F1 Spotlight - Nigel Mansell

This week we take a look at the F1 driver with the best mustache in the sport. He also won a World Championship.

47w ago

Nigel Ernest James Mansell was born on 8 August 1953 in Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire. He was the son of Eric, an engineer, and Joyce Mansell. He grew up in Hall Green, Birmingham.

Mansell first drove a car in a nearby field at the age of seven. That same year he watched Jim Clark in a Lotus win the 1962 British Grand Prix at Aintree and decided there and then to emulate the great Scot.

Mansell had a fairly slow start to his racing career, using his own money, including selling off the majority of his personal belongings, to help work his way up the ranks. After considerable success in kart racing, he moved to the Formula Ford series to the disapproval of his father.

In 1976, Mansell won six of the nine races he took part in, including his debut event at Mallory Park. In 1977, he left his job, entered forty two races – winning thirty three of them and became the 1977 British Formula Ford champion. Nigel achieved this despite having suffered a broken neck in a qualifying session at Brands Hatch; Doctors treating him told him he had been perilously close to quadriplegia and that he would be confined for six months and would never drive again. Mansell sneaked out of hospital (telling the nurses he was going to the toilet), discharged himself and returned to racing.

Mansell driving for McLaren.

Mansell driving for McLaren.

He was given the chance to race a Lola T570 Formula 3 car at Silverstone. He finished fourth and decided that he was ready to move on to the higher formula.

Mansell raced in Formula Three in 1978–1980. His first season in Formula Three started with a pole position and a second-place finish. However, the car was not competitive and, after three seventh-place finishes and a fourth in his last race, he parted from the team, moving to a paid drive with David Price Racing.

Following a first win in the series at Silverstone he went on to finish eighth in the championship. Nigel was noticed by Colin Chapman and given a try out at the Paul Ricard circuit with Lotus. Here, driving a Lotus 79, he was pitted against a number of other drivers to determine who was going to take the second seat for the 1980 season alongside Mario Andretti, as Argentinean Carlos Reutemann was leaving to go to Williams. The seat eventually went to Italian driver Elio de Angelis, but Mansell was selected to become a test driver for the Formula One team.

His skill as a test driver, including setting the fastest lap around Silverstone in a Lotus car at the time, impressed Chapman enough to give him a trio of starts in F1 in 1980. He drove a development version of the Lotus 81 used by the team, the Lotus 81B. In his Formula One debut at the 1980 Austrian Grand Prix, a fuel leak in the cockpit that developed shortly before the start of the race left him sitting in a pool of fuel and led to painful first and second degree burns on his arse. An engine failure forced him to retire from his second race and he failed to qualify for his third race start at Imola. Andretti announced he was leaving to move to Alfa Romeo at the end of the season leaving Lotus with a vacant race seat, which, despite some press speculation, Chapman announced would be filled by Mansell.

Mansell's four years as a full-time Lotus driver were not good - the cars were unreliable and out of fifty nine race starts with the team, he finished just twenty four of them. He managed a best finish of third place, which he achieved five times during the four years, at only the seventh race of Mansell's Formula One career.

During the 1982 season, Mansell planned to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans sportscar event in order to earn extra money. At the time Mansell was paid £50,000 a year and was offered £10,000 to take part in Le Mans. Chapman believed that by entering the Le Mans race, Mansell was exposing himself to unnecessary risk and paid him £10,000 to not take part in the race. Chapman extended Mansell's contract to the end of the 1984 season in a deal that made him a millionaire.

Mansell became very close to Chapman, who made him equal number one in the team with de Angelis, and was devastated by Chapman's sudden death in 1982. Replacement team principal Peter Warr did not have a high regard for him as a driver or person.

"He'll never win a Grand Prix as long as I have a hole in my arse".

Peter Warr

De Angelis was then promoted back to outright number one for the 1983 season. This was demonstrated by the fact that he had exclusive use of the quick but unreliable Renault turbo-charged 93T for the whole season. Mansell didn’t get to drive a turbocharged car until the ninth round, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, a race where he climbed from sixteenth to second and eventually finished fourth in a brand-new, hastily designed 94T. Due to their tumultuous relationship and a lack of decent results, Warr was not keen on honouring the last year of the contract that Mansell had signed with Chapman. However, with encouragement from Lotus's sponsors, John Player Special (who allegedly preferred a British driver), and with the only other top British driver (Derek Warwick) already confirmed to be joining the factory Renault team, it was announced Mansell would be staying with the team.

In 1984, Mansell finished in the top ten for the first time and took his first career pole position but still finished behind de Angelis, who finished third in the championship. At the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, Mansell surprised many by overtaking Alain Prost in a wet race for the lead, but retired from the race after losing control on the slippery painted lines of the road surface on the run up the hill on lap fifteen. Late in the season, Lotus announced the recruitment of Ayrton Senna for the following year, leaving Mansell without a race seat. After receiving offers from Arrows and Williams, and first turning down Williams' offer, it was announced before the Dutch Grand Prix that he would actually be joining Williams.

Mansell was remembered by many that year when he collapsed while pushing his car to the finish line after the transmission failed on the last lap of the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix. The race was one of the hottest on record, and after two hours of driving in 104 °F (about 40 °C) conditions Mansell fainted while pushing his car over the line to salvage a sixth-place finish (and thus one championship point) in a race of which he had led half, having started from pole. Mansell later claimed that his final race with Lotus, the 1984 Portuguese Grand Prix, was badly compromised by Warr's unwillingness to give him the brake pads he wanted for the race. With eighteen laps of the race remaining and whilst Mansell was running in second position, the brakes on his car failed.

In 1985 Frank Williams hired Mansell to drive alongside Keke Rosberg as part of the Williams team and he was given car number 5 - at the time Formula One racing numbers were allocated by constructor and Williams received numbers 5 and 6 - for the first four races of the 1985 season. Both cars had white numbers, but at speed and from a distance, the numerals "5" and "6" resembled each other. As a consequence, it was decided to give Mansell's car a red number to make it more distinctive. Mansell was given the "Red 5" number on his car, which he carried on subsequent Williams and Newman/Haas cars and which was brought to the public's attention mainly through commentator Murray Walker for the BBC. Rosberg, the 1982 World Champion, was against Williams signing Mansell, based on the clash the pair had at Dallas the previous year. Despite this, the two found they got along well and from early in the pre-season formed a good working and personal relationship.

1985 initially appeared to provide more of the same for Mansell, although he was closer to the pace than before, especially as the Honda engines became more competitive by mid-season. During practice for the 1985 French Grand Prix, Mansell unwillingly broke the record for the highest speed crash in Formula One history. At the end of the Paul Ricard Circuit's 1.8 km long Mistral Straight he went off at the fast Courbe de Signes at over 200 mph (322 km/h) in his Williams FW10. His left rear tyre had exploded, taking with it both the rear suspension and the rear wing. Race officials said Mansell’s Williams crashed into a guard rail then struck a post in the railing that tore off the front left wheel, the wheel then hitting Mansell's head causing a concussion and severe shock, which kept him out of the race. Aside from those injuries however, he was unscathed.

Mansell achieved second place at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa and followed this with his first victory in seventy two starts at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. He achieved a second straight victory at the South African Grand Prix in Kyalami.

Going into 1986, the Williams-Honda team had a car capable of winning regularly, and Mansell had established himself as a potential World Championship contender. He also had a new teammate in double World Champion Nelson Piquet who had joined Williams from Brabham.

Mansell won five Grand Prix in 1986. He also played a part in one of the closest finishes in Formula One history, finishing second to Ayrton Senna in the Spanish Grand Prix by only 0.014 seconds (Mansell later jokingly said they should split the winners points between himself and Senna.)

The 1986 season was led mostly by Mansell in championship points, and it went down to the wire in Adelaide for the Australian Grand Prix with Prost, Piquet and Mansell all in contention for the title. Prost and Piquet needed to win and have Mansell finish no higher than fourth.

Driving for Williams in 1986.

Driving for Williams in 1986.

Aiming for a third-place finish which would guarantee him the title, Mansell would narrowly miss out on winning it after his left-rear tyre exploded in spectacular fashion on the main straight with only nineteen laps of the race to go.

Speaking in 2012, Mansell said that if, rather than wrestling the car safely to a halt in the run-off area at the end of the straight, he had hit the wall, then the stewards would most likely have red flagged the race and he would have won his first F1 world title.

Mansell ended the season as runner-up to Alain Prost. However, he was awarded the 1986 BBC Sports Personality of the Year for his efforts.

Both Mansell and the Williams team had issues off the track during the season. After a pre-season test session at the Paul Ricard Circuit in the south of France, team owner Frank Williams was involved in a horrific road accident in France which left him a tetraplegic. After a six-hour spinal operation in Marseilles hospital, Bernie Ecclestone personally sent a private jet air ambulance to bring Frank home to the intensive care unit in London Hospital, where none other than Sid Watkins could keep a closer watch on his progress.

Williams did not return to the scene until a surprise appearance at Brands Hatch for the British Grand Prix, where Mansell and Piquet finished 1–2. During Frank’s absence, Honda were unhappy that the team's co-owner and Technical Director Patrick Head was not keeping Mansell under rein, allowing him to take points off his team mate Piquet (they were reportedly paying the bulk of Piquet's multimillion-dollar retainer). Williams dominated the Constructors' Championship, but the two drivers took enough points from each other to allow McLaren's Alain Prost to sneak through and win the Drivers' Championship.

Six more wins followed in 1987, including an emotional and hugely popular victory at Silverstone at the British Grand Prix in which he came back from twenty eight seconds behind in thirty laps to beat teammate Piquet, with his car running out of fuel on the warm down lap.

A serious qualifying accident at Suzuka in Japan for the penultimate race of the season severely injured Mansell's back (a spinal concussion), when, trying to beat Piquet's lap time, Mansell made a mistake and hit the guardrail – leading to him miss the last two races and Piquet became champion for the third time.

In 1988, for the first time in his career, Mansell was a team's first driver, having won more races in the previous two seasons than any other driver. However Williams lost the turbo power of Honda to McLaren, and had to settle with a naturally aspirated Judd V8 engine in its first season in F1. Mansell would complete only two of the fourteen races in which he appeared, both being podium finishes, including a second place at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

At the British Grand Prix in 1987, powered by Honda.

At the British Grand Prix in 1987, powered by Honda.

In preparation for the 1989 season, Mansell became the last Ferrari driver to be personally selected by Enzo Ferrari before his death and Enzo presented Mansell with a 1989 Ferrari F40 as a gift. Nigel became known by the tifosi as "il leone" ("the lion") due to his fearless driving style.

The season was one of change in the sport, with the banning of turbo engines by the FIA and the introduction of the electronically controlled semi-automatic transmission by Ferrari.

In his first appearance with the team he scored a very unlikely win in the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix, the home race of his bitter rival Piquet. Mansell became the first driver to win a race in a car with a semi-automatic gearbox and also the first driver to win in their debut race for the Scuderia since Mario Andretti had won the 1971 South African Grand Prix. He would remain the last man to win on his Ferrari debut until Kimi Räikkönen won the 2007 Australian Grand Prix.

The rest of 1989 was characterised by gearbox and various other problems. Mansell still managed to finish fourth in the Championship with the help of a memorable second win for Ferrari at the Hungarian Grand Prix. In practice, Mansell had decided to concentrate on a good race set-up. After qualifying twelfth, he charged his way through the field until he pulled off a sensational passing manoeuvre on the McLaren-Honda of World Champion Ayrton Senna on lap fifty eight to take a lead. He kept the lead and won the race with a whopping twenty five second lead over Senna.

A tough 1990 followed in which his car suffered more reliability problems, forcing him to retire from seven races. He was paired with Alain Prost, who took over as the team's lead driver. Mansell recalls one incident where at the 1990 British Grand Prix, the car he drove did not handle the same as in the previous race where he had taken pole position. On confronting the mechanics, it transpired that Prost saw Mansell as having a superior car and as a result, they were swapped without telling Mansell.

Driviing for Ferrari at the 1990 British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Driviing for Ferrari at the 1990 British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

After retiring from the race, he announced he was retiring from the sport altogether at the end of the season. Mansell scored only a single win, at the Portuguese Grand Prix, and finished a thrilling second to Nelson Piquet in Australia, ultimately finishing fifth in the World Championship.

His retirement plans were halted when Frank Williams again stepped in - he signed Mansell on 1 October 1990 after Nigel was assured his contract stated that he would be the focus of the team. His return to Williams was not straightforward as he made clear he would only agree to return if a list of demands were met, including undisputed number one status, guarantees of support in writing and assurances from suppliers such as Renault and Elf that they would do everything necessary to help him win. Frank said the demands were 'impossible' so Mansell concluded that if that were the case he would be happy to retire. Three weeks later, the impossible had happened and Mansell was again a Williams driver. He would be paid £4.6 million a season, making him the highest paid British sportsman at the time.

Nigel’s second stint with Williams was even better than the first. He won five races in 1991, most memorably in the Spanish Grand Prix. In this race he went wheel-to-wheel with Ayrton Senna, with only centimetres to spare, at over 199 mph (320 km/h) on the main straight. Quite a different spectacle was offered following Mansell's victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Senna's car had stopped on the final lap. But rather than leave his rival stranded out on the circuit (the two had actually come to blows in the pits following their first lap tangle during the 1987 Belgian Grand Prix and were hardly close friends), Mansell pulled over on his victory lap and allowed Senna to ride on the Williams sidepod back to the pits.

1991 British Grand Prix ride along with Senna.

1991 British Grand Prix ride along with Senna.

Williams had decided to develop their new semi-automatic gearbox by racing with it from the start of the season, even though it would be at the cost of points in the opening rounds. Senna had amassed forty points by the time Mansell gained his first finish with a second in Monaco. Mansell then had the next race in Canada practically won when his Williams FW14 stopped half a lap from the finish with what was reported to be transmission failure, though it was suspected that Mansell had let his engine revs drop too low while he was waving to the crowd in celebration and stalled his engine. Ironically this handed Nelson Piquet his twenty third and last F1 race win. Mansell again finished second in the Championship, for the third time in his career, this time behind Senna.

1992 would be Mansell's finest season. He started the year with five straight victories (a record not equalled until Michael Schumacher in 2004). At the sixth round of the season in Monaco, he took pole and dominated much of the race. However, with seven laps remaining, Mansell suffered a loose wheel nut and was forced into the pits, emerging behind Senna's McLaren-Honda. Mansell, on fresh tyres, set a lap record almost two seconds quicker than Senna's and closed from 5.2 to 1.9 seconds in just two laps. The pair duelled around Monaco for the final four laps, but Mansell couldn’t find a way past, finishing just 0.2 seconds behind.

Mansell became the most successful British driver at the time when he won the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. He surpassed Jackie Stewart's record of twenty seven wins with his twenty eighth. He had qualified on pole, by 1.9 seconds, a gap which by the end of the race, he had increased to an incredible thirty nine seconds.

Mansell was crowned Formula One World Champion early in the season at the Hungarian Grand Prix, where his second-place finish clinched the Drivers' Championship, securing the title in the least number of Grands Prix since the sixteen-race season format started. Mansell also set the then-record for the most wins in one season (nine); both records stood until broken by Schumacher in 2002. He managed fourteen pole positions that year, a record only broken by Sebastian Vettel in 2011. He also held the record for the most races before becoming World Champion with one hundred and eighty races; this record was broken by Nico Rosberg in 2016 with two hundred and six races.

Over the course of the ’92 season, Mansell also set the record for the highest percentage of pole positions in a single season (88%), the most wins from pole position in a season (nine) and the most runner-up championship finishes before becoming World Champion (three). Mansell is also the driver with most wins (thirty one) without ever winning the Monaco Grand Prix.

He won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award again in 1992, one of only four people to have won the award twice.

During this season, Mansell gained a reputation for a psychological competitiveness and mind games. After the announcement by the FIA that the organization would be weighing drivers, Mansell, known for ignoring diet, starved and dehydrated himself the day prior to weigh-ins. This measure led to Mansell weighing less than his teammate Riccardo Patrese by half a kilogram.

Despite being world champion, after a fall out with Williams, Mansell decided to move on, and he retired from F1.

Mansell then signed with Newman/Haas Racing to pair with Mario Andretti in the CART series and at the season opener in Australia, he became the first "rookie" to take pole position and win his first race. A few weeks later however, he crashed during practice at the Phoenix International Raceway, spinning backwards into the wall, getting knocked unconscious, as well as suffering cracked vertebrae and muscle damage. Understandably, he did not take part in the race.

Driving in the CART series in 1993.

Driving in the CART series in 1993.

At the 1993 Indianapolis 500, Mansell would lead the race only to finish third after losing the lead after a poor restart. On his fortieth birthday, Mansell would avenge his loss at Indianapolis to score a 200-mile race victory at the New Hampshire International Speedway. He would go on to score five wins for the 1993 CART season, which, with more high-placed finishes, was good enough to earn him the championship. This enabled Mansell to become the only driver in history to hold both the Formula One and CART championships at the same time.

Following this successful season in CART, Mansell received several awards, including a Gold Medal from the Royal Automobile Club and the 1994 ESPY Award for Best Driver. In 1994, after the CART season ended, Mansell returned to F1 and re-joined the Williams team. Since he had left it in 1993, the team had undergone some significant changes. Damon Hill had been promoted and was running full-time in the Williams-Renault. Alain Prost, having won the 1993 Drivers' Championship had then retired and after Ayrton Senna was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix, test driver David Coulthard took over the seat for a number of races before Williams got permission from Newman/Haas Racing to bring back Mansell for the final four rounds.

Mansell was paid approximately £900,000 per race, compared to his teammate Hill being paid £300,000 for the entire season. His return was helped in part by Bernie Ecclestone helping unravel his contracts in the United States. It was important for F1 to have a World Champion driving that season and with worldwide TV viewing figures starting to decline, they needed Mansell. He took his final Grand Prix victory in Adelaide, the last race of the season, having out-qualified the two title contenders of Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher. Williams had an option on Mansell's services for 1995 which Mansell was convinced they would take. Williams however, opted for youth over experience and, instead, hired David Coulthard.

After losing the Williams seat to David Coulthard, Mansell signed to drive for McLaren in 1995. McLaren's title sponsors Marlboro wanted a World Champion, whereas McLaren and their engine suppliers Mercedes wanted a lower-profile driver for what was their first official year back in Formula One in forty years.

Initially Mansell couldn’t fit into the narrow car and was deputised by Mark Blundell for the opening two rounds. However a revised car was completed in thirty three days, in time for Imola, where he finished tenth. At the Spanish Grand Prix, frustrated over his car's handling characteristics, he chose to retire after just two races with the team, saying he did not want to make up the numbers – he later said he was wrong to leave McLaren so soon and should have continued with the team for the season and help improve the car.

Mansell took part in the 1993 TOCA Shootout, held at Donington Park. Mansell drove a Ford Mondeo with his usual red number 5. The race ended in disaster for Mansell; he was knocked unconscious following a crash with six laps remaining after he lost control of his car through the exit of Old Hairpin, over-corrected the slide and collided with Tiff Needell's Vauxhall Cavalier, resulting in a spin and a bad crash into the tyre wall under the bridge.

Mansell raced a Ginetta-Zytek GZ09S in the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans, alongside his sons, which according to the BBC, was the first time a father has raced at Le Mans in the same car as his two sons. In the race he crashed at 240 mph after only five laps, following a puncture. Reports at the time indicated that he had suffered a concussion, but Mansell later revealed that the accident left him unable to talk or recognize his wife and children. To recover, he took up magic in order to “get [his] brain to work in different ways.” Since taking up the hobby, Mansell has become a member of the Magic Circle and gone on to perform around the world. Yes really.

For the 2010 Formula One season, the Sporting Regulations were changed so that a former driver sits on the stewards' panel. Mansell took this role at the 2010, 2011 and 2012 British Grands Prix.

1992 F1 World Champion

1992 F1 World Champion

Nigel lived in Port Erin on the Isle of Man (with his wise Roseanne who he married in 1975 after meeting as students) during most of his F1 career before moving to Jersey, Channel Islands. He spent eleven years of his life as a Special Constable on the Isle of Man during his driving career, and in Devon after he retired from racing. During this period, he also developed a golf course in Devon.

"I had my fair share of heartaches and disappointments, but I also got a lot of satisfaction. I only ever drove as hard as I knew how."

Nigel Mansell

A keen golfer, Mansell revealed a desire to compete in the British Open Golf Championship and briefly participated in the 1988 Australian Open.

Mansell won the Hawthorn Memorial Trophy, an award for the leading British or Commonwealth driver in F1 each year, a record seven times in his career.

Mansell was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to children and young people (as president of UK Youth).

In 2015, turn seventeen of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodríguez was renamed in honour of Mansell who had won the Mexican Grand Prix twice in 1987 and 1992.

He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2006.

He retired a rich man, operating several business enterprises, including a Ferrari dealership and a golf and country club (he played golf to a professional standard) and lived the good life.

What are your thoughts on Mr Mansell? Let me know in the comments below.

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Comments (9)

  • Another good article, can never really hear his name without mentally hearing Murray Walker...

      10 months ago
  • Three things to remember about Nigel Mansell:

    1. The massive moustache

    2. THAT move on Piquet at Stowe with one of the best dummies I've seen

    3. Wheel to wheel with Senna on the straight at Barcelona.

    Good article!

      10 months ago
    • The moustache is definitely an unfair advantage to make him drive quicker and be able to pull of those slick moves xD

      And thanks for the kind words :)

        10 months ago
  • Good read that.

    One of the best articles I've read in a while. 👋 Thanks

      10 months ago
  • Many crashes, whinging very often, almost on the verge of crying, after making mistakes and finding excuses for poor performances. NOT by any stretch of the imagination one of my favourite F1 drivers through the years. Thanks for this article refreshing my memory of why I never liked or supported him. BUT he did race with against many great drivers.

      10 months ago
  • Good article. Great moustache and a great champion.

      10 months ago