Nigel Ernest James Mansell OBE was born the 8th of August 1953 in Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire, England. His early childhood was unremarkable puctuated by frequent moving. He like other young boys was attracted to the exploits of Brutish sports figures including Jimmy Clark. After considerable success in kart racing, he would graduate to the British Formula Ford championship in 1977, despite suffering a broken neck in a testing accident. By now married he somehow convinced his wife Rosanne to sell the family home to finance a move into Formula 3.
In between crashes and breakdowns a certain Colin Chapman saw enough to offer the erstwhile Brit a tryout with Lotus to become a test driver for the Formula One team. Lotus, a shell of its former glory provided the car for his Formula One debut, at the 1980 Austrian Grand Prix, a fuel leak in the cockpit seemed to put him in his place and left him with painful first and second degree burns. There was never a better example of Nietzsche’s dictum, “Was ihn nicht umbringt, macht ihn stärker”, directly translated as “What does not kill him makes him stronger”. Mansell became very close to the legendary Lotus boss Colin Chapman and was devastated by his sudden unexpected death in 1982. Out of a sense of loyalty to his departed mentor he stayed with the team for two more years.
In 1985 he joined another British team, Williams and experienced his first success after years of trials when he won the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. This was followed by more success but save for to incidents the World Championship was still out of reach. In 1986 a burst tire in Adelaide destroyed his season at the last possible moment while in 1987 a serious qualifying accident at Suzuka injured his back again and handed the title to his hated Williams teammate Nelson Piquet. The loathing was mutual but 1987 was not without moments of satisfaction for Mansel whose late race charge to beat the Brazilian at Silverstone unleased a flood of adulation in front of his home crowd. Setting lap records 11 times in the final moments of the race as he caught and passed the race leader. To pour salt into any wound that may have been reopened he stopped to kiss the tarmac at the spot where he’d overtaken Piquet.
“Nigel Mansell will never win a Grand Prix as long as I have a hole in my arse.” – Peter Warr
Williams would suffer a down cycle when they were left to scramble for an engine and ended up with one provided by Judd. A perfectly competent firm Judd lacked the resources of the large automobile manufacturers. Mansell seized an oppurtunity at Ferrari and soon won the hearts of the Tiofosi with his barely controlled agression on the track. At the Hungaroring, a track notorius for it lack of passing oppurtunities Mansell stormed through the field from a lowly 12th on the grid to the top step of the podium. Clouds soon appreared on the horizon in the form of Alain Prost who joined the Prancing horse in 1990. Anouncing his retirement at Silverstone he instead rejoined Williams coming close to winning the title for the resurgent team. In 1992 all of the struggles suffered through the years fell a ways when Mansell driving a Williams-Renault stormed to his first World Championship. Mansell’s single season record of nine wins in 16 races, combined with 14 poles and five consecutive GP victories has been matched only by Michael Schumacher.
Seemingly on the top of the world he may have been excused if he only saw enemies when he learned that Prost was negotiating the other seat at Williams to replace the more pliable Ricardo Patrese. Mansell decided to seek exile in America where he when IndyCar racing.
He would soon find that the wall at Phoenix was where bravery ended and a respect for America’s fearsome ovals would have to be born if he were to survive if not prosper. Remarkably it was the short ovals where he seemed to thrive the most and won the IndyCar Championship at his first go.
Having won in the new series there was nothing left to prove and his enthusiasm began to wane and disputes with the team took a life of their own. Mario Andretti, a name synonymous with American racing and a racers racer would later remark that; “I guess if Ronnie Peterson was the best team-mate I ever had, Nigel Mansell was the worst”. To be fair none of the other top stars of the period, Piquet, Senna, or Prost could be called easy teammates and they often got along best with those teammates of inferior talent.
The tragic death of Ayrton Senna and retirement of Prost would see Mansell return a third time to Williams. His last season in Formula One involved an aborted fling with McLaren where he was needlessly embarrassed by the team when it was found that he could not fit and drive the car safely and it had to be widened. He would not see the end of the season and retired for good. Was Mansell misunderstood, possibly, was he brave and quick, without a doubt.