If there can be two categories into which most racing drivers can be distilled into, there is the cerebral and the physical. If Alain Prost, the great tactician, embodies all the admirable traits of those in the former camp, then Nigel Mansell plays that part for the latter. Tough, determined, fearless and occasionally clumsy, Mansell was F1’s best showman. While his contemporaries often avoided adverse conditions or close calls, Mansell reveled in them. With his hard-charging style and his back always against the wall, the mustachioed Englishman fought hard, and always stirred the crowd.
His early years were full of criticism and scorn heaped at him from nearly every direction, or so it seemed. While Mansell most certainly had a persecution complex, it wasn’t often that drivers were so unanimously disliked. Initially described as an arrogant hotshoe who drove over his head, even his team manager derided his young hopeful after throwing away a race at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. “Nigel Mansell will never win a Grand Prix as long as I have a hole in my arse,” said Peter Warr, former Team Lotus manager.
If Mansell relied on one thing to help him surmount the hurdles in his career, it was his determination. If selling his house and his possessions to fund a season in F3 wasn’t enough, after recovering from a broken back and offered the chance to test a Grand Prix car, he reached for the nearest bottle of painkillers and bit his lip.
These intense emotions saw him compete on a near-suicidal level, and this primal need to win that won him so many admirers. After depleting his gas tanks on the last lap, Mansell pushed his car towards the finish in the oppressive Dallas heat. He collapsed before the start-finish line, but won a slew of Mansellites that day.
His fans mourned for him during the 1986 Australian Grand Prix, where his fight to the title with Alain Prost ended in tears. Charging down the Brabham Straight at 200 mph, his rear tire blew and he had to use all his car control to stay off the walls. The first of a few near titles to be taken bitterly, Mansell’s determination never waned despite the size of the letdown. In fact, his ability to push seemed as if it were enhanced by adversity. The harder the challenge, the more spectacular the ending — Mansell was many things, but never boring.
There aren’t too many drivers whose individual overtakes can be remembered at the drop of a hat, but with Mansell, each pass was a hair-raising spectacle on the verge of a crash. Whether he was charging for the win or for seventh, he put the same amount of force into his overtaking maneuvers, which were sometimes a few centimeters away from a spectacular collision.
In the mid-eighties, the public was decrying the state of F1, claiming that the spectacle had suffered with too few overtakes, and Mansell helped change this perception. At the 1987 British Grand Prix, in front of his home crowd and subsequently charged up, Mansell put together a blinding set of laps on qualifying pace that eventually put him in contention with his teammate and rival, Nelson Piquet.
With his adversary in his sights, Mansell chomped at the bit and chipped away at Piquet’s times. Then, he mounted a charge that saw him break the lap record 11 times in the last 19 laps. It was when the man was mainlining adrenaline that he was able to work magic. As he nipped under Piquet’s gearbox down the Hangar Straight, Mansell bobbed left, and as Piquet tried to defend his line, Mansell shot back to right, catching the Brazilian by surprise, interlocking wheels and passing just shy of 200 mph. With the crowd elated, they fled the track to celebrate their hero on his cooldown lap.
The high-speed feint, known as a “dummy,” became perhaps the best-honed of the many weapons in his repertoire. Another was skimming the titanium skidplates over the larger bumps on track to hurl a shower of sparks in a follower’s face. Visors and helmets following Mansell were left pockmarked from the heat.
Mansell’s win-or-crash approach rivaled that of Ayrton Senna, however, Mansell never resorted to punting a rival off the circuit if he couldn’t find an honest way past. He seemed less concerned with his own mortality than with his scruples, which served him well by endearing him to a growing fanbase which saw him as a gladiator with standards. While ultimately a positive aspect of his character, it also seemed to be tinted with a little naivety and moral posturing.
In partnering with Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost, two of the canniest drivers of the era, Mansell felt he had been dealt a losing hand from time-to-time, insisting that the two resorted to underhand tactics to get the advantage. Mansell proudly sought to prove himself solely on the track, but in an infantile way, failed to realize that the best drivers look for advantages both inside and outside of the car. Whether it be secret testing sessions, withholding setup secrets, or paying off certain mechanics in the team, the behavior of Mansell’s more-successful teammates never sat well with the Brit, and only worsened his persecution complex.
Though full of flaws, there were few drivers as gritty as Nigel Mansell. Temperamental and difficult, he was accused of being a talented prima donna, but when he was in his stride and self-confident, there were few drivers who could defend against the force of nature he became. Emotional, hard-charging and exceptionally daring, Mansell would wear his heart on his sleeve and give everything he had to win. This approach lost him many races and a few titles, but aggression and bravery earned him the nickname “Il Leone,” meaning “The Lion”. Whether he was associated with a feud, a monstrous accident, or a legendary overtake, there was never a dull moment when Mansell was on track, and the sport benefited greatly from the presence of a complex man who swashbuckled with style.