30 years ago one of Britain’s most beloved and charismatic racing drivers became Formula 1 world champion.
Nigel Mansell achieved it for the first and only time as a Williams-Renault driver, and in a decisive way. He won nine of the 16 races and, more impressively, 14 qualifiers.
The mustachioed handsome man was declared champion as early as the 11th round after the Hungarian Grand Prix, finishing the general classification with 52 points ahead of his Italian team-mate Riccardo Patrese. Only after them were the greats Michael Schumacher from Benetton and Ayrton Senna from McLaren-Honda.
Ten British drivers have won the Formula 1 title and Mansell is proud to be one of them. 30 years later, he looks back and describes how the sport has changed.
“Looking at pictures since then, I feel like it was yesterday. But it’s been 30 years, which is amazing. I wonder where they’ve gone? Then you look in the mirror and you’re scared and you realize that they’ve passed, but also that you had a great time an adventure.
At the end of 1991 I broke my leg, but I knew that the next year would be mine. I couldn’t realize it though until I stood on the podium next to Ayrton in Hungary and realized it was happening when he started praising me,” recalled the former driver, who turned 69 earlier this month.
Like many other drivers, Mansell’s career began in karting, winning 11 titles between 1969 and 1974 in that category. At 19, he met Roseanne, who later became his wife and the important person in his life and career.
He subsequently moved to the Formula Ford series without his father’s consent and won six out of nine races. Between 1978 and 1980 he competed in Formula 3, finishing second in his first race. Doctors diagnosed him with tetraplegia (paralysis of the limbs) and told him he would not be able to compete, but he was adamant. Its results are consistent but not impressive. In 1979, he achieved his first victory at Silverstone, but then took part in a heavy collision with the Italian Andrea de Cesaris.
He had to go into hospital again, when he was noticed by the owner of “Lotus” Colin Chapman, who gave him a chance in Formula 1. He had four significant seasons with the team, the most successful being the last one, in which he finished tenth in the general classification .
Everything changed in 1985, when he received an offer to drive for “Williams” alongside his new teammate Keke Rosberg. At the time, the car was one of the best in Formula 1 with the powerful Honda engine.
The first victory of his career came again at Silverstone with three laps to go, when he left behind Senna and Finland’s Rosberg. At the very next race, he triumphed again, this time in South Africa. This allowed him to finish his first season with Williams in sixth place in the year in which Alain Prost won his first title.
Mansell’s true potential was seen in the next two years, when he twice narrowly missed out on the championship. In 1986, the battle with Prost was down to the last, but the McLaren pilot won the last race in Australia, while the Briton was dropped due to a wrong strategy by the team. To this day, he regrets heeding the instructions urging him not to change his tires, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting.
The following year, Nigel again came close to his first championship, but this time it was his Brazilian team-mate Nelson Piquet. The Briton won a total of six races, but even that was not enough for him because of the many dropouts. In the last one in Japan, Mansell hit the guardrails hard and the entire impact was taken by his spine. He was paralyzed by pain and forced to miss the last race of the season.
Injury and a weaker car did not allow him to fight for the championship the following year, and in 1989 he moved to Ferrari, where he was teammates with Gerhard Berger. In his first season, he finished fourth, and in the second, fifth, seriously behind his next teammate, Alain Prost.
This forced him to return to Williams in 1991 to drive the impressive FW14 car, with which he had the opportunity to challenge Ayrton Senna for the title. But the Brazilian is too strong and drops out only once during the season, winning his third and final award.
Only then, in 1992, did Mansell reach the cherished goal, which he missed three times in his career. The FW14B was too fast and reliable for its rivals, and to this day is one of the most dominant in Formula 1 history. Mansell won the opening five races and then four more to leave no doubt about his superiority.
No other driver to this day has waited so long to become world champion. It took him a total of 13 F1 seasons and countless disappointments. He finished his career with 31 race wins, which tied him for seventh on the all-time list.