A look back at the 1991 Canadian GP
...the year when Nigel Mansell just couldn't help himself
By Mike Wise
Last Updated: 04/06/15 6:04pm
Looking back, Nigel Mansell was a sort of Lewis Hamilton for the Thatcher years: British world champions able to reach the parts of a fan’s psyche other drivers couldn’t, and cannot. Both swashbucklers, one divided opinion as sharply as a cutlass - and the other continues to do so.
And both knew (or know) how to play the crowd. Lewis was at it again the other weekend, after he and Mercedes conspired to throw away the Monaco GP. For all his stoical talk afterwards of “winning and losing as a team” the look on Lewis’s face said it all. Sitting forlornly in front of the royal box as Martin Brundle interviewed race winner Nico Rosberg, Hamilton, who’d started the week turning up to work in a speedboat with a new £100m contract in his back pocket, ended it looking like someone who’d just missed the last bus home on a wet Wednesday night.
Moments earlier, he’d indicated his dismay by knocking over a board indicating where the third-place finisher should park his car – which some thought he was going to do a few moments earlier at Portier corner, where his hero Ayrton Senna threw it all away in 1988. It was another gesture that conveyed far more than words.
In my mind, Mansell’s theatrics were akin to those of James Brown. The climax to the late Godfather of Soul’s act would see him led, slumped, shaking and drenched in sweat, off stage, such was the effort he’d expended. One of his entourage would also throw a coat over Brown’s sagging shoulders. But then, just as he reached the wings, he’d throw the coat off, turn on his cuban heels and hot-foot it back out there. Lo and behold! His spirit had been renewed; he just couldn’t let his fans down.
This isn’t to suggest that Mansell’s collapse as he tried to push his Lotus across the finishing line in 100-degree heat in Dallas in 1984 was in any way contrived. But there were examples galore of grandstanding. One that immediately springs to mind was at – where else? – Silverstone in 1990, when Mansell retired from the British GP, tossed his gloves to the adoring throng and promptly announced his retirement. Of course, it turned out to be complete hokum - more the case that Alain Prost had recently joined Ferrari and was now getting the better of ‘Il Leone’ – but that made it even better. One wonders whether it’s moments like these Bernie Ecclestone thinks of when he says that Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel (but not Hamilton) are bad for business.
Mansell instead re-joined Williams, where he and the team rediscovered their collective mojo, winning the 1992 title with nine wins. Five also came the year before, but it should have been six. He’d led the 1991 Canadian GP from the start but then, comfortably ahead on the very last lap, he just couldn’t help himself. Waving to the crowd, Mansell managed to stall his car at the hairpin. Even worse (or not, as the case may be) as he thumped the top of his car’s cockpit in frustration, it was Nelson Piquet who swept by to take the chequered flag. “When I saw him, I couldn’t believe it. It was very, very good, very lucky," Mansell's old nemesis said, before adding: "I don’t feel sorry for nobody."
Like Lewis, Nigel was brilliant, with diva-ish tendencies but also a magnet for misfortune. ‘Box Office’ they call it. Yet Mansell’s brand of box office also brought an occasional moment of high farce which, ultimately, only endeared him as F1’s own people’s champion. Getting a bit distracted and stalling his car? Senna wouldn’t have – but we do it all the time. And if I ever won a Grand Prix, I’m pretty sure I’d bash my skull on an overhead steel girder as a courtesy car took me to the podium, just as Mansell did after winning the 1987 Austrian GP.
A wrong pit call or suchlike might inspire glee among those less enamoured by Hamilton, but it’s not the same thing. Where’s the pratfall flourish? I like to think that if some people have yet to take Lewis fully to their hearts then it’s for this reason.