Nigel Mansell – Most memorable Formula 1 moments
Love him or loathe him, there is one undeniable fact about the mustachioed Englishman: he was thrilling to watch.
Story: Gilberto Verzosa
Opening Image: The Cahier Archive
Here are the very best of Mansell’s many memorable moments in Formula 1:
For a man who made fighting through pain and adversity a trademark, it’s only fitting that Nigel Mansell drove his first Grand Prix sitting in a cockpit filling with fuel.
Promoted from test driver to a race seat, Mansell snuck a third Lotus onto the grid in last place to start alongside future sparring partner Emerson Fittipaldi.
But as he sat on the grid the special brew in the fuel tank behind his back had already started leaking fluid into the cockpit. Mechanics dumped water down his back to help dilute it, but it wasn’t long before the chemicals started to burn Mansell’s skin.
He drove on through the pain, only stopping when his engine quit after 40 laps. The petrol had inflicted first and second degree burns to his backside, but no matter: Mansell was now a Grand Prix driver.
In a race that marked the F1 arrival of Ayrton Senna and Stefan Bellof, it was in fact Mansell who looked most likely to be the shock winner on the rain-slicked (the picture above was taken whilst the weather was clear) Monte Carlo streets.
He scythed past Alain Prost to take the lead on Lap 11 and simply drove away from the Frenchman, until he travelled up the rise along Beau Rivage five laps later.
The black Lotus got away from him and clattered into the armco, ending his race. Many said he was pushing too hard in the conditions; Mansell said he was caught out by a painted white line.
The searing Texas heat had taken it’s toll on cars, drivers, and even the track. For Mansell, who had started on pole and led the early going, had slipped back to fifth as this race of attrition neared it’s end.
With the chequered flag in sight his Renault engine sputtered its last, Mansell’s Lotus rolling to a stop a few hundred metres short of the finish line. Despite a gruelling two hour-long race, Mansell hopped out and started pushing his stricken car to the finish, much to the delight of the crowd.
Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it; still clad in full race suit and helmet, the heat and strain of pushing his car caused Mansell to collapse.
A driver no top team seemed to want just 12 months earlier emerged from the woods, under the bridge and into Clearways to be greeted with a thunderous roar from his home crowd.
As Mansell rounded Clark Curve for the 85th and last time, he did so as the race leader. When his Williams swept past the chequered flag years of pain and frustration were swept aside, and any doubts that he could succeed in Formula 1 were erased.
The man who many believed would never win a Grand Prix had finally done so.
It was meant to be the most memorable day of Mansell’s career. In a way, it was. A decade on from Britain’s last world championship win, the battler-done-good needed just four points to cap his unlikely rise to the top of the sport.
Cruising along Brabham Straight in third place, his dream almost within his grasp, Mansell plucked his Williams-Honda’s gearbox into top.
Then … BANG!
Suddenly his machine was bucking violently at over 250km/h, Mansell sawing frantically at the wheel as he tried to keep it away from the concrete walls on either side.
The car slewed to a stop in the escape road, nose against the wall. The punctured tyre gave one last flail before Mansell shut the motor off. Not for the last time, his world title dream was crushed.
Mansell led the initial, red-flagged start but an electric getaway from Senna saw the yellow Lotus lead the restarted event, the Williams all over his tail as they approached the Fagnes chicane.
Both cars tried to fit into a space big enough for just one, the inevitable collision seeing both cars spin off the track. Senna rejoined for long enough to get back to the pits, but Mansell’s car was finished.
When he returned to the paddock he made a beeline for the Lotus garage, grabbing the Brazilian by the throat and pinning him to a wall to make his feelings known.
“Next time you do that you’re going to have to do a much better job,” Mansell claims to have said.
A two-horse race between two drivers who were teammates in name only, Mansell was as desperate for home glory as Nelson Piquet was to deny him. A tyre vibration for the local hope turned their straight fight into slow-burning thriller, with Mansell needing to make full use of his new Goodyears to turn his 28-second deficit to dust in just 29 laps.
With laps waning, Piquet’s rear wing hove into view. Knowing a failed pass would ruin his momentum, Mansell figured he may get just one chance and had to make it count. The moment came as the two Williams-Hondas raced out of Chapel down the Hanger Straight with three laps to go.
The Brazilian watched his rival in his mirrors as they charged towards Stowe. When Piquet saw Mansell jink left he instinctively covered, opening the way for the Brit to switch back to the inside line. Piquet tried to close the door – quite firmly – but it was too late; Mansell surged into the lead and towards a famous victory.
Mansell was not supposed to have any chance of winning his first race for Ferrari. Actually, scratch that: Mansell was not supposed to have any chance of even finishing his first race for Ferrari.
Design guru John Barnard’s new semi-automatic gearbox gave the team headaches over 18 months of failures in testing. Now in Brazil, for the first race of the 1989 season, there had again been failures during practice.
But against such adverse circumstances is where ‘Il Leone’, as his adoring Tifosi would dub him, always shined. Not expecting the car to last, Mansell charged into the lead. He had trouble with the electronic gear change, but a stop to swap steering wheels rectified it.
Against all odds the car lasted to the finish, Mansell taking the chequered flag to the delight of his team. It was almost divine intervention: the last driver to be hand-picked by the late Enzo Ferrari had won in his first race for the Scuderia. The luck couldn’t hold, though: as he hoisted the trophy, Mansell cut his hands on its sharp handles…
If you had blinked, you would have missed one of the most reflexive, instinctive and opportunistic passes ever made in Grand Prix racing. And for the lead, no less.
Mansell had charged up from a lowly 12th grid spot to be harrying Senna’s McLaren for the lead. The tight and twisty Hungaroring offered precious little opportunity for passing, meaning Mansell needed to be ready to strike should Senna bobble.
The moment came on Lap 58. The pair rushed through the turn three kink as a single blur, to be faced with the blue rear end of Stefan Johnansson’s slow-moving Onyx.
Senna made a rare hesitation; Mansell did not. He flicked his Ferrari to the inside and sped past the pair of them. Senna was powerless to fight back, leaving Mansell to take an unlikely victory.
Among all of Mansell’s great moments behind the wheel, this one stands tall among the very best.
A late race spin saw him fall into the clutches of old teammate Gerhard Berger, the Austrian pinching second place with a desperate dive at the end of the long front straight.
Not to be denied, Mansell shadowed Berger on the run down towards the banked, bumpy, flat in fifth gear Peraltada. The McLaren covered off the inside, leaving Mansell just one option: hold on around the outside and force Berger to submit.
The pass left commentators Murray Walker and James Hunt gobsmacked. And remember, it was only for second place.
If a single race weekend could sum up Nigel Mansell in a nut shell, it would be this one.
First there were his crowd-pleasing heroics on Saturday, setting a blistering qualifying lap around the old balls-and-all Silverstone layout to take an upset pole position. Senna beat him away from the line but Mansell would not be denied, hounding the McLaren for several laps before diving past into the Woodcote chicane.
But the fairy tale victory was not to be. A broken gearbox forced him out of the race, a dejected Mansell tossing his gloves to the crowd on the walk back to the pits.
The theatrics didn’t stop when he arrived: Mansell declared that Ferrari were giving him an inferior car to teammate Alain Prost and that he was going to retire from F1 at the end of the season. A soap writer could not have done a better job.
The history books show Mansell won 31 Grand Prix in his career. But for half a lap, this race would have made it 32.
Seemingly bound for a comfortable victory, his first since returning to Williams, Mansell started waving in celebration to the fans in the stands on the last lap. Then, to Mansell’s disbelief, his Williams lost power and rolled to a stop as he exited the hairpin, his race over.
While a mechanical failure was blamed, there’s a legend that suggests it was pilot error. Mansell was so preoccupied with waving to his adoring public that he didn’t change down gears – with the first semi-automatic paddle change aboard a Williams – and let the revs drop so far that the engine stalled…
A dominant win on home soil, there wasn’t much more Mansell could have asked for from the 1991 British GP.
Then he came upon Senna’s McLaren, parked and out of fuel at Club corner, ensuring Mansell clawed back even more ground in the title chase.
Feeling generous, Mansell stopped and beckoned Senna over to give him a lift back to the pits.
It’s an image that is permanently etched in the minds of fans. Two giants of the sport, neither willing to give an inch.
Mansell and Senna, on slicks as a light shower rolled across the Circuit de Catalunya, ran side by side down its long front straight, fighting for the lead.
As they approached 200mph their cars were separated by mere inches, the gap narrowing to a sliver as they braked hard for turn one.
Neither driver blinked but it was the Brazilian who would concede, Mansell taking the lead.
Mansell had it all to do as he lined up on the grid at Suzuka. He had to beat Senna to keep his slim world title hopes alive.
Berger led with the Brazilian and Mansell giving chase, but what was shaping up as an epic battle ended prematurely on Lap 10.
As the trio charged into Suzuka’s fast first corner the Williams ran wide, sliding out into the gravel and into retirement. Once again, Mansell’s title hopes had been dashed.
A dominant season saw Mansell arrive at the Hungaroring with a chance of finally clinching that elusive world championship. True to form, it didn’t come easy.
After being swamped by the McLarens at Turn 1, Mansell spent much of the race in third behind Riccardo Patrese and Senna, before the Italian spun away his lead. With Patrese soon to retire, Mansell’s now-second place was enough to seal the title.
But soon his Williams was bound for the pits with a puncture, dropping him down to sixth with 15 laps to go. Cue a signature Mansell charge. He put his new tyres to good use carving past Mika Hakkinen, Martin Brundle and Berger, with Michael Schumacher retiring, to pass the chequered flag in second place as the new world champion.
On the podium, Senna told him: “Now you know why I’m such a bastard. I don’t ever want to lose this feeling or let anyone else experience it.”
Mansell had finally achieved his world championship goal aboard a car that allowed him to dominate the sport, a rout that would likely continue into 1993 – contract pending.
Negotiations with Williams stalled as Mansell wanting to substantially raise his retainer. The signing of Alain Prost also played on his mind, remembering their difficult year together at Ferrari.
On the morning of the Italian Grand Prix, Mansell called a press conference. As he sat in front of the media a note from Frank Williams arrived, telling him his financial demands would be met.
Unmoved, Mansell looked back out to the gathered press and began to read a statement of his own: “Due to circumstances beyond my control, I have decided to retire from F1 at the end of the season.”
It speaks volumes about Mansell’s star power that the 41-year-old was the biggest living name in Formula 1 – even though he was racing IndyCar at the time.
With the death of Ayrton Senna, the Williams team was in need of a proven driver, and F1 was in need of a star.
An agreement was reached that would see Mansell race at the French Grand Prix, where he would qualify on the front row.
But first came a test session at Brands Hatch. Underlining his enduring popularity, several thousand people showed up just to watch him turn laps…