NEWS FEATURE

Nigel Mansell profile

Fifty years ago the British armies in France were driven into the sea by the marauding Panzer divisions of the German army. With their backs to the beaches, the British fell back on a place called Dunkirk. The armies were rescued by an armada of little boats and suddenly, somehow, Dunkirk became a famous victory. It had been a disastrous defeat, yet the British turned it into an episode of glory -- and success.

The English are famous for supporting the underdog and cheering the loser. It's always: "Oh, tough luck, old son. Maybe next time, eh!" The man who battles against the odds is infinitely more exciting than the man who wins all the time.

Even today in Britain, if you are stopped by a policeman for speeding, you can still hear the immortal words, as he leans beside your window and unravels his notebook: "Who d'you think you are? Stirling Moss?"

Moss and Mansell have much in common. Moss was the great British motor racing hero of the 1950s. He was the best driver in the world, but he was never a World Champion. John Surtees, on the other hand, won a championship in 1964 -- but has anyone outside racing ever heard of him today? They have not.

To the British, winning isn't everything and maybe this helps to explain why it is that Nigel Mansell is so adored by the British racing fans.

He's an unlikely star. First of all, he is alarmingly normal -- in a multi-million dollar kind of way. He has all the rich man's toys, but in the flittery-glittery world of F1, where being just glamorous is boring, Mansell sticks out like a ketchup bottle at fancy banquet.

He was a gardener once in the none-too glamorous town of Bromsgrove in the West Midlands. He was determined, certainly, he mortgaged his house and anything which wasn't nailed down was sold to pay for his racing. He had a young wife who supported him through thick and thin. He broke his neck in an accident, but he still came back...

...And, ultimately, he made it. It took a long time but, in the autumn of 1985, Nigel hit the big time, winning his first Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. He had spent almost five seasons achieving a great deal of nothing with the Lotus team. The paddock pundits had written him off. He was nicknamed, unaffectionately, "Tugger" by his critics. No-one thought he had much of a career ahead of him. He was slated for always having a complaint -- a whinge -- to explain a poor performance. Over the years that hasn't changed. Nigel seems perpetually injured. Many find this annoying, but in truth it is part of Mansell the showman and, in an era when there are so few showmen in F1 -- Nigel's theatrical skills help to keep the scene alive -- and human.

After his victory at Brands Hatch in 1985 he seemed to get a taste for victory. He won the next race -- in South Africa and the following year he won five races. As the World Championship headed to its final race in Adelaide, Australia, Nigel was the favourite to win the championship.

Nigel carved himself into the hearts of millions of Britons, who had stayed up through the night to watch the championship showdown between Nigel, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost.

Nigel led the World Championship. It would be the most perfect showdown in Formula 1 history -- although historians, who remember Surtees, might recall that his win in 1964 was a nail-biting classic.

The three championship contenders were running 1-2-3 -- Piquet, Prost, Mansell. If the order remained the same until the flag Nigel would be the champion.

There were just 18 laps to run. Suddenly, terrifyingly, the rear of Mansell's car exploded in a shower of sparks. It lurched drunkenly sideways, but Nigel, right out out on the edge of sensitivity -- feeling for every possible problem in his car -- caught the slide. The car twitched and jerked down the straight, coming to rest with a gentle bump against a concrete retaining wall. Nigel was out of the race, his left rear tyre had disintegrated at close to 200mph. He was lucky to be alive.

His world championship was still possible, but as each lap passed and Nigel walked back to the pits, looking stunned, the battle was fought out without him. Piquet, Mansell's team mate, was called into the pits for a tyre change -- not even the world championship was worth risking another blowout for. Prost took the lead. His fuel read-out gauge was off the clock, he had to finish -- he had to win. And win he did, taking Nigel's title at the very last gasp.

Back in England, they swept the front pages clean of news. Nigel became an overnight sensation.

The public -- particularly the racing public -- has never forgotten that night and Mansell remains the gladiator. The man who so nearly won. The man who always gives everything...

And then, at Silverstone in July, at his spiritual home, where he has delighted the crowd so often during the British Grand Prix -- a race he has twice won -- he walked away from his Ferrari, threw his gloves to the crowd and called together a tiny group of pressmen.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking in the past few months," he said quietly. "It's the British Grand Prix and it does make me very sad, but today I am announcing my retirement. I'm looking forward to putting my family first for the first time in my life. There comes a time in everyone's life when they call it a day. I'm 37 this year and I'd rather quit when I'm at the top."

People were stunned. When the news filtered through to the press room many of the journalists would not believe it. They thought it was a joke by their colleagues.

A few weeks later, at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the tifosi -- the mad Ferrari fans -- who have taken Nigel to their hearts, let him know what they thought of his retirement. There were hundreds of banners exhorting Nigel to think again.

The call him The Lion in Italy and whisper his name in the same breath as the great Gilles Villeneuve, who long ago became a saint in their eyes. The volatile Italian press fill their pages with rumours about what Nigel might drive in 1991, but the man himself says he is committed to quitting.

No-one is quite sure whether to believe him or not. He likes to play games, throwing out the odd comment to excite the media and there are constant rumours that he will appear with another team, or in another formula.

Certainly his drives in the races after Silvertone added credence to the belief that he would quit. They were all or nothing. If he was in with a chance of victory he would drive to the limit, if not he would quit.

When the Italian press suggested that this might lead to him being fired before the end of the season, the headlines labelled him 'The Wounded Lion'. They did not want to see him go.

Most of the Formula 1 paddock will miss him. There were many times after he reached the big time in 1986 and 1987 and riches came pouring in, when Nigel became for a while a spoilt superstar brat -- slightly out of place for one so down-to-earth in voice and appearance. He was hated then by many who had to deal with him, but he has mellowed over the years, come back down to earth.

He has never been the easiest person in the world to get along with. He can be immensely difficult when he wants to be. He is frighteningly aggressive and competitive.

And yet, despite his moods, Nigel is universally respected for a remarkable talent which only became truly obvious when the confidence gained from winning races pushed him into a new league. When he gets in a car, no matter what the car, there is a feeling that he will do the impossible with it. Not all his manoeuvres are bright and intelligent, but they are often breath-taking. This is not a percentage racer like Prost. It is a true racer -- a man always on a qualifying lap. Balls to the wall and laughing at the world, he goes to where others fear to tread and the world looks on and loves him for it.

Perhaps his greatest victory came in Hungary in 1988 whne he won from far down on the grid -- at a track where overtaking is supposed to be impossible. On that day he sialed through the field, moving inexorably to the front of the pack. It was there he came across Senna. Opportunism is perhaps Nigel's strongest card. He makes a move where a move is considered impossible. Sometimes it ends in tears against the barriers, but on other occasions, it is pure brilliance.

But how does he rate in the all-time scheme of things? He has 15 wins, one less than Stirling Moss, but many more than any other man who had not won the world championship. The most successful non-champions apart from Moss and Mansell are Carlos Reutemann -- with 12 victories -- and Ronnie Peterson with 10.

More than mere statistics, however, is the impact of the man on the sport of motor racing -- particularly in Britain. Way back in 1976 racing received a huge boost thanks to James Hunt winning the World Championship. It was not until Mansell arrived that the sport received a similar kind of day-to-day coverage.

Some say that Formula 1 needs Nigel Mansell, but perhaps that is not true. There was a sense of irreparable loss when Gilles Villeneuve died back in 1982, but another hero rose. Someone will take Nigel's place. The new man will be different, but that inherent wildness of spirit, that bravado and confidence to push way beyond the limits, will be there.

Racing drivers often find it hard to retire. They can find nothing else in life which recreates the sense of living -- the sense of being alive -- that they get when they are behind the wheel of a car. It is often to see great stars returning to racing after years away. Rarely are their hearts in it.

Nigel will not be forgotten, but whether in the year 2010 policemen will say, "Who dou you think you are? Nigel Mansell!" remains to be seen...

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