THAT OLD MANSELL MAGIC
‘Our Nige’ has learnt a new trick or three since the end of his racing career – and the skills he’s picked up in Formula 1 mean he’s still an ace in the pack
In life, as in haute cuisine or magic, the simplest things, awlessly executed, are often the most impressive. Here’s one example. You take one dice (or ‘die’, if you’re a grammar enthusiast) and place it on a table with any number you like facing up.
Before you place the dice, Nigel Mansell will turn away. There’s no way he can see what’s going on. You cover up the number with your hand. Only then will the 1992 F1 world champion turn around and lay his hand on yours, like a faith healer. Those familiar eyes, underneath the world’s most famous eyebrows, lock relentlessly on yours: exactly the sort of look he must have worn when hunting down Nelson Piquet on the Hangar Straight. He muses aloud. “Did you pick a six? No, you’re hesitating. I don’t think you did. A one? You’re not showing
me that you did.” More thought, then a realisation. The hint of a grin. “Of course. You’re a true fan. You picked number ve.”
Naturally, he’s right. But how? Could he in some way see the number? Was there a trick within the dice? Or was it pure psychological screening?
In an amazing demonstration of magic that goes on for more than an hour, we see a completely different side to Nigel as he shows us the art form that transformed his life. He’s happy to answer any questions, apart from one. As a member of the Magic Circle – an accolade he resisted for many years because he didn’t feel he was good enough – he’s not allowed to reveal how he did it.
Doing the seemingly impossible is nothing new for Mansell, though: look at his victory in the season-opening 1989 Brazilian GP, for example, driving a radical semiautomatic Ferrari that had previously never managed to complete more than a handful of laps without breaking. But his interest in close magic started more than 20 years later, following his accident at Le Mans in 2010.
“I had a very bad concussion and a head injury that resulted in a small bleed on the brain,” he explains. “I didn’t even know I was married or that I had any kids – so it wasn’t all bad! I could understand what everyone was saying, but whenever I tried to speak, this strangled noise came out. Then I just shut down. It frightened me to death. It was probably six months before we started to go out, because I felt like an embarrassment. My wife Roseanne and my daughter spoke about my plight to my best friend, who also happens to be a very clever magician. And he said he might be able to help.”
Magic is widely used as therapy for stroke and headinjury victims. Nigel, being a self-confessed obsessivecompulsive, immediately crammed about three years’ worth of magic practice into one year. It worked, with the concentration required helping him regain his speech and condence. And he’s never put magic down since – with the brief exception of the time in Florida a few years ago, when he sliced off a chunk of his thumb.
“I was working on my boat in the boatyard with this enormous pair of scissors,” remembers Nigel. “It’s the rst time ever I nearly passed out just because of the pain; I could see the end of my thumb going into the sea! And then I couldn’t do any magic for two months.”
Thankfully, the tip of his thumb healed, and he could resume shufing, dealing and adding to his repertoire.
“What’s your favourite card?” Nigel asks casually, while telling the story. “It’s the four of spades,” I reply.
“Shall we cut the pack?” he says, placing the deck on the table. And there is my card. There’s no point trying to work out how it’s done, because it dees all logic.
“With magic, you must think backwards to go forwards,” explains Nigel. “You almost have to be eccentric and dysfunctional to do magic, or you’ll never get it.” The same reasoning might be equally well applied to racing Formula 1 cars.
Through the sheer force of will that earned him the nickname of ‘Il Leone’ from Ferrari fans, Mansell has now assembled around four hours’ worth of incredible tricks, which he occasionally performs in public to benet UK Youth, the charity of which he’s president.
But he says that magic leaves him more emotionally and physically drained than any grand prix used to: “Some of the tricks involve incredible manipulation and articulation,” he points out. “The concentration needed to remember where you are as well as where you’re going with a trick is exhausting. I like magic where the audience can see and touch what you are doing; or situations where you make them the magician. No disrespect to illusionists, but that’s mostly about having expensive props, so to some extent anyone can do it. Mine is what I call thoroughbred magic. The biggest thrill I get is out of reading someone’s mind.”
And that’s when the cards and dice come out again, with Nigel doing exactly that. Yet other-worldly divination is not entirely uncommon among top-level racing drivers. Ayrton Senna was profoundly spiritual. Michael Schumacher’s mind-games and psychology were legendary. And even Lewis Hamilton has spoken of experiencing a state that transcends normal reality.
“Having been injured very badly at times, you probably do think of other things beyond,” says Nigel. “I think I was a fatalist more than anything else. But I do believe that every great sportsman has their own individual psyche, which consists of a greater understanding and belief in yourself than most people have.”
Despite that self-belief, Nigel describes his magic as being: “ten times more nerve-racking than racing.” And while racing drivers always say that once you’re strapped in and on your way, all the apprehension suddenly evaporates, that’s not the case if you’re doing a magic show. We’re talking before he performs a show at the Royal Automobile Club at Woodcote Park near Epsom that evening, yet Nigel admits he feels more nervous than he would be before the British GP. This will be his rst UK magic show for a paying audience and he nds it hard to keep still; he’s alternately sweating and freezing cold.
THE GREAT MANSELL ASKS YOU TO CHOOSE A NUMBER ON THE DICE. WITHOUT SEEING HE USES THE POWER OF INTUITION TO DETERMINE THE NUMBER
“Look at it this way: in a car, you’ve got your helmet on and you’re speeding away at 200mph,” he says. “It’s your own personal art form. With magic, you’re naked, playing to an audience. And you’re right there in front of everyone. If something goes wrong, you have to x it.”
Occasionally, much to the glee of the audience, it can go wrong for any magician. The key is to turn the mistake into an opportunity. Nigel’s mentor in the Magic Circle, with whom he meets up regularly to practise magic, is Maximilian Somerset – a well-known magician also known as ‘The Unusualist’. But there was one occasion when the mentor got upset with his pupil. After watching Mansell perform, Maximilian wanted to know who had taught Nigel one particular trick, because it wasn’t him…
“It was actually one of Maximilian’s own tricks, gone slightly wrong,” recounts Nigel. “But then I thought if I could reproduce that result every time, that’s a trick in itself. Magic is a very personal thing to each magician.”
In that way, Nigel is creating his own brand of magic: an individual interpretation of what other people do. And that’s not so different from looking at your team-mate’s data traces, assimilating the information as quickly as possible, and seeing how you can consistently convert the theory into your own reality.
“It’s a bit like learning a circuit,” explains Nigel. “In the same way you can go too quickly into a corner, you can also go too quickly into a trick and then it’s hard to recover. Sometimes, you can pull the trick back – like applying opposite lock, which is another way you can put your mark on the magic. A good magician always has a way out. Your brain is processing at high speed when you’re doing magic: you’re multi-tasking and you need to have a phenomenally good memory, so there are quite a few skills in common with driving an F1 car. And when you start doing some magic, your brain starts working quicker, too, and you go into magician mode. That’s exactly the same adrenaline rush that I felt in a car.”
Next, Nigel brings out Henry the race car: a toy that he pushes over a ‘road’ of random cards laid on a table, and which stops on a card that I secretly selected earlier. This is perhaps the most technically demanding trick of all, despite having been invented over a century ago. Then there’s a bottle trick, using specialised bottles made in Japan. Cutting-edge engineering is something else that modern magic has in common with F1, along with the fact that preparation is everything. But Nigel’s greatest trick is how he does it – life, magic, driving – and what makes him unique. A lesson in how to be a leone.
“When you work at a high level of intensity as a racing driver or as a magician, you can access a great awareness, or intuition, when you are in tune with life and the elements,” he points out. “It’s like when I’m playing my very best golf game. I don’t have to think about the shot; it’s all pre-programmed. You’re in the zone. Just talking to you now about it, I’m getting goose pimples…”
He rolls up his sleeve to reveal the hairs on his arm standing up on end. Mentally, he’s elsewhere; harrying Senna in Monaco perhaps. Or leading the Indy 500. Or maybe in another place entirely, which will only ever be truly understood by those who have regularly stared across the precipice that separates oblivion from glory.
“When you apply that to the human being, I have done spiritual things in the past,” he continues. “Especially with people who are very ill. Sometimes you know things but you don’t know why you know them; you just feel them. With magic, when you get red into magic, you can experience some really incredible feelings like that.”
Performing as a magician is a bit like writing a good novel: it’s all about suspension of disbelief. And once that disbelief is suspended, it opens the door into a fascinating and complex alternative reality, where everything – no matter how surreal – is possible.
Our thanks to The Signature Store for their help in conjuring this feature. www.thesignaturestore.co.uk
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