LUNCH WITH NIGEL MANSELL
Over the course of his drama-strewn career, the 1992 world champion was never one for holding back his opinions. And it seems very little has changed…
Maurice Hamilton enjoys a lively chat with the colourful and opinionated home favourite and winner of the 1992 title
Nigel Mansell leaves the immaculate Stoke Park golf course. It’s a perfect spring morning. Nigel is an honorary member here, using the hotel and facilities as a base for business trips when away from his home in Jersey. It’s almost 20 years since he last raced a Formula 1 car, but he is as busy as ever, specifically with his work for UK Youth, among other charities.
It’s almost 33 years since the day we first met. Nigel may have gone on to win 31 grands prix and the championship in 1992 (followed by the IndyCar title two years later); his life may have moved on immeasurably since that humble beginning in the house he rented with his wife Rosanne in Birmingham’s Hall Green; yet in some ways he hasn’t changed at all. Before moving into the dining room, he requests the simple pleasure of a cup of tea. We’d both admit to having had our differences over the years, but his firm handshake and civil attitude remain just as they were three decades ago.
Maurice Hamilton: You probably won’t remember our first interview…
Nigel Mansell: Was it at Doveridge Road?
MH: Yes, it was – in 1981. You were into your first full season with Lotus.
NM: Wow. That long ago? We’d sold everything and were renting that house for £25 a week. It seems like several lifetimes away now. Things change so much. I mean, how many F1 drivers do you know who live in semi-detached houses now? We were there for a few years.
MH: That’s the point, isn’t it? You got into F1 without having to bring money – simply because you didn’t have any. The landscape has changed immeasurably since then.
NM: I feel very sorry for a lot of really good – if not great – drivers caught in the logjam of GP2 and various other formulae; they’ll never get the opportunity to make it into F1. I know everyone says their particular time was the best but, when I look back at the incredible legends – Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman and Ken Tyrrell – all people who ran their own teams and did their own thing, there’s nothing like that now.
MH: One of my memories of the visit to Doveridge Road was your garage. You had converted it into a gym, and I remember the big black and white photos on the wall of the shunt you had in an F3 race at Oulton Park in 1979. The pictures showed Andrea de Cesaris colliding with your March and sending it into a barrel roll. That put you in hospital with a broken back. Were those photos on the wall for motivation because of what happened afterwards?
NM: That’s right, because sometimes you don’t get a second chance. Also, it was a reminder that even when everything’s going great, you shouldn’t relax. Keep focused. That accident broke my lower back. I got released from hospital, but was lying on a board at home, on painkillers and wearing a corset to immobilise me. I got a call from Colin Chapman, who said he was holding a test for five or six drivers at Paul Ricard and he wanted me to have a go.
He said he’d heard I’d had a bit of an accident and wanted to know if I would be able to go because the test was the following week. I told him I was ne – never felt better! I put the phone down, then called my specialist. I said: “I don’t want to hear what you’re going to say, but I’m going to drive a Formula 1 car next week and I want the most powerful drugs you can give me to take the pain away”.
I got to Ricard and there were Eddie Cheever, Elio de Angelis, Jan Lammers and a few others lined up to drive the Lotus. I was the last one to have a go, right at the end of the day. Peter Collins [Lotus team manager] was fantastic. He said: “Look, we know the car’s tired, the tyres are rooted and you’ll probably find the gears are jumping out because the dogs are all chewed up”.
I think I was six seconds a lap off the pace. It was the first time I’d ever driven an F1 car. Peter said not to worry; they would give me the first run the following morning. But I remember calling Rosanne – she reminds me often about this – and saying: “This isn’t for me. I can’t do it. I’m so far off the pace it’s not funny. I don’t have time to brake, don’t have time to turn in, don’t have time to change gear and it’s leap years away from what I’m used to.”
The following morning, the car had been worked on, the gears were staying in and I had a better set of tyres. On the second lap, going down the main straight, it was like something hit me. Suddenly everything seemed to slow down. I had time to brake, time to think – and I was five seconds quicker. Immediately. It was the most amazing phenomenon. It just happened.
MH: And, clearly, the painkillers worked. Your first Grand Prix [Austria 1980] was just as difficult in the physical sense, wasn’t it? In those days they would top up with fuel on the grid, a pretty unsophisticated process, and some of the fuel went down the back of your overalls.
NM: I could feel it getting warmer and warmer, then it started burning. When Colin asked what I wanted to do, I said: “My first grand prix? I’m not getting out the car!” They poured water all over me and it was okay for the first couple of laps. Then the burning came back – and on top of that the bag tank had sprung a slow leak, which was also adding to the problem. I did 40 laps before the engine expired. I was out of the race and by 2.30am I was in hospital in Birmingham, being treated for blisters and second-degree burns. I couldn’t sit down for weeks. The biggest problem was that it had shrunk my hamstrings. That still affects me today because I can’t touch my toes or anything like that. No one would ever start a race in that state today. But it was enough for Colin to continue his faith in me.
MH: I interviewed Mario Andretti recently, and he said Colin could be quite fierce with some drivers. You had a terrific relationship with Chapman. Did you ever experience the sharp side of his tongue?
NM: Yeah, once. And it was an absolute shocker. It was when I was an engineer working for Lotus. He wanted to meet me at 8.30am. I couldn’t afford to stay in a bed and breakfast and I didn’t want to sleep in the car, so I got up at about 3.30 in the morning and drove from Doveridge Road to Norfolk. Unfortunately there was fog, ice and a very serious accident on the motorway, so I arrived just a few minutes late. I walked into his office, apologised – and he tore into me. “Nobody keeps me waiting” – and on and on like that. Wow! I suppose it’s funny in hindsight, but it was horrendous at the time. The next time he arranged an early-morning meeting, I slept overnight in the car at the factory!
Saying that, Colin was usually absolutely wonderful to me. When he gave me the drive, I had to pay all my own expenses: air fares, hotels, car hire and so on. I wasn’t complaining, of course, but it meant Rosanne was still working because it wasn’t enough to pay everything. So, we got to Monaco and I qualied third, which was quite something for Lotus at the time. That evening, Colin could see I was thoughtful and not really enjoying the celebrations. When I said it was because Rosanne wasn’t there to share the moment with me – we’d been through a lot together – he said: “Right. I’m going to double your salary so Rosanne can come to the races.” Just like that. In many ways, he was like a father to me. MH: All the more reason, then, for it to have been such a terrible shock for you when he passed away suddenly in December 1982. NM: I still mourn the loss now. I’ve a lot to thank him for. Among other things, he made me a millionaire. He had given me a three-year extension on my two-year contract. Not only had we lost Colin, but the new management at Lotus thought they were Colin – but they weren’t – and then my contract wasn’t honoured. It was cut by 50 per cent: take it or leave it. We took it for one year, then moved on. MH: To Williams – and a tricky start with the Honda-powered FW10 which was very difficult to drive. But, saying that, you had a great race in terrible conditions in Portugal… NM: The engine was an on/off switch. It went from no horsepower to about six-hundredand-something. On the way to the grid it was
pouring with rain. I had an accident. I turned in to a corner, put my foot down… and nothing happened. I put my foot down again. There was a proper turbo lag of between one and two seconds. So, the power came in just when I didn’t want it in those conditions. I clattered the barrier, took off a front wheel and wishbone. I limped back to the pits and I could see Patrick Head was hitting the roof.
The guys changed what they could. I didn’t say a thing; just went to the back of the garage, thinking this was the worst thing that could have happened. It was only my second race with Williams. Peter Collins [now team manager at Williams] told me to relax. He said I would be starting from the pitlane, so just to calm down and let the race come to me.
Keke Rosberg was very quick and a fantastic team-mate to have – and guess what happened to him in the race. Same corner, same thing in fifth gear; off he goes. Keke didn’t mince his words – and he hurt himself, too. He gave the
“Colin said: ‘I’m going to double your salary so Rosanne can come to races.’ He was like a father to me”
team heaps. Having had my accident I was ready for it but, saying that, the turbo lag made it a guessing game. I came through the field and finished fifth. It was Ayrton Senna’s first win. But I had a fantastic race, too, on a day when everyone was spinning off. MH: Exactly. Finishing that race must have been a major achievement in those conditions. Just what you needed. NM: Keke and I had complained about the engine and the fact that we couldn’t get any
traction. Because of all that power suddenly chiming in, we used to get wheelspin. We had a long chat with Patrick and he changed the rear suspension. We went to Brands Hatch for a test and found a second a lap – just like that. MH: And you win your first grand prix at Brands Hatch. A big moment for you. Then, a couple of weeks later, you win in South Africa. You’re really on a roll now. I was amazed to see, when checking back, that you were doing 206mph in that Williams on the run to Crowthorne corner at Kyalami. That’s bloody quick by any stretch!
NM: Awesome. You had the G-forces, too, through the fast sweep after Crowthorne. From being a difficult car it had turned into a great one. Patrick is such an outstanding engineer.
MH: This is a good point to mention that in interviews I’ve done with him and Adrian Newey, neither will hear a word said against you. They’re very supportive of you and everything you did in the car. Did you know Adrian is a huge fan?
NM: I didn’t know, but I always knew I had their support and I appreciated that. The thing is, I know I should have done a better job with the press. I was too honest for my own good. I never realised how clever my competitors were, drivers such as Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet – especially Nelson. I wasn’t political. I was just an engineer and a thoroughbred racer who wanted to get the best out of the car.
Being an engineer, if I was asked about how to improve the car, then it became an engineering discussion. But anyone who didn’t understand that and overheard the conversation thought I was complaining about the car. Then, when somebody labels you as a whinger or a complainer, it becomes a good story for the press. I was just trying to be a perfectionist and get the best out of car. MH: You had a good relationship with Keke, didn’t you? NM: People forget that I was never the outright number one driver; I was team-mate to three world champions. Saying that, Keke outshone the others by a mile because he appreciated that if I did something, it was because I was actually quite good. He saw how I drove in the car and actually complimented me and said: “Shit, you’ve got big balls to do that.” So, yes, we got on very well. After I joined Williams, he came up to me within a matter of weeks and said he wanted to apologise because the things he had been told about me were not true. I thought that was fantastic of him to do that.
“People thought I was complaining about the car. If someone labels you a whinger, it’s a good story for the press”
MH: Getting back to Patrick and Adrian: when we were talking about the Williams FW14B in your title year , they were saying that when you turned in to a corner, you had to believe the back end would stick. You were brilliant at that.
NM: It was a brilliant car. But the commitment was such that, if it didn’t stick, there would be a big accident. You had to believe that it would.
MH: You could do that but Riccardo Patrese found it more difficult. Did that come down simply to self-belief?
NM: No, it came down to having fewer brain cells than Riccardo! I had a great relationship and great trust in everything Adrian and Patrick said because I was an engineer and because of the training I had with Colin.
Okay, I was a fatalist; if it was going to break, then you were going to get hurt. There was no power steering and a lot of it was down to strength and the set of the car. You had to hang on to it. If you had to alter it halfway through the corner, you almost didn’t have enough strength
to catch it. It was terrifying. But if you got it right, it was satisfying – and it was quick. I was probably in the middle somewhere. Riccardo was very sensible because he knew he had found his limit and if he went over that, there would be a massive accident. With me, I just had a love affair with the car and I was on a high because I had lost weight, I was the strongest and the most committed I’d ever been because I had spent my whole life waiting for this. I knew it would probably be my last chance. And I wasn’t wrong. MH: Before your second stint at Williams, you were with Ferrari. Was that a difficult period?
NM: No, Ferrari was the most fun. A crazy, brilliant, fairy-tale time of my life. How do you win first time out [Brazil 1989] with a car that could hardly complete a lap in practice? I was waiting for it to stop in the race. I was getting angry with it because I wanted it to break down sooner rather than later because otherwise I was going to miss my flight! Gerhard Berger had already parked in the second Ferrari and mine kept going, kept going, kept going. Then the steering wheel started to come off in my hands. So we came in and changed five wheels and four tyres – and ended up winning the race. It took another eight or nine races before Gerhard or I even finished a race again. It was just a miracle.
Saying that, I was probably there during one of the most political periods of Ferrari’s history – people being hired and fired. I was outright number one when they brought in Alain Prost for 1990. When they said he was going to be number one, I said they couldn’t do that because it was in my contract that I was number one and we’d end up in court. I said: “Make it simple. Pay me x million more, give me a Ferrari car [the winning car from Hungary] and you effectively buy that number one clause out of my contract. I’m not happy, but I’ll make it work.” Honourably, they did it. I’ve got no problems with Ferrari; they were fantastic.
There were obvious challenges because Alain could never make up his mind which car he wanted from one race to the next, whether
it was my qualifying car, or my race car. At the British GP, I got into what should have been my qualifying car – all the badges were the same and so on – but it didn’t fit me properly. What the hell was going on? They said Alain wanted my qualifying car. So I went out in what should have been his qualifying car and got pole. You just survive these things, keep your head down and get on with it. No one can argue with the results.
MH: Apart from that win in Brazil, the Ferrari victory I remember most was Hungary in the same year when you pulled off that great move and boxed in Senna behind a backmarker to snatch the lead. You must have enjoyed that. It was a typically committed move from you.
NM: The funny story there was that I was 12th on the grid and ended up having a stand-up, toe-to-toe discussion with technical director John Barnard, who was telling me I had to take the flaps off my front wings because they “look terrible”. My engineer and I had decided to put them on and were 1.5 seconds quicker in warmup than we had been in qualifying. I said to John: “If you want to do that, then on your head be it, because if you take them off the car, I’m not driving it.” We had a right set-to. They stayed on and we went from 12th to fifth on the first lap and ended up winning the race.
MH: Do you still have that car?
NM: I do. It’s in the museum in Jersey.
MH: So, everything you had on display in Devon has been transferred to Jersey?
NM: It has. And it’s displayed in a much better way; it’s fantastic.
MH: So, you’re happy there?
NM: We love it; it’s brilliant. The Mansell Collection in Jersey went from 65th to secondbest tourist attraction on the island. ( www.themansellcollection.co.uk). We work with them and do whatever we can. The island is fantastic.
MH: How do you spend your time these days? I know you’re involved heavily with UK Youth.
NM: I spend a lot of time with UK Youth. It was the organisation’s centenary three years ago. We have 46,000 volunteers and we’ve almost doubled the numbers. We have around a million children we reach in any one year – one million! The last four years have been phenomenal, but like everyone, we have tough times ahead. We have increased by over a quarter of a million children, aged from three to 25. There are between a 1-2million children out of employment or education in this country. UK Youth turns no one away. If we can’t sort out their difficulties, we have relationships with many other charities that can. There is a lot of cross-fertilisation. The fundamental purpose is to raise their aspirations, try to make their dreams come true and show them that there is a better way than doing some of the really bad things – drugs, crime and so on – that children can get caught up in. MH: There’s an interesting parallel here with Ayrton and the Senna Foundation in Brazil, which his family set up to help disadvantaged children in 1994.
NM: Yes – except ours has been going for 104 years! Our charity has been supported by the royal family since its infancy. I took over the presidency from the Duke of Westminster; I’m the first non-blue-blood president and I’ve been doing the job for 15 years. We’ve done some big cycle rides. I rode from John O’Groats to Lands End 18 months ago. Our team was incredibly successful last year flying the flag for UK Youth.
MH: You look in good shape. How do you keep fit? Do you cycle a lot?
NM: Not so much now. I can’t afford to be hit on the head any more; I’ve had a few… shall we say ‘problems’. I broke my shoulder ten days before the epic ride – I snapped my collarbone, but I still managed to complete it. MH: You don’t change. NM: I have regrets! I have what they call a nonunion. When a fracture is moving all the time, it doesn’t heal. When it’s too close to the shoulder, they can’t operate. So, I’m a little bit creaky. And then you forget how old you are. But it’s been a very interesting few years with so much going on. MH: Do you enjoy being a steward at F1 races?
NM: Yes, that’s okay. I also represent the MSA (Motor Sports Association) on the FIA council.
MH: What do you think of the standard of driving in F1 these days?
NM: Pretty awful, if I’m honest. MH: Interesting to hear you say so. I’ve asked other former drivers for their view on things like drivers veering across the track and almost having each other off the road. That would never have happened when you were racing, surely? NM: If we did that, there was nowhere to go. If you shoved someone off, they would hit the barrier and hurt themselves – and possibly be killed. Everyone seems to think they are bulletproof these days. The cars and the tracks
“Drivers can get away with all sorts now and just walk away. As a steward, I’m pretty firm about all this”
are so fantastic. They can do all sorts of things and just walk away. Incredible.
It’s the old thing; ignorance is bliss. It’s okay until someone touches you and there is an injury or a fatality and that’s when you realise this game is pretty dangerous. When I’m steward, I’m pretty firm about all of this and I don’t think too many people like that. We generally have a trouble-free weekend because the drivers know if they step out of line they’ll be up before the stewards and they won’t get an easy time.
MH: You are strict about all four wheels crossing the white line on the edge of the track…
NM: I find it irritating – and I think the public does too – when a driver puts four wheels over the line. He’s crossing the boundary of the circuit! If he does it more than a couple of times, there should be a penalty. If you did that when I was racing, you got grit on your tyres and lost a couple of seconds a lap and one or two places as a result. Now they go off and come back on and don’t lose places.
MH: You were referring earlier to having been an engineer. Would you enjoy F1 as it is now with the telemetry and the amount of feedback the driver receives?
NM: Some of it. But when you can change the settings on the cars to a point where the driver never has to drive around a problem; when a problem is solved before the driver knows it exists – that may be progress but it removes skills a driver ought to have. I would rather have every car fixed at the start of the race to be the best it could be, but then it has to stay unchanged. So, if a driver has a handling problem in the race, he has to manage it rather than altering things. That shows the talent of the driver. But I guess that’s just me being a pure racer – which I am.
MH: Do you think the audience finds this latest raft of technology confusing?
NM: I’m not going to pass any comment other than the fact that I receive a lot of feedback in the street and, from that, I’d say you’re quite right. With things such as DRS, people say to me: “When you’ve got an extra 12mph all of a sudden, where’s the skill in that?” I try to defend it, but, if I’m honest, I really don’t know what to say. I’m almost speechless.
MH: Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often, Nigel. It’s been great having our catch-up. Thanks for your time.
NM: Thank you for lunch.
MH: No problem. Would you like a coffee?
NM: Just a tea, please; English Breakfast.
MH: Of course! I should have guessed.
Mansell’s debut at Austria in 1980 was notable for a refuelling mishap that left him with second-degree burns to the buttocks. He retired with an engine failure after 40 laps
Mansell enjoyed a good relationship with mercurial Lotus team boss Colin Chapman, for whom he worked first as an engineer and later as a racing driver
Mansell wins his first race at Brands Hatch in 1985. He’d struggled with the Williams FW10, but when Patrick Head tweaked its suspension, he managed to find another second per lap
Mansell rated F1 contemporaries Senna, Prost and Piquet as “politically more intelligent” than himself
Red 5: Mansell in his championship-winning Williams
FW14B at Spa in 1992
With Williams technical director Patrick Head at Spa in 1987: “Patrick is such an outstanding engineer”
Nigel Mansell steals the win from McLaren’s Ayrton Senna, following an impressive blocking manoeuvre in his
Ferrari at the 1989 Hungarian GP
Ferrari’s ‘number two driver’ Nigel Mansell, second on the podium to Alain Prost at Jerez in 1990
Mansell dislikes speed-boosting technology that requires no skill: “I try to defend DRS, but I really don’t know what to say”