Nigel Mansell: the lionheart
Nigel Mansell burst onto the Formula 1 scene like a tornado but there was one characteristic that defined him from the very beginning: he seemed out of place. The other drivers often looked like Latin lovers with the sort of swagger that made them a symbol of what motorsport should be all about. Nigel by contrast was an Englishman of the old school. He wasn't especially good-looking and his charisma was far from conventional. His trademark walrus moustache also made him look somewhat older than he really was.
When he first raced in Formula 1 in 1980, he was 27 years old: which at that time was entirely normal, unlike today when drivers start off as minors. Mansell made his debut in Lotus, having been spotted by the legendary Colin Chapman, who had identified something special about the young man from Birmingham. Chapman was a visionary and inventor more than just a designer: a true racing genius capable of seeing that Mansell had pure speed in his veins. What Mansell always loved most were the big fast corners: the places where rather than drive a car you almost have to ride the crest of a wave, while still somehow staying in control – as the consequences of going off are unimaginable. Mansell drove for Lotus for two races in 1980 and was then full-time with the British team until 1984. The results from his early years were five podiums, but 13 retirements from accidents or other off-road excursions. Nigel was a great explorer of the very limit, as everybody acknowledged.
But Frank Williams signed him because of his pure speed: starting off Mansell's first era of success. Even in the first year he drove for Williams (1985), Mansell took a step up. There were two wins: one at home at Brands Hatch and another in South Africa. There was also a pole position. as well as four other front row starts. Nigel had arrived in terms of speed but he was still a man out of place. His accent showed that he came from a different background to most drivers, with distinctive Birmingham tones. There was even a play on words around his surname in Italy: they called him ‘Mansueto' (roughly translated as ‘Mr Meek'), which – for a driver for whom winning is everything – is hardly ideal. Williams however was going from strength to strength, thanks also to its Honda turbo engine, and in 1986 Nelson Piquet joined the team, having already claimed two titles with Brabham. And internal war began between the two drivers. They started taking wins and points off each other at every race. Their rivalry was becoming more intense and increasingly difficult to manage, especially after a road accident put team boss Frank Williams into a wheelchair. And it all ended badly. At Adelaide in Australia, the last race of the year, Mansell was calmly controlling the grand prix with the championship in his sights when a tyre exploded at 270kph on the straight. Mansell retired and McLaren's Alain Prost became champion for the second consecutive year.
In 1987, Mansell went on the attack with no holds barred. By then, his nickname was ‘Il Leone': the lion. The title boiled down to a familiar battle with his team mate Piquet – until Mansell had a monstrous accident in Japan, the penultimate race of the season, and fractured a vertebra.
Mansell's racing career seemed to be over – at least according to the doctors. But the Englishman showed his usual iron will to come back: sticking up two fingers at conventional logic, as was his trademark. There was one more difficult year at Williams (which had by then lost its Honda engine supply) and then in 1989 ‘Il Leone' roared at Ferrari.
Mansell had already been contacted by Enzo Ferrari back in 1986, but the agreement was only sealed midway through 1988 – making Mansell the last driver to have been personally selected by the great Enzo, who died in August of that year. The start of the season again defied logic. Mansell made his Ferrari debut at Rio de Janeiro in 1989 and won against all expectations, beginning a second golden age. Ferrari's brand new automatic gearbox (a first for F1) miraculously held together to power Mansell to a momentous win. There would be one more Ferrari victory, in Hungary, when Mansell got underway from the seventh row on the grid and charged up the field to make an unforgettable move on Ayrton Senna, sealing an incredible win. Mansell was by then viewed as the Maradona of Maranello: surely title glory beckoned in 1990? But then Alain Prost arrived, whose political as well as technical ability managed to put the relatively guileless Mansell into the shade. The Englishman didn't like it, and at his home grand prix in July, he announced his shock retirement from the sport.
It wasn't to be, of course. By 1991 he was back at Williams, which had embarked on a new technical era with the brilliant normally-aspirated Renault engine. The package clicked: Mansell won five races and was second in the championship to Ayrton Senna, the only true contenders that year. After an unforgettable Monaco Grand Prix, Senna commented: “Mansell is the only driver who you see in both mirrors when he attacks you…”
Everything was now falling into place for Mansell's third era of glory – and he delivered exceptionally. At the start of 1992, he dominated the first five races. By Hungary in August, he was already world champion with five grands prix to spare. But with Mansell, there was always an element of drama too. In September, following a pay dispute, Frank Williams summarily sacked his new world champion. Mansell then headed over to the United States, where he dominated the Indycar championship with Paul Newman's team.
That marked the end of Mansell's reign, but not of his career. In 1994 Williams lost Senna, and replaced him with a succession of drivers, including Mansell – who did four races back with his old team and won the last one, in Australia. In 1995, he succumbed to McLaren's overtures, but it all unravelled after just two races. And that's where the saga finally ended.
Today, Mansell lives a life that's quite removed from Formula 1, although he occasionally turns up as an FIA driver steward: a role he takes on with typical seriousness. He's also well known as an amateur magician. The rest of the time, Mansell looks after his business interests in Britain and Florida, where he lives for a large part of the year. But he'll still always be “Il Leone”.