Nigel Mansell (b.1953)

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Nigel Mansell (b.1953)
Nigel Mansell

A Start At Lotus

Nigel Mansell is best remembered for his time at Williams, but before he went to Williams at the beginning of 1985, Mansell had spent five years with Lotus. Until the death of Lotus founder Colin Chapman in December 1982 he had a satisfying relationship with Lotus, albeit not successful. Indeed, his best results in the entire Lotus period were third places, five of them.

Those five years of patience very nearly left him and his career stuck at Lotus. There has never been any sympathy between him and Peter Warr, the manager who took over the reins at Lotus after Chapman's death. It was difficult to avoid thinking that Mansell was beginning to flounder in F1, a hard worker whose best seemed to be not quite good enough.

After a flirtation with a revolutionary car which eventually got banned as illegal in 1981, Lotus had gone into a two-year decline that coincided with Chapman's death. Under the management that succeeded Chapman, Mansell felt cast aside and unappreciated. He made mistakes in his driving as he became aware of the good will that was slipping away from him in his last two seasons with the team.

The lowest point was a heartbreaking afternoon at Monaco in 1984, when he took the lead under appalling conditions, only to spin off the road and crash out of contention. In a famous TV interview with Murray Walker he put up the excuse that he'd hit a patch of white paint on the road, but the truth lay somewhat deeper. That morning he'd had to listen to yet another put-down from his own team manger: he was depressed and angry when the race started. And he'd made a most unprofessional mistake by trying to extend his lead over the McLaren of Alain Prost instead of holding the gap constant.

Lucas Aerospace in Birmingham

"In the five years that I was at Lotus, we only won one race” he later told journalists ... "and that tells the whole story in itself." He needed some powerful motivation to keep him going through those difficult years, and not for the first time he fell back on his own faith in himself. It was a faith that he demonstrated long before his Grand Prix days, through years without any form of sponsorship and through anxious weeks spent in hospital with injuries that would have stopped a lesser man.

Mansell had no-wealthy family to support his racing, and unlike so many European and South American drivers his ability was not rewarded by cash from commercial sources, at least not until he was already in Grand Prix racing. On leaving school, during the daytime he worked alongside his father as an apprentice engineer with Lucas Aerospace in Birmingham. At night he would go out washing windows to find a few more pounds for his karting career.

Mansell was only 18 years old when he married his wife Rosanne, who shared all his early hardships with him. They went without new clothes and holidays to support his early racing. For several years Rosanne was the family breadwinner, working as a demonstrator with the West Midlands Gas Board when Nigel was still struggling in the lower echelons of British club racing. At Brands Hatch in 1978 he had somersaulted off the road in a Formula Ford car and almost lost his life.

Lucky Not To Be A Quadraplegic

That, said Nigel in later years, was probably the lowest point of his career. "I'd raised a lot of finance by selling the house and many of our possessions. I'd had a very good job at Lucas Aerospace and they'd said that I had to decide between them and racing for my career, so I'd told myself that you're only young once and I'd go for racing. If it goes wrong, I thought, perhaps I'd go back to engineering.

"It was only three weeks after I'd handed in my notice that I had the accident at Brands Hatch in which I broke my neck. I was told categorically that I was very lucky not to be a quadraplegic, categorically that I would never race again. I was lying in hospital all on my own, no friends and no relatives close by to visit. I had no job and no income: I was only getting paid when I was driving, because I had a sponsored drive that was paying me, I think, £100 per race. That was the only income I had coming in except for what my wife was earning, and she couldn't come and see me during the week, because she was working to pay the rent.

"That was, for sure, the lowest ebb of my career and my life. I thought I had screwed up everything. Not to put too fine a point on it, I'd buggered up our whole life. It was really bad." Nigel's fierce devotion to Rosanne and his family made him different from many other drivers. During the 1970s and 1980s it was, for many, the domain of the Playboy. But for Mansell, his family life remained his number one priority. And this is what defined the man, and the legend.

The Most Amazing Woman I Know

Mansell stood out as a monogamous hero whose love life remained far too boring for the gossip columns. "She's the most amazing woman I know' he said of Rosanne. "I go through periods when I miss her so much, and there are other times when she's a bundle of surprises, even to me, her husband. I love her so much. The support and the energy and the vigour and the dimension of her attitude have been undiminished, all through our relationship. She has so much faith in me that there's no way I would have got where I am without my dear wife Rosanne. She is so special that, well, I suppose there should be a statue erected to commemorate what she has done for me."

With his wife at his side, a nanny and their two children (Chloe and Leo) accompanying him to many of his races, Nigel certainly didn't fit the stereotype of a racing driver. Not for the Mansells was Monaco with its foreign food and difficult language. Instead, they lived on the Isle of Man because it was genuinely English - and because the golfing was fantastic. Taxation there was bearable too, but the maximum rate of 20 percent was still high compared with the mediterranean alternative. Mansell preferred to stay close to his roots in the British Midlands, and his accent gave that away throughout his career. In his life after F1, he moved to Jersey, Channel Islands.

Mansell was equally isolated in the affections of his fellow drivers. Even mechanics and managers who had worked with him in earlier times spoke of a "disruptive" effect on their teams when Mansell was there. When Keke Rosberg, who had been with Williams since 1982, learned that Mansell would be his team mate for 1985, the genial Finn demanded (but did not get) a release from his contract. Some of this antagonism stemmed from the tense period at Lotus, including a start-line mistake which earned a US$6000 fine for the Englishman following a pile-up for which he was deemed to be responsible at the 1984 Detroit Grand Prix.

A Clash with Aryton Senna

There were words exchanged with Brazilian Ayrton Senna after the two of them clashed wheels a couple of times in races at the end of 1985. But Mansell's impressive successes in 1986, including a faultless and hugely popular repeat victory at Brands Hatch, changed the minds of rivals about his true level of ability. His physical fitness was legend (though perhaps not so obvious by looking at him): he had a fully-equipped gymnasium at home, although his fitness level was questioned by motoring scribes when he needed to be supported on the podium at Brands Hatch after the British GP win.

What journalists and motorsport fans did not know was that Mansell was in fact driving the team's spare car, which had been set up for Nelson Piquet. Mansell later explained ... "I made the mistake of not checking the seat belts before I got into it, and the buckle was right up in my solar plexus. I couldn't breathe properly throughout that race. It was also a truly emotional event for me: the elation of winning my home Grand Prix only hit me after I'd won, but when it did I sort of deflated myself in less than a minute". The crowd responded with equal emotion, but the FISA rules forbade victory laps because of the 195 litre fuel limitation. Nigel overcame that nicely by literally hijacking the Range Rover which was supposed to take him to the medical centre and forcing the driver to do a lap of honour. We doubt that anybody that was at Brands-Hatch that day will ever forget the heartwarming gesture.

Where To Divert All Your Energies To Get The Best Result

Mansell never forgot what he had gone through to achieve race success. "There's no question that when you win a race, people tend to forget your past achievements," he said in a 1986 interview. "I was a champion in Formula Ford back in 1977 and won 32 races out of 42, but people only look at your Grand Prix career. The important thing was that once I had done it, I knew how I'd done it. To a certain extent, it is a question of confidence, but also it's a question of knowing where to divert all your energies to get the best result. Before, in past years, I can say that I diverted a lot of energies, certainly in the wrong place. But now I'm a lot wiser: those energies are being channelled much more efficiently with this team than they were at Lotus over the past couple of years."

Much of the credit for Mansell's race success was courtesy of Frank Williams. Even though Williams was confined to a wheelchair following a car accident in March of 1986, he had the same passion for physical fitness which Mansell has always had. But there were other common factors: both had backgrounds in the English provinces, far away from the glamour of London. They shared an innate faith in their own abilities. They were devoted family men whose wives played an important role in their lives. And Frank had never forgotten the years that he spent in the wilderness, waiting - as Nigel did years later - for the opportunity to show the world that determination can vanquish a reputation for hard luck.

The years at Lotus had obviously depressed Mansell's value in the annual cattle-trade of drivers, so Williams picked up his new recruit at a knock-down salary believed to be something under half a million (US) dollars. While Mansell was able to top that up with at least as much again in the form of personal endorsements, it was a pittance when compared with the 3.3 million dollars which Nelson Piquet, twice a world champion with another team, was able to negotiate with Williams and Honda to replace the departing Keke Rosberg as the team's leader for 1986.

Paradoxically, while Piquet won the first race of 1986, and accordingly thought that he'd got his British team mate in exactly the right psychological position to dominate him for the remainder of the season, those four races which Mansell took in mid-season gave him the lead in the world championship table. Given that Piquet had first call on all of the team's best equipment, and was earning approximately six times as much as Mansell into the bargain, it was hardly surprising that a frosty atmosphere descended on their relationship.

While the Williams team went through the motions of denying that any friction existed, their two drivers were barely talking to each other. The combination of the Williams chassis and Honda's powerful and almost miraculously frugal engine gave both men a head start on the opposition at almost any race.
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