|Watching Nigel Mansell drive a Formula 1 car was always dramatic. His daring overtaking manoeuvres, the way he manhandled some of the most brutal racing cars ever built or the histrionics and apparent persecution complex that accompanied much of his career (how much of the persecution complex was due to his moustache we’ll never know!).Mansell’s career coincided and is inextricably linked with both Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. He went toe-to-toe with these two and in so doing earned his own place in our list of Heroes.His exciting, fighting style won him enormous adulation from fans, but he had an awkward, complex, demanding personality that often made it difficult to work with him.Mansell achieved the vast majority of his success in two periods with the Williams team from 1985 – 1988, although the last year was disappointing with only a couple of second places, otherwise littered with retirements, resulting in his defection to Ferrari. His second stint at Williams from 1991 – 1992 was his best period, when he won the Formula 1 World Drivers Championship in 1992.|
|Frank Williams said of Mansell when he left for the second time: “Nigel is conceited, he’s arrogant and he’s brilliant,” adding: “We’ll miss him as a driver, but not as a bloke.”Whereas both Senna and Prost seemed preordained for F1 glory, Mansell had to convince many doubters along the way. Due to a lack of finance (isn’t that the problem for all of us?) he struggled in the junior formulae.But his determination was obvious from an early stage – he broke his neck in a crash in Formula Ford. Although the doctors told him that he was lucky not to be paralysed, he discharged himself from hospital and went back racing. In F1, too, his refusal to give up became apparent from the very beginning. During his grand prix debut with Lotus in Austria in 1980, a fuel leak into the cockpit gave him first and second degree burns, but he battled through the pain and stopped only when a mechanical problem forced him into retirement.Mansell had a close relationship with Lotus founder Colin Chapman, but after Chapman’s death in 1982 when Peter Warr, who stepped up from being Chapman’s right-hand man to run the team, Mansell found life at the team more of a struggle. Warr and Mansell did not get on. Warr wrote in his autobiography “throughout his time with the team Mansell made it clear that he felt the whole world was against him”. It did not help Mansell’s case that in many instances his demeanour and behaviour did nothing to convince the team that anything they did would help change his attitude. Mansell seemed to constantly think the world was against him – most probably due to the struggles he’d had when coming up through the junior ranks against those who were better financed.Warr was especially critical when Mansell made mistakes – the most high-profile of which during the Lotus years was in Monaco in 1984. Mansell crashed on the way up the hill after having taken the lead from the McLaren of eventual winner Alain Prost in the pouring rain. Mansell blamed the white lines painted on the road for his error.During his years at Lotus Mansell was beaten more often than not by team-mate Elio de Angelis, a talented driver from a wealthy Roman background, who had a very different personality from that of Mansell. When Lotus replaced Mansell with Ayrton Senna in 1985, Mansell was provided a lifeline by Williams.Williams took on Mansell expecting him to be a decent number two to Keke Rosberg and, for much of the year, the Finn outshone him. But Mansell came good at the end of the season – aided by engine supplier Honda shifting their main efforts from the Finn to the Englishman – and took two dominant wins. Even so, Mansell was expected to play second fiddle to his new team-mate, the double world champion Nelson Piquet, in 1986.However, Mansell was usually quicker from the ouset and tensions soon mounted between the two men as they battled for the title in the fastest car in the field. Their relationship quickly degenerated into one of mutual distrust and loathing, and Williams’s refusal to impose team orders eventually led to both of them missing out on the title to Prost. Mansell’s hopes were famously dashed when a rear tyre exploded in the final race of the season.The Williams FW11B was the dominant car of 1987. Mansell’s team mate Piquet won three races to Mansell’s seven – one of which was a thrilling fightback and pass of Piquet at Silverstone. But Piquet ended the year as champion, Mansell suffering from worse reliability and some costly mistakes. 1988 was a frustrating year, the normally aspirated Williams racing against the turbo-charged McLarens.
In 1989 Mansell moved to Ferrari and immediately scored one of his most memorable victories. The car had F1′s first semi-automatic gearbox and it was unreliable throughout pre-season testing and in practice before the opening race of the season. Mansell was so convinced that he would not finish, that he booked himself on an early flight home – which he then missed. The car not only lasted, it won! It earned Mansell immediate adoration from Ferrari’s famous fans, the tifosi, who christened him ‘Il Leone’ (The Lion) for his fighting spirit. There was another sensational win that year in Hungary, when he fought from 12th on the grid and made an opportunistic pass on Senna’s McLaren to take the lead. But Mansell’s relationship with Ferrari soured in 1990 when Prost joined the team to get away from Senna at McLaren. Prost outscored Mansell by five wins to one and Mansell became frustrated and suspicious that Prost was getting better service from Ferrari than he was. After his car broke down in the British Grand Prix, he threw his gloves to the crowd and announced that he was retiring. However he soon entered into negotiations with Williams for the following year.
The Williams FW14 was the fastest car in 1991, but had reliability problems with its new semi-automatic gearbox. Mansell lost ground to Senna at the start of the year as Williams sorted it’s problems out. The following year, though, was a different story. The FW14B was one of the most dominant cars in F1 history. Fitted with active suspension it was the class of the field. Mansell took nine wins and 14 pole positions to secure the title. Mansell being Mansell, though, there were problems over his negotiations with the team over a new contract for 1993. The sticking point apparently, was the number of hotel rooms to be provided, but it is more likely that the prospect of having Prost team-mate again might have had more to do with it.
Mansell turned his back on F1 in 1993 to race in IndyCars – and won the title in his first season. He was a magnificent and exhilarating driver, maybe a flawed character, but a great Champion for all that, well loved by his British fans.
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