Photograph by LAT Photographic
How much did Colin Chapman pay you to drive your first full season for Lotus in 1981?
I was paid $25,000—out of which I had to pay for my flights and hotel rooms and hire cars. At the beginning, Rosanne [Mrs Mansell], who was a home economist for West Midlands Gas, had to work to support my Formula One career. When I qualified top three at Monaco, though, Colin doubled my salary overnight!
What made Chapman and Lotus so special?
He was innovative, motivating, creative—and an incredible designer before F1 teams had wind tunnels, let alone the hi-tech aids of today. It was an exciting, fun time.
Colin never lived to see you win a grand prix…
Bless him—in a very short period of time he was very generous to me. Before his premature death in 1982, he gave me a contract that made me a millionaire.
What happened when Peter Warr succeeded Chapman? It appears you didn’t hit it off.
Looking back, Peter had a lot of good qualities. The shame of it was that instead of trying to do things his way, he tried to emulate the late, great Colin. Nobody could do that.
How was your relationship with your Lotus team-mate of the time, Elio de Angelis?
We had some difficulties to begin with—the Lotus hierarchy played us off against each other. But we overcame that and became ardent friends.
De Angelis was driving a Brabham when he was killed testing in 1986. How did his death impact on you?
It was a defining moment that changed my life. You realised this wasn’t just a job; this was a very serious business, and if you were going to stay in it, you wanted to be successful. For that to happen, you had to be tremendously focused and dedicated. I don’t think I ever suffered fools easily, but after Elio’s death I suffered fools even less. Drivers were still dying too frequently.
By then, you had won your first grand prix at Brands Hatch in 1985. Was that a moment of jubilation, or sheer relief?
Both! It was also the turning point of my career. All of a sudden you have won, and all you want to do is win again. [Mansell won the next race in South Africa, the last of the season, allowing him to imagine greater things on the horizon for 1986.]
In a three-way fight for the world championship with Alain Prost (McLaren) and (team-mate) Nelson Piquet, you must have felt deflated beyond measure when a rear tyre blew at 320kph in Adelaide, depriving you of the title at the final race of 1986.
I was too busy trying to keep the car out of the wall to think about losing the title.
But surely you must have feared that, being just 70 kilometres away from the championship, you might never get another chance as good as that?
No question. Even now, more than 25 years later, it’s hard talking about it. As you get older, you realise life can be unfair even when you are doing everything right. Some, it seems, are fated to have everything fall into place for them. A perfect example is Lewis Hamilton being picked up and groomed from an early age by McLaren. Because everything was mapped out for him, life only became tough after he became world champion. But what’s even worse about 1986 is that, in a way, I lost the world championship twice that year.
What do you mean?
I was told by the FIA that I had to go to the awards ceremony in Paris, as they’d put on a prize for me being second. I didn’t want to go, but I was warned I’d be fined if I didn’t show up. At the prize-giving, Bertie Martin, the clerk of the course for the Australian Grand Prix, offered his sympathies but then told me that had I crashed, there would have been so much debris they’d have had to stop the race. “You’d be world champion,” he said! The moral of the story is to read the rulebook at [320kph] and make the right decision. I came home from the ceremony more depressed than when I’d come home from Australia. A lot of people were saying I’d never get another chance—it’s funny how the knockers come out to shout at these tough, tough times.
Piquet as Williams’s No. 1, with you as his No. 2, was not a match made in heaven, as it turned out…
Not that long ago, I read an article in which Nelson admitted he had deliberately called my wife names to try to destabilise me, because he couldn’t get to me on the track. It’s a shocking indictment of what people will stoop to.