for example, I thought him an odd individual (even in a world where odd people are not hard to find), and undeniably he always had a wincingly unfunny sense of humour, but most of the time he was affable enough, and none could deny that he was a hell of a racer.
When he took his Ferrari past Ayrton’s McLaren at the Hungaroring in 1989, with a move of brilliant opportunism, I cheered loudly.
To my mind, that Budapest victory stands as the greatest of his career, for not only did it involve overtaking Senna, but also came on a day when Mansell did not have the best car. And that season, remarkably, he was also at his most relaxed, with little of the hair-trigger tetchiness which became his later hallmark. On the face of it, Nigel’s going to Ferrari was like introducing nitro to glycerine, but instead he revelled in the glamour of Maranello, and in the way they kept his adoration quotient topped up.
The relationship with Ferrari went sour in Mansell’s second season with the team, when Alain Prost, previously the one man in motor racing for whom he had not a critical word, arrived. Paranoia about his team-mates, notably Prost and Nelson Piquet, both of whom, he darkly suggested, devoted every waking moment to undermining him, became wearisome, but it was only in the last couple of years of his F1 career that I, and others, actually came to dislike him.
Once back at Williams, in 1991 and particularly in 1992, Mansell had the fastest car, and as victory followed victory his self-esteem – always well-padded – became bloated. And the more he pushed his achievements in your face, the more your inclination was to remind the world that maybe Frank Williams and Patrick Head and Adrian Newey and Renault were playing a part in this, too. There was also, let it be said, the compulsion to offer some antidote to the sycophancy heaped on Mansell by the tabloids.
Not that you could altogether blame the tabloid journalists, mind you, for essentially they were at Montreal or Spa or wherever not to report the race as much as to write about Mansell and his latest controversy. Invariably they took a sympathetic line, because Nigel was always hyper-sensitive to criticism, and if they lost contact with him they also lost the sympathy of their editors.
At the end of 1992, unable to reach a new accommodation with Williams, Mansell went off to Indycar racing. Shortly before the start of the opening Grand Prix of ’93, at Kyalami, a colleague called for silence, said he had an announcement to make. “I’ve just realised,” he said, “that we’re about to have a race – and he can’t win it!” The press room broke into applause…
Mansell is an extreme case, however, and whatever one may think of the man he became, while he was around there was always something to talk about; no one was indifferent. Wherever he was in the world, he had fresh problems flown in daily; even when he won, he came across like Shylock selling wholesale.
“You make a star, you make a monster,” movie magnate Sam Spiegel once said, but in fact this is by no means an automatic process in racing, as anyone will attest who knew Fangio or Moss, Clark or Stewart. To be a god in a racing car is not necessarily to be a pain out of it, as I know from my own experience of such as Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Gerhard Berger, and so on.
Is this still a sport? I rather concur with Frank Williams’s assessment: “Yes it is, between the hours of two and four on a Sunday afternoon. All the rest of the time, frankly, it’s just commerce.” On the surface, at least, Grand Prix racing is infinitely more politically correct than it used to be, not in terms of detecting any paradox in the siting of a glitzy paddock within shouting distance of favelas, but in the sense of being careful what you say. By and large, today’s generation of drivers seem more afraid of speaking their minds than they are of Eau Rouge, which is why the presence of Jacques Villeneuve – a man clearly fearful of neither – is so refreshing.
In that regard, Formula 1 has changed out of sight in 20 years, primarily because there are more important people to offend these days. Even drivers without a win to their name own private jets in the late ‘90s, and you can get used to that sort of thing. Through the last 20 years, exposure of the sport has mushroomed, and sponsorship has kept pace; more than that, the arrival of the major manufacturers, as engine suppliers, has transformed the business.
It was easier, 20 years ago, to say what you thought. All right, if you were a team owner, you wanted to keep your sponsors sweet, and yes, if you were a driver, you wanted to keep your ride. Essentially, though, most Formula 1 teams were what Enzo Ferrari liked to patronise as ‘garagistes’. They designed a chassis, bought engines from Cosworth and gearboxes from Hewland, and they went racing. There was no dependence on a Renault or Honda or Ford, no fear of ruffling the feathers of a monolith.
There has been a trade-off, that’s all: more money, less fun. And lest I sound holier-than-thou, this extends throughout Formula 1, even into the press room. I might lament the fact that folk don’t come out with juicy quotes the way they used to, but neither, God knows, would I trade my living now for the one I had back then.
Twenty years ago, Grand Prix racing was a more fluid thing than it is today. By no means did every team go to every race, and constantly adjusting to different helmet colours helped to keep you alert: believe it or not, in 1977 no fewer than 61 drivers took to the track, at least in qualifying.
That was the season Riccardo Patrese first appeared in Formula 1, and my relationship with him was the very opposite of that with Mansell, in that we began badly, but eventually became good friends. I thought Riccardo arrogant when he was young, and one day, after receiving what I thought a rude response to an innocent question, I decided to bother him no more. We didn’t speak for close on 10 years, and I greatly regret that now, for when finally we had made our peace, we got along famously.
Patrese was Mansell’s favourite team-mate, for very good reasons. For one thing, he was usually – although not always – slower than Nigel, a quality any racing driver values above all in a team-mate, and for another, his ego – apparently so rampant in youth – was firmly under control, so that he was quite content for Mansell to commandeer the limelight.
For three seasons they worked together, bringing different strengths to the team. Undoubtedly, it was to Nigel that everyone looked for the banzai pole position lap, the opportunistic passing manoeuvre, the once-and-for all speed; when it came to testing at Silverstone on a cold December afternoon, though, Riccardo was the one who always made himself available, the man who loved to drive a racing car even when no crowd was present.
A team player, in short. Patrick Head, a man not easily impressed, was among Patrese’s keenest supporters, not only for his excellent technical feedback, but also because he was a pro in the best sense, who didn’t make waves, who simply got on with the job.
When he squarely beat Mansell in the Mexican Grand Prix of 1991, the British specialist press, never known for its chauvinism, did not disguise its delight.
And neither, it may be said, did a great many in the Williams pit.