Top 20 Greatest F1 Racers: Nigel Mansell

Formula One Grand Prix Driver Nigel Mansell

It was 1989. Rio de Janeiro was hot and sunny and the Jacarepaguá track was merciless. It was always like that in March. Ayrton Senna had set the fastest time and was on pole. Nigel Mansell was an unhappy man. His Ferrari sported a semi-automatic gearbox. It was troublesome, and that was an understatement. The car hadn’t been very successful during pre-season testing and Mansell was sure he would not finish the first race of the season.

Irritated, he booked himself on an early flight back home. What was the point of hanging around in Rio if there was no race to finish? Mansell missed the flight. Instead, that day, he stood on the podium, his trophy held high, celebrating a first that stunned the F1 world. In an instant, he became the tifosi’s favourite, their Il Leone (The Lion).

If ever there was a race that described Mansell, it was this. If ever there was a season that, for me, defined Mansell as a racer par excellence, it was this.

For, Mansell belonged to that era of racers, the one we remember and miss. It was a time when the phrase ‘no guts, no glory’ was a way of life, not a cliché it has since become. It was a time when an F1 racer’s passion and determination defined the car. It was a time when no gap was left empty, and every race was run in the exact same way: to the maximum.

When does a man become a legend? Does he become one if he defies convention? Or does he become one when he refuses to give up, no matter what anyone may say. In Nigel Mansell’s case though, it is the latter.

Like the time when Mansell, right at the start of his career in 1977, broke his neck in a Formula Ford crash. The doctors told him he was lucky. He better stay off racing and rest. But Mansell was focused. He got out of the hospital, as fast as he could, and returned to racing.

Then there was 1984 when Mansell decided that giving up was definitely not in his dictionary. The race took place under a burning sun, at 104°F in Dallas. Mansell started from the pole but slipped back because of tyres that were giving up. He pitted and re-entered the race, but had lost his place on the podium. He made contact with the wall. It seemed like the race was over. The car slowed down on the straight. But Mansell jumped out and started pushing the car, before collapsing in the heat. He finished 6th and scored 1 championship point.

Or the time in 1987, on home ground at Silverstone when he faced down his arch-rival and Williams teammate Nelson Piquet in a race that curled toes and caused many hearts to flutter. Piquet had a 28-second lead on the British racer. But he was no match. Mansell passed his teammate with two laps to go and won the race by 2 seconds. The Milwaukee Journal said, “he averaged 146.210mph for 65 laps of the 2.97-mile circuit.” It was a phenomenal victory that was won to the screams and cheers of British fans who wanted their moustachioed-hero to win. That day, Mansell said, “they won the race for me…For the last 15 laps, they were waving and cheering me on so that I knew I was getting close to Nelson. They definitely put five seconds in my pocket.” This incident is recounted in’s Hall of Fame. “Mansell was simply unstoppable, setting lap records 11 times in the final moments as he reeled in the other Williams. On his victory lap, as thousands of patriotic fans in the feverish grip of ‘Mansellmania’ flooded onto the track, their hero stopped to kiss the tarmac at the spot where he’d overtaken Piquet at 180mph,” the website states.

Silverstone 1987

Local hero Nigel Mansell gives autographs to his fans, British GP, Silverstone 1987.

The stories are many. But the crown still proved elusive. Mansell had proved his mettle, his talent, but again, and again, he lost the first spot. The turning point came with the Williams car in 1991. The FW14B was undefeatable and that year Mansell took victory and the championship. It was his moment in the sun.

But the dream came to an end in 1993, when talks with Williams broke down. Mansell left F1 for IndyCar racing, and, true to form, took home the 1993 championship. He returned briefly in 1994 and then in 1995 for two races. But it was time to call it a day. Mansell left F1 with 31 Grand Prix wins, 59 podiums and 32 pole positions.

Today, when I think back to that time, I remember the passion and zeal to win. Then, when I think of Mansell, I remember that one classic photograph. It jumps up and holds me tight, defining for me an era when legends were made and rivalries forged. There they are, sitting together on a low wall, smiling into the camera. Their arms are around each other’s shoulders – it’s a camaraderie that belied their intense rivalry: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. They were men that, on track, would do what it took to take home a win. They lived to race. There was simply no other way to live. For me, that is Nigel Mansell. He is a man who took his dream and lived it to the maximum.


(L-R) Brazilian Ayrton Senna, French Alain Prost, British Nigel Mansell, and Brazilian Nelson Piquet pose for photographers 21 September 1986 at the Estoril Circuit before the 1986 Portuguese Formula One Grand Prix

The 10 Things That Made Mansell ‘Il Leone’

* Mansell’s first racing machine was a crude kart powered by a lawn mower machine that cost £25

* Mansell sold most of his personal belongings to fund his stint in Formula Ford. In fact, three weeks before his accident at Brands Hatch, Mansell resigned from his post as aerospace engineer.

* In 1980, there was a fuel leak into Mansell’s cockpit, during his Lotus debut in Austria. He had first and second-degree burns, but Mansell continued to race. He only stopped because of a mechanical problem.

* Mansell became the last Ferrari driver to be hired by Enzo Ferrari who died in 1988.

* BBC’s Murray Walker recalls how Mansell’s 1993 contract with Williams came to an abrupt end. The negotiations came to a head because of the number of hotel rooms the team would give Mansell! Or was it, Walker wonders, because his teammate would be Alain Prost?

* His talent with the car was undeniable, but it is said, he thrived on conflict. It is said that Sir Frank Williams once called him a “pain in the a***”.

* He scored the most number of poles in a single season, until Sebastian Vettel broke his record in 2011.

* He has consistently been ranked as one of the top F1 racers of all time – by Times Online, ESPN, and Murray Walker.

* Mansell was appointed Officer of the Order of British Empire and most recently in 2012, was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The latest honour was given for his services to young people as the President of UK Youth.

* Ayrton Senna was one of his greatest rivals. But there was still a sense of camaraderie. In 1991 at Silverstone, as Mansell took his victory, he noticed Senna standing by the side, his car out of fuel and at a standstill. He stopped and famously gave Senna a ride back to the pits.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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