Nigel Mansell burst onto the Formula 1 scene like a tornado but there was one characteristic that defined him from the very beginning: he seemed out of place. The other drivers often looked like Latin lovers with the sort of swagger that made them a symbol of what motorsport should be all about. Nigel by contrast was an Englishman of the old school. He wasn’t especially good-looking and his charisma was far from conventional. His trademark walrus moustache also made him look somewhat older than he really was.
When he first raced in Formula 1 in 1980, he was 27 years old: which at that time was entirely normal, unlike today when drivers start off as minors. Mansell made his debut in Lotus, having been spotted by the legendary Colin Chapman, who had identified something special about the young man from Birmingham. Chapman was a visionary and inventor more than just a designer: a true racing genius capable of seeing that Mansell had pure speed in his veins. What Mansell always loved most were the big fast corners: the places where rather than drive a car you almost have to ride the crest of a wave, while still somehow staying in control – as the consequences of going off are unimaginable. Mansell drove for Lotus for two races in 1980 and was then full-time with the British team until 1984. The results from his early years were five podiums, but 13 retirements from accidents or other off-road excursions. Nigel was a great explorer of the very limit, as everybody acknowledged.
But Frank Williams signed him because of his pure speed: starting off Mansell’s first era of success. Even in the first year he drove for Williams (1985), Mansell took a step up. There were two wins: one at home at Brands Hatch and another in South Africa. There was also a pole position. as well as four other front row starts. Nigel had arrived in terms of speed but he was still a man out of place. His accent showed that he came from a different background to most drivers, with distinctive Birmingham tones. There was even a play on words around his surname in Italy: they called him ‘Mansueto’ (roughly translated as ‘Mr Meek’), which – for a driver for whom winning is everything – is hardly ideal. Williams however was going from strength to strength, thanks also to its Honda turbo engine, and in 1986 Nelson Piquet joined the team, having already claimed two titles with Brabham. And internal war began between the two drivers. They started taking wins and points off each other at every race. Their rivalry was becoming more intense and increasingly difficult to manage, especially after a road accident put team boss Frank Williams into a wheelchair. And it all ended badly. At Adelaide in Australia, the last race of the year, Mansell was calmly controlling the grand prix with the championship in his sights when a tyre exploded at 270kph on the straight. Mansell retired and McLaren’s Alain Prost became champion for the second consecutive year.