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Nigel Mansell: The Champion Who Waited

Written by Lewis Rundle, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Mansell in all his glory; Image credit - Mike Hewitt

Nigel Mansell’s story is one to never be forgotten in history, and he is potentially one of the most overlooked champions. Competing in an era populated with heroes; Senna, Prost, Piquet, and Lauda, to name just a few, Nigel Mansell would need to beat the very best if he was to become immortalised in motorsport lore. How would he manage this? On his 70th birthday, let's reflect on the tumultuous tale that eventually led to championship success, and a spot in motorsport's hall of fame.

It was never going to be an easy path to motorsport’s pinnacle for Nigel. Hailing from Hall Green, Birmingham, and son of tea shop owners Eric and Joyce, money was not a resource readily available to the young racer.

His father coerced him into continuing his studies, by promising to support his racing career on the condition that he passed his engineering exams; however upon graduating, Nigel became despondent when this commitment fell through.

Against the wishes of his father, he used his and his wife’s money to finance his motorsport career in the Formula Ford 1600 series. In 1976, he won six of the nine races, and in 1977, won 33 out of 42 entries on his way to becoming champion.

This year could’ve been remembered as the end of Mansell’s career, rather than the beginning, as he suffered a catastrophic crash during a qualifying session at Brands Hatch, breaking his neck. Doctors made it clear to him how close he had come to becoming a quadriplegic, and never being able to race again. Despite this, he discharged himself from hospital, and got behind the wheel once again.

The origin of his grand prix career very much set the tone for what was to come. In 1979, during a Formula 3 race, Mansell was again involved in a massive accident, this time breaking his back and crushing his lower vertebrae. Whilst recovering, he was offered a test drive for the famous Lotus outfit at Paul Ricard. Despite being advised against accepting the offer by his doctors, Nigel flew to France, and began the biggest step of his F1 career.

At the start of the test, Nigel was overwhelmed: “I’d never driven a Formula One car before, I had no experience, no knowledge…there was no time to think”. This inexperience was reflected in his initial lap times - he was six seconds off the pace. “I was dejected," Mansell reminisced. In a call with his wife Roseanna, Nigel told her he thought he’d made a terrible mistake. After a break he stepped back into the car, but this time found everything had become clearer, slower and more controlled. “It was like I’d been hit in the head by a rock - I went back out and the next lap I was six seconds a lap faster”. Following a successful test at Silverstone, Colin Chapman - the boss at Lotus, was impressed by Mansell's potential - and offered him a race seat for 1980 .

On his grand prix debut at Austria, a fuel leak in the cockpit left Nigel with second degree burns. It was a dramatic and emblematic start to Nigel’s Formula One career. Despite his dedication and courage, the media attacked Mansell for being fast-tracked into Formula 1 from Formula 3. The press targeted his background as a working-class engineer from Birmingham. “With a name like mine, I’d never make it in F1. The name was terrible. I was terrible,” Mansell remembers being told during his first races.

In 1981, Mansell became a full-time driver, replacing the vacating Mario Andretti. It was a largely successful first season, which saw the Briton secure his first podium at Belgium. However, he suffered a string of retirements towards the end of the season.

Unfortunately, he was outclassed by his teammate, Elio de Angelis, for much of their time as teammates, putting his seat at risk. However his closeness to team boss Chapman meant he was able to secure a deal that would last until the end of 1984. Tragically, in 1982, Colin Chapman passed away from a heart attack. This devastated Nigel. “There’s no words, even after all these years, to describe the feelings. The direction in my life was lost. It was the most shocking time in my life… I felt like I lost my father.”

Colin Chapman (left) with Nigel at the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix. Credit - Motorsport Images

Following Chapman’s death, a change of regime promoted Peter Warr to the top job. Warr didn’t share his predecessor’s fondness for Nigel, leading to a rapid deterioration in the partnership. Warr publicly attacked Mansell’s ability; “As long as I have a hole in my arse, he will never win a grand prix,” he said of the 31 year old Briton. After a mistake whilst leading the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix put Mansell into the barrier, he was criticised heavily in the media, as he was still without a win despite a number of opportunities.

Mansell puts his Lotus 95T into the barrier at Massenet, 1984.

Two races later in Dallas, Mansell’s character came to the fore, despite the negative aura following him. Having started from pole, and led over half the race, his car suffered a gearbox failure on the final lap. In an attempt to salvage championship points from the catastrophe, Mansell pushed both himself and the car to the finish line. He claimed sixth with his efforts, but was beyond exhausted, and collapsed next to the car.

1984 Dallas Grand Prix. Nigel Mansell fainted alongside his JPS-addorned 95T.

Disgruntled by Lotus’s new leadership, and out of contract, Mansell found refuge at Williams for 1985. Still regarded as unproven, his move was mocked, and teammate Keke Rosberg, already a world champion, believed him to be a weak signing.

Thankfully for Nigel, a remarkable pitlane to P5 drive at a washed out Estoril in the second race of the season dispensed these preconceived beliefs.

At the European Grand Prix of 1985, after a hard fought battle with Senna and Rosberg, Mansell claimed his first race victory, on his 72nd attempt, in front of the home crowd at Brands Hatch. Not happy with just one win, Nigel followed up with a second victory in as many races at the South African Grand Prix. You know what they say about London buses.

Building on his momentum from 1985, Mansell launched his first championship challenge in 1986. Nelson Piquet, who had taken the number one position in the team following Rosberg’s exit, joined the Williams outfit, ensuring a turbulent partnership would unfold. A dramatic title fight would develop that year between the McLaren drivers Prost and Senna, and the Williams duo. Mansell’s challenge was slow to start, but a run of four wins in five races pushed him to the top of the championship.

At Estoril, with three races to go, Mansell sat on 61 points, Piquet on 56, Prost with 53 and Senna on 48. It was here where Bernie Ecclestone made the four pose for the infamous “Gang of Four” photo, placing the drivers, and this season, into legend status.

At the season finale, everything was looking good for Nigel’s first championship, and Britain’s first in ten years. There was huge national expectation behind the Williams driver. All he needed was a top three finish to clinch the title; it felt guaranteed.

He had just moved into the necessary position when, with 19 laps to go, his rear left tire exploded dramatically. Unable to drive, he limped off onto an escape road. His championship charge became as deflated as the tyre that had cost him his dream. Fearing the same would happen to Piquet, Williams pitted the Brazilian, and the championship was handed to Prost. Nigel would finish the year as runner up - just two points shy. Had he been cursed by the motorsport gods? It sure felt like it. “I couldn’t breathe. To come that close, and to know you may never, ever, ever, smell it or touch it, or taste it, ever again. How do you live with that for the rest of your life?”

1986 Australian Grand Prix. The moment Nigel’s tyre detonated, along with his championship. Image credit - Formula One

Nigel didn’t have to wait long to have another chance at a title, as Williams and Honda developed an incredible car for the 1987 season. The championship pushed Nigel and Nelson’s relationship to the brink, their rivalry intensified by derogatory comments made by Piquet against Nigel and his wife. Heading into the penultimate race of the season at Suzuka, Piquet led by twelve points, requiring Nigel to put in a standout performance to keep the title alive.

During qualifying, Nigel pushed too hard through the fast sweeping snake section and caught the grass during his turn-in. This hurtled his FW11B into the barrier with tremendous speed, launching it into the air on impact. The force of the landing compressed Nigel’s spine, hospitalising him. Unable to compete, the championship once again disappeared. A smug Piquet called his victory “a win of intelligence over stupidity”. Nigel was lucky to still be able to walk, let alone race.

1987 Japanese Grand Prix. An injured Nigel is tended to by marshals.

Following back-to-back championship challenges, Mansell’s career entered a wilderness period. Having lost the Honda contract for 1988, Williams were pushed to use the uncompetitive Judd engines and their performance plummeted. McLaren, who picked up the Honda contract, went on to win 15 of the 16 races that season. Another huge what-if for Nigel. Would he ever get another shot in a hyper-competitive car? He didn’t believe Williams could offer that to him, and he moved to Ferrari in 1989, as Enzo’s final driver signing.

Despite becoming ‘Il Lione’ in the eyes of the Tifosi, his Ferrari years proved unfruitful despite two wins in his first year in red, and another in 1990. Ferrari had signed Prost for 1990, and this caused political tension between the drivers and the team. Mansell believed that Prost was being favoured, due to his multiple championships and Italian fluency. After being scuppered by Ferrari ahead of the British Grand Prix, and then failing to finish the race, Nigel announced his retirement from Formula One at the end of 1990 - leaving the sport despondent and championship-less.

His former employer, Frank Williams, disagreed with Mansell’s retirement plans, and offered him a drive for 1991.

Despite Nigel setting out a number of hard-to-reach contractual obligations, Williams re-signed Mansell for a staggering £4.6million per season. This made him the highest paid British sportsman at the time. The season started poorly with three consecutive DNFs, and four wins in as many races for William’s main rival Aryton Senna in the McLaren. This was largely due to a developmental gearbox which, whilst offering higher peak performance, was frustratingly unreliable.

However, Williams found their form at Monaco with a second place. Mansell would’ve dominated the following grand prix in Canada had he not stalled the car on his final tour whilst waving to fans. He had a minute in hand at the time of his error. Classified sixth, he did at least take points out of a retired Senna, but it could’ve been so much more. After round 5, Nigel had just 7 points to Aryton’s 40. And with Aryton 24 points ahead (in modern terms, that would be 65 points) of his nearest rival Piquet, it seemed inevitable that he would be crowned champion.

Despite Nigel’s best efforts, including a sensational home win at Silverstone, and a determined victory in Spain, he was unable to overhaul the points lost in the early part of the season and finished 24 points behind the champion. It was his third runner-up trophy, and Senna’s third championship. The top prize would still elude Mansell. “It was overdue. I was overdue. The fans were overdue. Come on, let’s get it done,” Mansell says about the end of ‘91. But the potential was there, and it was time to convert.

1991 British Grand Prix. A benevolent Nigel rescues a broken-down Senna during the parade lap. A cunning Aryton reads the data from Mansell’s dashboard.

After years of missed opportunities, life-threatening crashes, and toxic team dynamics, Nigel’s patience was rewarded by the production of F1’s greatest car.

The FW14B used in 1992 was, and remains, the most technologically advanced car Formula One has ever seen. Equipped with traction control and active suspension, an upgraded semi-automatic gearbox, and a collection of Newey-designed aerodynamic improvements, the car proved to be a rocketship. In most races it could pull two seconds a lap over its rivals in the early stages, and was able to be guided to comfortable victories by its pilots.

Importantly for Nigel, the aero changes rewarded his aggressive and physical driving style, pushing it further into his domain. This newfound synchronicity led to the most dominant display in Formula One history. Nigel took pole in 14 of the 16 races that season, some with mind-boggling advantages over his rivals. In Silverstone, at the height of ‘Mansell Mania’, he took pole over his teammate by over a second, and was three seconds faster than Senna. THREE SECONDS. That sort of margin is unimaginable, let alone when it’s against one of the greatest drivers on the planet.

Mansell won the first five races of the season, and never finished a race lower than second. His total dominance of the 1992 season meant he was crowned the earliest anyone had ever been at that time, with six races still yet to be raced.

He also broke several records, with the most wins in a single season (9), highest percentage of poles in a season (88%), most wins from pole in a season (9), and most races before becoming champion (180). Many of these records have since been broken, mostly by Schumacher and Vettel, but it shows that the 1992 season was unprecedented. Nigel Mansell had driven a season better than any had ever managed before him.

Finally champion at the 1992 Hungarian Grand Prix. Credit - Motorsport Images

As is often the case in F1, sceptics claim that his championship was the result of a superior car, but it's clear to see that it was actually the result of man and machine fusing together to become something greater than their individual parts. A remarkable racer combined with a fantastic car will always return an outcome that exceeds what was previously imaginable. Even at 39, and with a broken foot, Mansell was the man who tamed the beast called the FW14B.

To cap it all off, Mansell decided to try Indycar the following year, and found out he wasn’t too bad at that either. He became the only person to win the Indycar championship whilst being the incumbent Formula One champion, and established himself as one of the world’s greatest drivers.

A true gentleman. An avid golfer. A dedicated racer. There’s plenty of ways to describe Nigel Mansell. But for me, he’s the personification of persistence. No matter the setback, he found a way to overcome it and bounce back - often against the better judgement of his doctors. His determination was absolute, and he is proof that patience and perseverance brings its own rewards.

Happy 70th, Red 5.

All quotes are from the Sky Documentary: Williams & Mansell: Red 5


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