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

F1 Racing - - BRITISH GP - WORDS AN­THONY PEA­COCK POR­TRAIT LORENZO BEL­LANCA

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 condence. 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 shufing, 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 dees 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 benet 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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F1 Rac­ing’s An­thony Pea­cock is stumped by Mansell’s dice trick. How does he do it? Well, that’s a trade se­cret…

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