Nigel Mansell, now 58, was nothing less than an irresistible force of nature howling through Formula One in the 1980s and 1990s. He could be belligerent, brutish, or brilliant—but he was never boring behind the wheel of a race car.
His close friend, the legendary commentator Murray Walker, likened Mansell to John Bull himself—the quintessential Englishman with bristling moustache and bristling attitude beneath a flat cap. Mansell’s Midlands accent has never wavered one flat octave in the 31 years I’ve shared his confidence. In Italy, the Tifosi christened Mansell Il Leone after he won the Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio in his Ferrari debut—in a car that hadn’t completed more than a dozen consecutive laps over the winter.
Mansell was more than happy to play the part of both everyman and racing star, proudly naming one of his most precious toys, a luxurious motor cruiser, Lion Heart. This was the man, after all, who reminded a young Ayrton Senna, then driving according to his own rule book, that there was a code of conduct on the race track beyond which it was unacceptable to trespass. He did this in his own inimitable style, naturally, pinning Senna by the throat in the Lotus garage at the Belgian Grand Prix. Mansell had merely been brought up to stand his ground, and it was Senna, more than anyone, who respected what took place that day. The two men later raced wheel-to-wheel at 320kph down the straight at Barcelona in 1991, with sparks shooting from the undercarriages of their cars—a metaphor for the tangible electricity that could be felt whenever they shared the same piece of tarmac. The Brazilian blinked first. When Senna was killed three years later, I joined Mansell, through prior arrangement, at a test day in the United States. I had never seen him at a lower point.
Mansell’s place in the pantheon of racing drivers is secure as the only man to have won the Formula One World Championship and the CART Indy Car World Series. The fact that he did this in successive years—1992 and 1993—serves only to enhance his legend.
His career was a testament to his courage, as well as to his speed and dogged stubbornness in a fight. After breaking vertebrae in his neck in a colossal Formula Three accident in 1977, he discharged himself from hospital against his doctors’ wishes and then hid the extent of the injuries with painkillers so as to persuade Lotus team principal Colin Chapman to give him an F1 test drive. Chapman’s faith in Mansell would be vindicated—but, sadly, only after Chapman’s premature death.
It was Chapman who provided him with a third Lotus at the 1980 Austrian Grand Prix for his F1 debut. Only after he was forced to retire from the race due to a mechanical failure did those of us at the Osterreichring realise that he had been forced to sit in a fuel bath after petrol had overflowed into the cockpit. He still bears scars from the chemical burns. Mansell’s body, in fact, is a shrine to the wonders of medical science. In 1992, he drove the entire season with broken bones in his left foot. (The damage was caused at the end of the previous year, but Mansell, not wanting to spare the necessary recovery time, declined surgery to repair the fractures.)
The world championship was his at the Hungarian Grand Prix, months before the season’s end. The rest of the year should have been a victory parade for Mansell. Instead, it became a wake: The day after he celebrated the title he had dreamed all his life of winning, he received a call from the Williams team telling him his services would not be required for the next year. His place was to be taken by an enemy, Alain Prost.
Mansell’s role as the eternal underdog, along with his never-say-die determination, endeared him to Britain’s sports fans from the moment of his first victory in Formula One at Brands Hatch in 1985—his 72nd attempt—on his way to winning 33 grands prix, more than any other British driver. But he attained God status at Silverstone in 1987—once again on English asphalt—when he beat Williams team-mate Nelson Piquet in an epic duel that will live in the memory of the 100,000 spectators that day. Later that afternoon, we coined a new word that entered the lexicon of British motorsport: Mansellmania.
He was hired by four of the most hard-driven, demanding, and successful team bosses in history: Chapman, Frank Williams, and Enzo Ferrari in Formula One, and on the other side of the Atlantic by Paul Newman, whose passionate love of motor racing ran as deep as his affection for Hollywood. Mansell’s record of 14 pole positions in 1992 was only eclipsed by Sebastian Vettel last year. (On beating the record, Vettel and his Red Bull crew donned stick-on comedy moustaches as a tribute to Mansell.)
Nigel Mansell may never have been the most stylish driver, but no one was more dramatic behind the wheel. He drove every race like his life depended on it.
Over tea—plain old builders’ blend, naturally—we took a look back over that amazing life, that incredible career.