F1 Legends - Nigel Mansell
Sky Sports F1's Steve Rider met with Nigel Mansell in Episode Three of our F1 Legends series
Last Updated: 10/04/13 12:12pm
If ever you wanted a driver to take a car by the scruff of the neck and wring a result out of it, then Nigel Mansell was your man. If Lewis Hamilton is the most exciting driver to watch of the current generation, then Mansell was undoubtedly the swashbuckling star of his. Brave, determined and bold - he was the ultimate racer's racer and the 1992 World Championship was the very least his racing talents deserved.
With the unmistakable combination of Brummie accent and thick moustache, Mansell's style made him a hero to a generation of British motor racing fans and earned him the respect of a glittering array of peers which included two of the sport's very best, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. A true cult legend, Mansell remains the most successful British Formula 1 driver in terms of race victories (31) and pole positions (32) and his presence inside the top five on both all-time lists is a true tribute to his abilities in a career at motorsport's top level that spanned 15 years and 187 starts.
That's not to say it was ever easy. While many of today's current drivers benefit from backing from either a manufacturer or major company as they make their way through the junior ranks, Mansell had to fight tooth-and-nail to make it to motorsport's top level, investing his own money in his career as he climbed the ladder through karting, Formula Ford and eventually Formula 3.
Yet twice his progress threatened to be derailed by major injuries following big crashes. He broke his neck at Brands Hatch in Formula Ford prior to returning to win the title, and then later in F3 suffered broken vertebrae in his back. But as 1980s began, and with Mansell approaching his late 20s, he was finally handed his big F1 break by Colin Chapman and Team Lotus, first cutting his teeth as a test driver before starting two grands prix later that year.
In his debut at the Austrian Grand Prix, having made the qualifying cut in 24th place, Mansell was running a respectable 13th when 14 laps from home an engine failure forced his Lotus-Ford out, the rookie having already had to contend with a cockpit fuel leak that left him with burns on his backside.
He would spend the next four seasons in Norfolk, claiming the first five podium finishes, and in 1984 created one of the most enduring images of his whole career at the US Grand Prix in Dallas. Having claimed his maiden F1 pole on the Saturday, Mansell collapsed as he pushed his car to the finish line in oppressive heat after a gearbox problem struck on the last lap.
With Senna arriving at Lotus for 1985, Williams signed Mansell to partner 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg and towards the end of that first season at Grove, and at the 72nd attempt, Mansell finally claimed his breakthrough F1 victory - and on home soil too, in the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.
It's a clichéd saying in F1 that the first win is always the hardest to achieve, but certainly in Mansell's case the floodgates did open thereafter. He would win a further 30 times in the next 115 attempts, including the very next race after Brands Hatch in South Africa.
But while the top step of the podium quickly became something of a home from home for the popular Briton - five and six wins respectively would follow in 1986-87 - the holy grail of the World Championship remained tantalisingly just out of his reach. He came closest of all in 1986 when, heading into the Adelaide finale, he led Prost and new intra-Williams rival Nelson Piquet in the standings but in dramatic scenes that would be played for years to come his left-rear tyre exploded on the main straight with 19 laps to go and his car slithered helplessly into the run-off area. A year later he lost out to Piquet when he was forced to sit out the final two races after sustaining another back injury in a shunt at Suzuka.
The title may have been frustratingly elusive, yet Mansell 's efforts had seem him taken right to the hearts of British racing public. The perfect example of which came in 1987 at Silverstone when, after a monumental fightback against Piquet which saw him set the fastest lap nine times in the final 21 laps and then sell the Brazilian an outrageous dummy down the Hangar Straight, the mass ranks of fans stormed the track on Mansell's slowing-down lap to engulf their race-winning hero.
That kind of adulation for Mansell's never-say-die spirit transferred to the famous Italian 'tifosi' when the British star left for Ferrari in 1989, the Briton soon christened 'il leone' (the lion) as he took a sometimes uncompetitive car to three wins in two seasons before returning to his spiritual home of Williams. After another runner-up finish in the championship, this time to McLaren's Senna, in 1991, the Adrian Newey-designed FW14B finally gave Mansell the car of his dreams in the year that followed. The innovative car challenger may have been far superior to everything else on the grid, but up until that point no driver in history had dominated a season like Mansell did in 1992. A then record nine victories and 14 poles saw the then 39-year-old wrap up the Drivers' Championship with five rounds to spare.
Given Williams would continue to have a title-winning car for several years to come, Mansell looked well placed to become a multiple champion and while he did win another title in 1993, it was in America's CART championship rather than F1.
Williams' decision to bring in Prost, whose arrival at Ferrari in 1990 had triggered Mansell's eventual departure from Maranello, saw him turn his attention Stateside where he typically captured the imagination of a new racing public.
His F1 adventure wasn't quite finished yet though. Following the death of Senna at San Marino in May 1994, Williams again turned to Mansell to drive in four races before the end of that year - the final one of which at Adelaide he won. A brief two-race stint at McLaren followed by which time Mansell was 41 and already with his place in the sport's history books as one of its most exciting racers utterly assured.