Nigel Mansell is one of the most well-known faces in the Formula 1 world, being crowned world champion in 1992 with the Williams team.
Having also driven for McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus he is a household name, winning Sports Personality of the Year twice. Despite retiring for good in 1995 Mansell is still heavily involved in the sport being an FA steward and also on the Board of Driver’s Commission for the FIA, meaning that he is a crucial decision-maker within single seat racing.
Not only did the 62-year-old dominate his era of Formula 1 but he also went on to win the 1993 CART Indy Car World Series, making him the only person to hold both that and the F1 title simultaneously.
I was lucky enough to secure an interview with the legend himself when he came to my local Waterstones store for a signing of his autobiography Staying On Track which documents changes in the sport as well as his career.
Image: Nick Wade
Why did you decide to write your autobiography?
Great question, the thing is enough time has gone past now since we’ve been away from racing (about 20-25 years). Many people have asked me what the difference was then to what it is now. Lewis has come along and broken all my records and so it was a wonderful opportunity to describe completely through the new book new stories and a comparison that’s never been done before. And so I think we’ve achieved that reasonably well – a lot of people, with the feedback I’ve had, think that one of the chapters wears you out.
You put them (the reader) in the car, driving the car, and we explain the safety standards and the transition of technology that’s happened now over the last 20-30 years which has just been absolutely mind boggling and amazing. Because in our day people used to lose their lives on a regular basis. If they didn’t lose their life there were at least six drivers injured out of the sport every year because the barriers were right on the edge of the circuit, the cars were very very delicate. If you hit something they always fell apart and the reliability – suspensions broke on a regular basis – whereas now, the last 20 years, with the exception of the great sadness of Jules in Japan, these safety cells (after the fateful day of Imola in 1994 with Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna), the tracks changed, the design changed, the cars changed so it’s been really good.
How do you feel about all of the safety changes in the sport?
I think that’s absolutely brilliant, it’s just extraordinary for me what the stats tell us, you can never determine when you’re born but I think rather than it’s my opinion I’ll give you one stat that says everything that I’ve just said in one word really. Years gone by if you actually had a career of 150-180 Grand Prix’s and you walked away alive that was a good career. Now we’ve got umpteen drivers, 300+ Grand Prix’s and never had an accident. And you go wow, no wonder all the stats have just gone (makes raspberry noise). So it’s wonderful that this has happened.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a Formula 1 driver?
It was one of the things – fighter pilot, policeman, fireman, fire engine driver, being a racing driver was one of them but the race car driver won the day.
What’s the moment that you feel most proud of from your career?
I think surviving. I write in the book that I’ve had some horrendous accidents and being compos mentis, sort of, being here still and being objective. But I think probably the proudest moment is becoming president of UK Youth. I’m the first non-blue blood president of the charity in 104 years where all the other presidents were members of the royal family and so to be in a position to help upwards of a million children in one year is probably the most proud moment really.
So not winning the championship? Rather using that to help?
That doesn’t help the children, they don’t relate to it. It’s given me a position to be president which is obviously fantastic but for me personally if you were to say what is the most personal biggest achievement I think it’s being asked by some very incredible people to represent the charity.
How does it feel to have a corner named after you at the new Mexico track?
Well it’s very flattering, again it’s something for the history. When we’re all gone it’s in the history books and it’s really great and I think the fact that it’s synonymous with one of the most audacious overtaking manoeuvres in Formula 1 is pretty neat too. It’s nice. And the fact that last corner, which obviously used to be the Peraltada, they’ve actually kept the turn for the last bit of the corner so that makes me very happy. Very happy.
— Waterstones Cribbs (@WaterstonesCC) October 8, 2015
You’re most well known for being an F1 driver but you did make a move to Indy Car. Why?
One door closed and another one opened. It was basically fate. I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to defend my championship in the manner that I wanted. Paul Newman, you know that terrible film star, (laughs) he persuaded me to come and have a Wild West adventure in America and it was a fantastic adventure and we made a little bit of history which is even better.
How different was it from F1?
Very different, very frightening. I mean terrifying to do the super speedways where you’re averaging 233mph average all the way round. I think my fastest qualifying lap was 233.75mph average, it’s crazy. If something goes wrong you’re dead. So yeah that got your attention.
Which type of car did you prefer to drive?
F1, by a mile. F1 is the most grandest stallion of all race cars of anything in the world. It’s a truly fantastic car to drive.
You’re considered one of the greats in the sport. Can you ever see yourself that way?
No, that’s for other people to judge. What I’m really thrilled with is the fact that it’s a very elite club to be a world champion of anything and to be a world champion in Formula 1 and a world champion in Indy Car across the pond, I’m just happy. I’m sort of amazed that with all the, shall we say, challenges ahead through my career that we actually achieved it. I pinch myself a bit now but people ask me things and say ‘what do you reckon when you did this, this and this?’ but you never get to see it, to watch yourself, so you never know. You have to listen to what other people say. I was in the car but it didn’t feel like they said, but I know we’re a little bit nutty!
Amazing evening in cheltenham book festival ,brilliant audience thank you . pic.twitter.com/kGYCpknEba
— Nigel Mansell CBE (@nigelmansell) October 6, 2015
Having driven for McLaren what do you make of them in their current state? Is there any way back for the team?
Yes, yes and yes. McLaren were a fantastic championship winning team in the past and I think yes they’ll be a fantastic winning championship team in the future. I think their partnership with Honda is one of great frustration at the moment with both parties struggling and for me it just means that there is something wrong with the rules in some ways because it shouldn’t be that hard for a past manufacturer who has won championships in Formula 1 and many other disciplines to get back so I predict that in 2016 they’ll be there or thereabouts again. If they’re not there or thereabouts in 2016 then I have to question perhaps what are they doing wrong because they’re such a great manufacturer, they’ve done such great things in the past so it just needs time.
You think they can win again?
Ooh absolutely. No question about that. I’m just really concerned of the hard time everyone’s been giving both McLaren and Honda, perhaps some of its justified I don’t know, but all I do know is that I drove for Honda and they were a brilliant company that could make engines in a matter of a few months. But I think there are restrictions with the regulations which have caused everyone obviously a bigger challenge than it should have been.
What do you make of F1 in its current state? If you could choose whether to race now or when you did which would you choose?
Oh dear. I’d love to have a career twice as long and not have any accidents. Race now every time. The grass is greener, the wages are better, the tracks are better, the cars are better, they’re more reliable. I mean I must have been leading about 40 other different races that my car just broke down and now the cars rarely break down so there’s another stat for you. And I think what’s fantastic with one of the stats as well is when we’re racing in the beginning I think we would only get 6 points for a win, or 9 points for a win, but they get 25 points for a win now so I mean everything’s changed and they get so many more races, it’s wonderful.
Time for the quick-fire round! Favourite F1 team?
I have to say for all sorts of different reasons it has to be in the good days with Sir Patrick and Sir Frank, the Williams team, it has to be but very close with Ferrari and very close with Lotus. Williams get the win because we had so much success with them.
Favourite F1 driver?
I think for me the one that I admire the most was Fangio. Fangio had no seatbelts, no helmet, loony! Fangio, I was pretty impressed with him.
Favourite F1 moment?
On or off the circuit now? I think being on the podium with Ayrton, he won and I came second, to clinch the championship, and the magic words and the hug he gave me on the podium, explaining to me why he was such a beep beep beep because he said to me ‘it’s a good feeling isn’t it.’ Pretty neat moment.
Favourite F1 circuit?
For me anywhere the Grand Prix is in England. I love it, absolutely brilliant.
F1 or Indy Car?
Well I don’t really have sporting heroes but let me give that one some thought. Very difficult. I don’t have one person, that’s the problem, it’s a fantastic question but whatever I say I’m going to offend a lot of people. I’ll tell you there’s one I might single out and I’ll put them together. For me Cassius Clay and Henry Cooper, they were great. I loved heavyweight boxing and I think the era I grew up in with Cassius Clay and Henry Cooper was awesome.
Image: Nick Wade
Following our interview I was able to sit alongside Mansell as he did a phone interview with an F1 podcast team, all whilst signing reserved copies of his book for his numerous adoring fans.
It became clear that he is very passionate about his work with UK Youth, helping to inform and educate children. He seems flattered to be considered such a legend within motorsport but he really has used his position to help others and facilitate support within the charity.
It doesn’t look like he’ll be back on the track anytime soon, stating that although he misses it he’s definitely too old now. And after a knock on the head at Le Mans he also won’t be returning to take part in that particular contest.
But when it comes to matters of the European tracks he’s very diplomatic in his answers: ‘it’s very much for the powers that be to decide the best place for F1 but I fully understand the need for progression.’
After our encounter Mansell shook my hand and kissed both cheeks, showing once again what an absolute gentleman he is. He even referred to me as a ‘lovely young lady’ – what an accolade!
It was a great experience to meet such an F1 legend but despite this deserved status he proved to be nothing but a humorous ordinary man who has achieved some pretty extraordinary things.
Who would you love to interview? Leave your comments below.