How the ‘people’s champion’ Mansell finally tasted title glory

It is August 16, 1992. Exactly 31 years ago today. And as he stands on the second step of the Hungarian Grand Prix podium alongside winner Ayrton Senna and Brazilian team-mate Gerhard Berger, Nigel Mansell finally knows a moment of glorious, flawless triumph. He has won the world championship and made it to the 11th out of 16 races. At the time, no one had done it so early.

After all the much-publicized heartache and heartbreak in a dramatic career, so eagerly anticipated by the red-hot media, he is finally Number 1. And as he struggled to get it all together, Ayrton put a hand on his shoulders and said quietly, “Well done , Nigel. It’s such a good feeling, isn’t it? Now you know why I’m such a bastard. I never want to lose the feeling or let anyone else experience it.” Nigel never forgot that.

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I first became aware of Mansell in late 1977 after some impressive races in Lola’s unknown T570 F3 car and began to follow his career. He had already shown great ingenuity by giving up his job as an electronics engineer with Lucas and selling his house to race and win in Formula Ford.

Six out of nine races in 1976, 33 out of 42 as he became Brush Fuse Gear champion in 1977. He started to look good in Formula 3 and Formula 2, and by the end of 1979 he had starred in testing for Lotus at Paul Ricard.

Colin Chapman liked what he saw. The Brummie’s no-nonsense approach, mechanical prowess and raw speed made their mark. And when he made his F1 debut with the team in Austria in 1980, he showed great courage to continue until the Lotus 81’s engine failed, despite sitting in a leaking fuel bath.

There were some notable performances over the years, although things became difficult when Chapman died in September 1982 and did not get on with new boss Peter Warr. But when he switched to Frank Williams’ team for 1985, he rewarded his loyalty with a string of wins, at home at Brands Hatch and then at Kyalami.

Mansell in the famous ‘Red 5’ Williams-Renault FW14B which he raced to championship glory

Could we ever forget his home wins in 1987, ’91 and ’92? the mystery of being in the wrong gear in Mexico that clinched the 1986 title. or that spectacular tire failure later in Adelaide that finally robbed him of the world championship crown? The maiden victory with Ferrari in Brazil in 1989 and the follow-up with the glass trophy? Pure Mansell!

Or the other way around: the back-to-back escape in Japan in 1987 that ended that year’s title fight. The various clashes with Sena, by whom he absolutely refused to be intimidated. His forehead meeting a stanchion in Austria in 1987 and then Murray Walker’s crawling digit. the drama of the sock drawer falling on his leg at Monza in 1989?

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The collapse at the end of the GP roasting in Dallas in 1984 (see clip below)? Did rolling to the ground apparently exhausted in front of the Royal Box after a late mishap cost him the 1992 Monaco race?

We loved his wins, but we could smile at these Bette Davis antics. But then you’d remember how he’d survived a serious go-kart, a broken neck in his Formula Ford days, further back injury courtesy of Andrea de Cesaris in F3 at Oulton Park in 1979, but forced himself to get in shape. enough to do that Ricard test that so impressed Chapman.

Mansell passes out in the Dallas heat

Mansell passes out in the Dallas heat

If you make your own luck in life, Nigel seemed to have a monopoly thanks to his sheer commitment. Nothing came easy. He had to fight for everything.

Of course, being Nigel, nothing could really run smoothly for long even when he finally made that historic breakthrough in 1992. Even in that greatest moment of his career, there were icings on the cake. Not just a strand, but enough fury for a temple of Shaolin monks.

WATCH: 10 moments of brilliance from 1992 champion Nigel Mansell

He had agreed a contract with Frank Williams the day before the fight, and thought it was all basically nice. He was not happy that he was to be reunited with his former Ferrari teammate Alain Prost, but it was suddenly revealed that Senna had offered to drive for Williams, supposedly for free.

Soon it all fell apart and in the end, in an understandably high shower, Nigel quit F1 just as he had finally climbed its Everest and left for America. There he joined his first F1 teammate Mario Andretti at Newman-Haas in Indycars.

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Mansell with Paul Newman after his move to IndyCars in 1993

And, being Nigel, his bravery overcame everything in his first big test on an oval, in Phoenix. To do laps at speeds of 230 to 240 mph, you had to be brave enough to hang onto the car, no matter how uncomfortable it was, and tell your brain to keep your right foot. Nigel, of course, possessed such bravery. But maybe he had too much. He crashed. Heavy.

A 187mph rear-end collision with the wall when the rear end let in at Turn 1 saw the gearbox casing punch a hole through five inches of concrete. He damaged his back once again and naturally there was great drama breaking out in the UK dailies.

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But he recovered and learned his lesson to continue to feel exactly what the car was doing, especially in relation to tire temperatures. And it didn’t crash again.

Relations with Mario were never great, but he won five races, even on ovals long regarded as the turf of US racing rather than European ’roundy-round’ drivers, to dominate the season and win back championships again.

Fans of British driver Nigel Mansell wave the Union Jack as he speeds down Main Street 14

Mansell-mania even hit America as Nigel made a run for the championship title

It was certainly an amazing achievement, a combination of raw courage, blistering speed and that fierce determination that he has always exuded since his early days in Formula Ford. The perfect answer to his critics.

Of course, there was also the return to F1 after Ayrton’s death at Imola. The strong performance for Williams in France and the final, 31st, Grand Prix victory in Australia. Perhaps it would be fairer to forget the horrendously poor transition at McLaren, which eventually ended so ignominiously in Spain where he appeared to be parking a healthy car.

READ MORE: From Hamilton’s crystal ball to Mansell’s McLaren nightmare… 5 bold driver moves that worked – and 5 that didn’t

Like a movie star who did one movie too many and flopped at the box office, he doesn’t deserve to be judged for it. When, like James Hunt before him, you operate at the highest level where winning is everything, running in an uncompetitive car can extinguish your fire and destroy your soul. Only Gilles Villeneuve seemed capable of overcoming it.

A few years ago, Nigel and I had a long chat in the media cafe at Silverstone during the British GP weekend. I started by saying thank you very much for dropping by to say ‘hello’, having spotted his photo on the front page of the Northern Echo during some national cycling in our area.

Nigel Mansell, McLaren-Mercedes MP4/10B, Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, 14

Mansell and McLaren – two historic names in F1, but it didn’t work out as planned

He immediately launched into an improbable story about how he knew he had torn his Achilles tendon but had carried on with the charity campaign. It was pure Nigel, a litany of pain heroically overcome. Strangely, it was somewhat comforting to know that those old fires were still burning.

The conversation went to many places, mainly family, marriage and children. Rosanne was with him through it all, his faithful soulmate, and recently he was lucky enough to survive horrible health problems.

WATCH: Mansell, Hamilton and Raikkonen star in top 10 tire drama moments

It had been at least 30 years since I first interviewed him, at my home in Birmingham’s Hall Green, and I hadn’t been able to lift the dumbbells he could lift with apparent ease. We’re a similar age, and there was something poignant yet affirming about reflecting on his stellar career from such a distance, especially when it still seemed only yesterday.

“You see, this is probably the longest, most grown-up conversation we’ve ever had,” I asked him and we both burst out laughing. “Yes,” he replied. Maybe that means we’ve finally grown up.” If anything, I thought, it suggested that he had finally found a measure of peace, and he was comfortable with it.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 03: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Aston Martin F1 Team and Nigel

Mansell’s fans still love him

He finally seemed comfortable with who he was and what he had accomplished. Which was, let’s not forget, a lot. Above all, he was a thoroughbred runner.

Out on the gridiron the next day he might have felt more comfortable hanging out with people he knew, the characters he’d had his ups and downs with over the years, but there was no doubting how warmly the crowd thought of a noble warrior.

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Nigel Ernest Mansell. Was there ever another racing driver like him? Of course not.

As strong as an ox and well able to physically deal with whatever fate threw his way, he may have needed that constant grunt to create the fantastic drive that propelled him to success.

Top 10: Moments of Nigel Mansell Brilliance

Top 10: Moments of Nigel Mansell Brilliance

He seemed to be fueled by the belief that the world was against him and this ever-present cloud of drama always seemed to wrap around him.

But everyone has their own way of trying to get the absolute best out of themselves, and who could ever argue that their unusual way of motivating themselves didn’t work?

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For many thousands of fans around the world he deservedly remains a hero, a winner, a world champion. One of the most spectacular drivers we’ve seen, with a leaden right foot and the heart of a lion.

No Senna. No Prev. Not even a Clark or Stewart. It was Nigel Mansell. The People’s Champion who could pull off the unexpected through sheer force of character. And it was simple. To them, he was “Our Nigis”. And they adored him for it.

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