Nigel Mansell was a raw, aggressive racer who divided opinion like few others during his decade and a half at the top. His daring brilliance in overtaking team-mate Nelson Piquet to win the 1987 British Grand Prix and the pass around the outside of Gerhard Berger three years later in Mexico are the stuff of legend. From the heartbreaking puncture that denied title success in 1986 to the “Mansell Mania” that greeted his ultimately successful 1992 campaign, Mansell captivated the British general public like few before him or since. In contrast, the perceived need for constant drama and heroic deeds at every juncture and an at times grating personality engendered antipathy from the specialist press and his peers alike. That said, his was a story of bravery, resilience and eventual triumph.
Formula Ford success and stuttering F3 career
Born in England’s Midlands during 1953 with a father who was an engineer, reports suggest that the drama that would punctuate Mansell’s career began from the very outset for he rolled on the warm up lap before his first kart race. He went against parental wishes to make his Formula Ford 1600 at Mallory Park in 1976.
Early success in his limited outings with a Hawke DL11 that year attracted the attention of Alan McKechnie Racing and Mansell began the 1977 FF1600 season driving a quick but unreliable Javelin JL5. His suspension failed at Oulton Park in May and Mansell worked all night to ready a four year old Crosslé 25F for the following day’s Thruxton meeting. That proved worthwhile for he pulled away to score his breakthrough British FF1600 victory that day, success that led to the loan of a works Crosslé 32F for the rest of the season. He rebounded from neck injuries suffered in practice at Brands Hatch to win another five times and edge South African Trevor van Rooyen to the 1977 Brush Fusegear/BRDC FF1600 title. Keen to showcase his talents at a higher level, Mansell then raced a Lola T570-Toyota in four end-of-season Formula 3 races – finishing an impressive fourth on debut at Silverstone.
Without an F3 budget for 1978, Mansell starred when he eventually joined the field at Silverstone in what was the third British Championship race of the season. He qualified a works March 783-Toyota on pole position and finished second after storming through the field after spinning in treacherous conditions. On the front row a week later at Thruxton, he finished fourth at Donington in the last of four starts before his meagre funds ran out. His only other outing in 1978 was driving an ICI Chevron B42-Hart in Donington’s Formula 2 meeting when chosen by a panel of journalists as Tom Wheatcroft’s British Drivers’ Award winner. Unfortunately Mansell was unable to reproduce testing times when it mattered and he failed to qualify.
Following that truncated campaign, Mansell was happy to join the Dave Price-run Unipart Racing Team for the 1979 British F3 Championship. Unfortunately, its Triumph Dolomite engines remained no match for the prevalent Toyota units. Despite that, he led team-mate Brett Riley in a rare 1-2 for the team at Silverstone in March; Mansell inheriting victory after winner on-the-road Andrea de Cesaris was penalised for missing the Woodcote chicane. Also second at Thruxton during those early rounds, Mansell was sidelined after crashing into de Cesaris at Oulton Park – crushing vertebrae under his rolled March-Triumph.
Formula 1 with Lotus – promise and disappointment
Just five weeks after that Oulton Park accident and still in pain from his injuries, Mansell tested an F1 Lotus 79-Ford at Paul Ricard in October 1979. He impressed sufficiently for Colin Chapman to sign him as test driver for the 1980 season. That programme included Mansell’s first three GP opportunities driving a third Lotus 81B-Ford. Inevitably perhaps, his debut in the Austrian GP came complete with stories of the discomfort suffered during a race spent sitting in petrol that had leaked into the cockpit. He retired there and in Holland but failed to qualify in Italy. In addition to his F1 duties, Mansell helped develop the new F2 Ralt-Honda that year and four races included qualifying and finishing second in the season finale at Hockenheim.
Mansell joined Lotus as fulltime replacement for Mario Andretti in 1981 although Chapman and the team were distracted by the controversial dual-chassis type 88 that year. The young Englishman impressed nonetheless – finishing an impressive third in Belgium to score his first championship points and qualifying the new Lotus 87 in that position at Monaco. He ended the season by finishing fourth in Las Vegas and completed his first full F1 campaign 14th in the points.
The first half of Mansell’s 1982 campaign included inheriting third place in Brazil after the top two had been disqualified and finishing fourth in the chaotic Monaco GP. He then broke his left wrist when his Lotus 91-Ford collided with Bruno Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo in Canada. That forced him to miss the Dutch GP and left him managing the pain thereafter. He did not score a point for the rest of the season and that must have been made even more frustrating when team-mate Elio de Angelis scored a surprise victory in Austria.
The Lotus team was dealt a tragic blow in December 1982 for Chapman suffered a fatal heart attack and Mansell had lost his mentor. There was good news on the engine front however for Renault agreed to supply its turbocharged engines to the team from 1983. However, with only enough units for one car initially, Mansell began the year man-handling the cumbersome Lotus 92-Ford with little reward. That said, his never give up attitude endeared him to his mechanics, especially when contrasted to de Angelis’ apparent lack of motivation in the equally recalcitrant Renault-powered car. The team hired designer Gérard Ducarouge to rejuvenate its fortunes and his hastily built Lotus 94T-Renault was ready for the British GP, Mansell enjoying turbo power for the first time. Fourth that day, Mansell was fifth in Austria and third in the European GP at Brands Hatch to salvage something from 1983.
With the new Lotus 95T-Renault impressive in pre-season testing, much was expected of Mansell in 1984 but his campaign began with four DNFs in-a-row. Third in the French GP at Dijon-Prenois immediately after the death of his mother, Mansell then qualified on the front row in Monaco – his best F1 grid position to date. The race was run in torrential rain and gave Mansell his best chance of victory to date. He took the lead on lap 11 and had the race in his grasp when he crashed out five laps later. Mansell qualified on pole position for the first time in Dallas and led the opening exchanges. Run in searing Texan heat, he was running fifth when his gearbox broke in the closing laps – Mansell pushing his car across the finishing line before collapsing in exhaustion. Typical Mansell drama. Third in the Dutch GP, Mansell was ninth in the overall standings in what was his fourth and final full season with Lotus.
Grand Prix winner and title contender with Williams-Honda
With his career at a critical stage, Mansell joined Williams-Honda for 1985 in a move that turned a promising if unproven driver into a title contender. Unfazed by the renowned qualifying prowess of team-mate Keke Rosberg (only “losing” that battle 7-9), Mansell was on pole position for the final European race of the year at Brands Hatch. With confidence already buoyed by finishing second at Spa-Francorchamps, the Englishman scored back-to-back victories at Brands and in South Africa – a winner at last after 71 unsuccessful attempts and sixth in the final standings.
Rosberg moved on at the end of the season and Mansell had double world champion Nelson Piquet for a team-mate in 1986. Williams-Honda had won the last three races of 1985 and so the Brazilian entered the new season as title favourite with Mansell not expected to mount a season-long challenge. Those predictions proved wide of the mark as “Red Five” won four races in five during a mid-season flurry and added the Portuguese GP to establish a commanding lead in the points with just two races to go. However, a poor start in Mexico and spectacular puncture when poised to clinch the title in Adelaide left Mansell as a frustrated runner-up behind McLaren’s Alain Prost. Those performances resonated with the British public however for he was named as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 1986.
Mansell continued to eclipse Piquet during 1987 although it would be his team-mate (and now bitter rival) who eventually prevailed in the standings. That was not due to outright speed however for Mansell won six times (to Piquet’s three) and out qualified his rival 10-6. The highlight came at Silverstone where Mansell fought back from a late pitstop to pass Piquet with a brilliant move into Stowe. Eight pole positions confirmed his outright pace but Mansell crashed into Ayrton Senna’s Lotus-Honda when the class-of-the-field at Spa-Francorchamps and lost crucial races to Piquet in Germany and Hungary through mechanical failures. In need of victory in the Japanese GP to maintain his title challenge, Mansell crashed heavily during qualifying and was forced to miss the last two races through injury. The more consistent Piquet was world champion for a third time with Mansell runner-up for a successive season.
Honda decided not to supply engines to Williams during 1988 despite having spent the previous two seasons as the fastest combination in F1. Mansell’s normally aspirated Williams FW12-Judd was no match for its turbocharged rivals that year, most notably McLaren-Honda who won all-but one race during a dominant campaign. The Englishman started the Brazilian and Hungarian GPs from the front row and finished second at Silverstone (in the rain) and Jerez on the only two occasions his car made the chequered flag.
“Il Leone” joins Ferrari
In need of competitive machinery and rewarded with a handsome salary, Mansell joined Ferrari in 1989 to drive the innovative John Barnard-designed Ferrari 640. Mansell scored a famous win on debut in Brazil and his victory in Hungary was perhaps the finest of his career – coming from 12th on the grid on a circuit where overtaking was previously near to impossible. In contrast to those successes, the car suffered initial teething problems and Mansell earned a one-race ban for crashing into Senna during the Portuguese GP after ignoring black flags for reversing in the pitlane. That said, he finished a promising first season with Ferrari in fourth overall.
Loved by the Tifosi and Italian press alike for his heroics behind the wheel and unwavering commitment, Mansell failed to deliver the title challenge he had expected in 1990. He was overshadowed by new team-mate Alain Prost and mechanical failures further soured his mood. When he suffered gearbox failure while leading the British GP, Mansell threw his gloves into “his” adoring crowd and emotionally announced that he would retire at the end of the season. He qualified on pole position in Portugal – his third of the season – and nearly collided with Prost at the start as he refused to help the Frenchman’s title challenge. Mansell eventually won that day and their post-race expressions reflected the strain within the team. Little more than a week later, Mansell reversed his decision to quit and announced that he was returning to Williams for 1991.
Williams part two – World Champion at last
The Williams FW14-Renault was the fastest car on the F1 grid car in 1991 but early points were lost while sorting its electronics and gearbox. Mansell lost the Canadian GP when his engine mysteriously lost power as he exited the final corner before dominating in France, Britain and Germany. Further victories in Italy and Spain (having gone wheel-to-wheel with Senna) were not enough to close the gap and was championship runner-up for a third time.
With its systems now fully sorted, the Williams FW14B-Renault proved unbeatable in 1992, especially in Mansell’s hands. He set new season records for largest championship winning margin (52 points ahead of team-mate Riccardo Patrese), most wins (nine), most wins at the start of a season (five), most points (108), most pole positions (14) and most fastest laps (eight) as he clinched the title with five races to spare. Even at the point of his greatest triumph, the Mansell story refused to be straightforward. Rather than accept Prost as his team-mate in 1993, Mansell sensationally quit F1 for the Champ Car World Series at the end of the season. If Mansell thought that his achievements were underappreciated by the specialist press then the British public had their say. He was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year for the second time – a feat only previously achieved by boxer Henry Cooper.
Champion in America for Newman-Haas Racing
Mansell’s unprecedented move to America in 1993 was as Mario Andretti’s team-mate in Paul Newman and Carl Haas’s Lola-Ford line-up. With every move scrutinised by an international press corps, he won his debut at Surfers Paradise before injuring his back in a fiery crash while preparing for his oval racing debut at Phoenix. That setback aside, Mansell took to oval racing with remarkable success. He was third at Indianapolis (only losing the race to Emerson Fittipaldi on the final restart) and won all four remaining oval races to clinch the Champ Car title at the first attempt. 63,000 spectators were attracted to Donington Park that November to see Mansell make his touring car debut in the non-championship TOCA Shoot-Out. His Ford Mondeo was punted out of the race in a spectacular high-speed accident.
Mansell endured a disappointing Champ Car title defense in 1994 as Newman-Haas Racing proved no match for the dominant Penske team. Pole position for the opening race in Australia (one of three that year) was followed by Mansell finishing third at Phoenix and second on the streets of Long Beach. Hopes of victory at Indianapolis were dashed during a full course yellow when backmarker Dennis Vitolo crashed into him in the pits. Second at Cleveland was Mansell’s only other podium finish of an increasingly disinterested campaign.
Mansell’s Formula 1 swansong with Williams and McLaren
With the team still reeling from the death of Ayrton Senna earlier that year, Mansell rejoined Williams-Renault for what was meant to be a one-off at Magny-Cours. He then started the last three GPs of 1994 and converted pole position into a 31st F1 victory in the Australian finale.
Despite that, Williams opted for the youthful promise of David Coulthard so Mansell joined McLaren-Mercedes for the 1995 World Championship. It proved to be an unsatisfactory final chapter in his long and largely successful F1 career however. He struggled to fit into the McLaren MP4/10-Mercedes and walked away from both team and sport after two underwhelming races.
Life after Formula 1
Mansell made a much-hyped return to British touring cars in 1998 and won races in the short-lived Grand Prix Masters for retired drivers in 2005 and 2006. Hs sons Greg and Leo shared a Beechdean Mansell Motorsport LMP1 Ginetta-Zytek GZ09S in the 2010 Le Mans Series and their father joined them for the 24 Hours itself. Unfortunately, the former world champion suffered a slow puncture early in the race and crashed out after just four laps.