Few drivers have captured the imagination of the tifosi as Britain’s Nigel Mansell did. The resilient and determined style that personified the down to earth man from Birmingham made him an unlikely Italian hero, but they didn’t give him the nickname ‘Il Leone’ for nothing. He was a man who polarised opinion but love him or hate him, ‘The Lion’ was a fitting name for his fearless and fast driving style.
Mansell came to F1 via the usual route taken by drivers back then, via the Formula 3 and before that, Formula Ford categories. That he won the 1977 British Formula Ford title – with 33 wins – despite breaking his neck singled him out as a man of determination. In Formula 3 things were not so impressive, with uncompetitive cars and more injuries, but he had not gone unnoticed by one of the great team managers of Formula One – none other than Colin Chapman of Lotus.
Early F1 Years
Mansell was signed by Lotus as a test driver for the 1980 season and impressed with his dedication and speed. He was given his debut that year in a Lotus 81B in Austria, where he famously drove with a cockpit of fuel burning his buttocks. Two further outings followed, with little success, but he had done enough to merit a full race drive for 1981. He would drive for Lotus for four seasons in which he struggled – often heroically – with sub-par cars, before being offered a Williams seat for 1985.
Williams was a team in a high in the middle of the 1980’s, and Mansell joined Finland’s Keke Rosberg – by now a stalwart of the team having won the world championship with them in 1982. The 1985 cars were not regular winners but were capable of picking up a lucky victory here and there, thus Mansell took his maiden F1 win at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. He then followed this with a second consecutive win at the next race in South Africa, and great things were suddenly expected of the man with the moustache from the Midlands.
Success at Williams
Going into 1986 with a well-developed chassis and a powerful Honda engine, things were looking very bright for Mansell, apart from one thorn in his side: the team had hired Brazilian Nelson Piquet as his team mate, a man not known for holding back when it came to criticism and already a double world champion. The two did not get on at all – unlike Mansell had with the unassuming Rosberg – and a legendary rivalry ensued.
Mansell won five races in the 1986 Williams, and was a title contender to the wire. One of the most famous film clips of this era is that of the tyre exploding on his Williams at full speed on the straight in Adelaide, Australia, when in third position and looking to take the title. With the two Williams drivers having taken points off each other all season, Alain Prost sneaked through for McLaren to take the World Championship.
Mansell and Piquet had an equally tumultuous season in 1987, with the Briton taking a further six wins including one at his home race at Silverstone, but over the season Piquet played the points game better, and the Brazilian took his third World Championship. Mansell stayed at Williams for an uncompetitive 1988, then succumbed to the lure of Maranello.
The Ferrari Years
Nigel Mansell holds the distinction of being the last Ferrari driver to have been chosen by the great Enzo Ferrari, who died in late 1988. He would spend two years at the Maranello team, and while the fans adored him, it was not an easy time.
However, he joined the ranks of a handful of drivers to have won on their debut for Ferrari with an unexpected victory in Brazil, which further enhanced his reputation with the tifosi. The rest of the season was not as fruitful as McLaren-Honda continued their dominance, but he overcame constant reliability problems to score a further victory in Hungary.
The 1990 season threw up even further reliability problems and yielded but a sole victory in Portugal, and a souring relationship with team mate Alain Prost – recruited as the Ferrari number 1 driver – saw Mansell leave for Williams, having declared retirement in the mid-season. It’s easy to forget that Mansell scored only three victories for Ferrari, but he remains a lion in the hearts of the tifosi.
Championship and Beyond
Mansell eventually took the world championship title he clearly deserved in 1992, in the all-conquering Williams, and ably supported by team mate and clear number two Riccardo Patrese, became the British Hero that he had always aspired to be. He left Formula One at the end of the season when Williams signed Prost, and was instantly picked up by the Newman-Haas Indycar team. He became the first man to win back to back Formula One and Indycar titles in 1993, a record that he still holds.
He did return to Formula One for a few select races; he came back for Williams in 1994 after the death of Ayrton Senna in a deal that allowed him to drive in certain races. He won the final race of that year in Australia, and while the team had an option on him for 1995, they opted instead for David Coulthard.
He then signed to drive for McLaren – an unlikely partnership given the history between himself and the team principal Ron Dennis – for 1995. An uncompetitive car that he did not comfortably fit into saw him retire after two races.
Mansell is a family man with two sons – Greg and Leo – who have also enjoyed careers as racing drivers, and a daughter, Chloe, and lives in Jersey with his wife of more than 40 years – who has been with him since the early days – Roseanne.