Besides having the most iconic mustache/eyebrow combination in history, Nigel Mansell is one of the best drivers of all-time. Nigel Mansell was an F1 and CART champion when I started to really following open-wheel racing in the 1990’s. He was also the face of Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing on SNES. While the game didn’t get great reviews, it was one of the first open-wheel video games I remember playing. I still remember the iconic blue and yellow Canon car that graced the cover. He also has strong links to racing royalty including Colin Chapman and Mario Andretti, who we profiled previously. Like Andretti, Mansell raced the 24 Hour of Lemans, and the Indianapolis 500. Read on to find out just who Nigel Mansell is.
Mansell Before F1
Nigel Mansell reminds me a lot of another icon of the 1990’s, Brett Farve. Like Brett, Nigel was a gunslinger who was a boom or bust kind of racing driver. He was going to win or crash trying to do so. Mansell largely funded his own entry into racing selling his belongings and eventually quitting his job as an aerospace engineer. After considerable success in carting, Mansell moved up to Formula Ford in 1976 winning six races. Living up to his tough-guy persona, he checked himself out of the hospital after suffering a broken neck after a crash to continue racing. While not nearly as intense as Niki Lauda’s injury, he was told he may never walk again. Nigel moved up to Formula Three where he found some success before breaking his back in another crash. Luckily he captured the attention of one Colin Chapman.
Formula 1 Career
Mansell at Lotus
What is it about Colin Chapman and his eye for talent? We’ve got Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, and now Nigel Mansell. Chapman snatched Nigel out of Formula 3 to come be a test driver in Formula 1. In testing, Mansell set the track record at Silverstone. This led Chapman to give Nigel three starts in 1980 resulting in two DNFs and a DNQ. Mansell would return the following year taking the Lotus 81B to a 3rd place finish at the 1981 Belgian Grand Prix. Unfortunately, this would be his best finish of the season as he would retire in over half the races. He would improve in 1982 by only retiring in 7 of 16 races and getting on the podium once in Brazil.
Mansell and the car would continue to improve in 1983 and he would only retire in 6 races that year. He would reach podium again getting a third place finish at the European Grand Prix. The next season, 1984, would be absolutely chaotic. Mansell would retire the John Player’s Special Lotus a staggering 11 times. However, in the races he did finish, he would place 3rd twice, 4th once, and 6th twice. After Chapman’s death in 1982, support for Mansell within the team quickly eroded and he would leave for Williams in 1985.
Mansell at Williams
Nigel Mansell would join Keke Rosberg at Williams and enjoy his most successful season to date scoring 31 points. He still had five retirements in the Honda but would go on to claim 5 top-5 finishes including 3 podiums in a row. Two of those podiums included his first Grand Prix win at Brands Hatch followed by another victory in South Africa. Nelson Piquet would join Mansell in 1986 and Nigel would continue to improve. That year Mansell would rack up 9 podiums including 5 wins, finishing second in the driver’s championship just one point ahead of teammate Piquet. This resulted in another constructors championship for Williams. Both Mansell and Piquet would return for Williams in the 1987 season.
That year, Mansell and Piquet would rack up four 1-2 finishes with Nigel racking up 6 wins. Williams would win the constructors championship again in 1987. Mansell would again finish second in the drivers championship but this time it was behind his teammate who won the title. In 1988, Williams would switch from the turbocharged Honda motor to the naturally aspirated Judd motor. This switch, combined with an unreliable active suspension, resulted in a terrible season. Unfortunately, this was the first time that Mansell had top billing as Piquet left for Lotus. Mansell would only finish two races that year placing second at both Silverstone and Spain. Nigel would leave the team after the year joining Scuderia Ferrari.
Mansell at Ferrari
Nigel Mansell would go down in history as the last driver hand picked by Enzo Ferrari. This tells you exactly how good he was. Two legends, Chapman and Ferrari, both hand picked him. Mansell would open the 1989 season racking up a win for Ferrari at Brazil. He followed this with four consecutive retirements and a disqualification. Nigel would follow that up with a string of five podiums in a row including a win at the Hungaroring. Mansell finished fourth that season, his last as head driver at Ferrari. In 1990, Ferrari would bring in three-time world champion Alain Prost. This immediately soured the team to Mansell who would go on to win one race that year and finish 5th in the championship. A pissed off Mansell left the team and threatened to retire.
Back to Williams
Frank Williams convinced Mansell to return to Williams but not after Mansell gave him a set of demands. Nigel wanted to ensure that he would have the number one status and not be relegated to second driver. Williams agreed and made him the highest paid British racing driver. He started the 1991 season inauspiciously, retiring three times in a row due to gearbox issues. When Mansell was able to finish a race, he finished strong. He got his first podium in Monaco finishing second, then racked up another second place in Mexico. He followed that up with three wins in a row at France, Silverstone, and Hockenheim. Mansell would get two more wins at Monza and Spain and again finished second in the championship.
1992 would prove to be Mansell’s year. Nigel would rack up 14 pole positions out of 16 races, a staggering 87.5%, a record that remains today. In races that he finished, Mansell never placed less than 2nd. He opened the season knocking out 8 wins in the first 10 races and would go on to win nine races and the championship by 52 points. Nigel would beat out other legends like Senna and rookie Michael Schumacher who finished third in points. Mansell would again retire after a dispute over money and the hiring of Prost, his old teammate at Ferrari. Prost would go on to win the championship with Williams in 1993, his fourth.
Mansell Joins CART and Tries a Return to F1
Mansell would join Newman-Haas racing alongside fellow old man Mario Andretti. Mansell would take pole, fastest lap, and the race win his first time out. He would complete the hat trick one more time at the New England 200. Mansell would finish the season with five race wins and the championship. This was the first time in history where an individual held the F1 and CART drivers championships simultaneously. The next season was not nearly as successful and Mansell was unable to rack up a single race win. After another fallout with yet another teammate (this time Andretti), Mansell left CART to return to Williams.
Nigel raced in the last three races of the 1994 season racking up his final race win in Australia. After being replaced by the much younger David Coulthard, Mansell left Williams and went to McLaren in 1995. He would race only two races for McLaren before retiring at the age of 41. Mansell would run a few British Touring Car races and his sons would enter the 24 Hours of Lemans in 2010, but his racing career was largely over. Despite culling a reputation as a terrible teammate, Nigel Mansell is still one of the most talented drivers of all time. You don’t get hand selected by both Colin Chapman and Enzo Ferrari unless you have some talent.