GLOBETROTTER

Goodbye Nigel. Don't come back.

So Nigel Mansell, 1992 World Champion and one of Britain's top sporting heroes in the last 10 years, has gone from F1. And this time it is hard to believe that he will back as he has been after his two previous retirements from F1.

I hope he doesn't come back because, with the nicest will in the world, the time has come to accept that his era is past and any further comebacks will only add to the damage he has already done to his reputation.

No-one likes to see a great actress playing parts which are designed for those who are 20 years her junior.

To be honest - and I know all his fans out there do not want to hear this - in the Formula 1 paddock at Monaco it was hard to find anyone who cared that Mansell was not there any more. To the fast-moving F1 circus Nigel was well past his "Sell By" date.

Even the European press (which always championed Mansell's cause when the British press had grown to dislike - and in some cases detest - him) began to refer to him as "le dinosaur" or "il vecchio leone" (the old lion).

Perhaps the saddest thing is that Nigel was not only gone, but that his departure was a humiliating one - at least to those in the circus.

After his poor performance in the Spanish Grand Prix his F1 future looked limited. That evening in Barcelona the subject of discussion in the paddock was not whether Nigel would go, but rather when. No-one actually thought that McLaren would bite the bullet and kick him out and so it was a surprise when just before Monaco the team and Mansell announced that they had decided to end their relationship with him.

The press release was a classic example of modern F1 flim-flam, talking of parting on the best possible terms and possibly working together again in the future. It looked as though a bunch of lawyers had got together to paper over the cracks in the relationship so that there could be a quiet split without too much messy legal action. I have no doubt that there was a healthy financial settlement on condition that no more mud would be slung between the two parties. That is the way things are done in F1 these days.

The fact was that every other source of information in the paddock was suggesting - and some without much subtlety - that Nigel was leaving McLaren with an imprint of Ron Dennis's boot on the seat of his overalls. Ron, so they said, had simply had enough.

If the truth be told - and it rarely is in F1 - the McLaren team never really wanted Mansell in the first place. It was the team's primary sponsor Marlboro - which normally has extremely good strategic thinking - which insisted that McLaren take on Mansell. It was not a good move but the logic behind the decision is clear: Marlboro needed a World Champion to head its "Marlboro World Championship Team".

The company had been spoiled in the 1980s and 1990s because there as always either Alain Prost or Ayrton Senna on hand. The problem in 1995 was that the stars who dominated the 1980s and early 1990s had gone: Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet into retirement; Ayrton Senna to his death and Michael Schumacher was tied up in a bulletproof contract at Benetton. It must have been bullet-proof because McLaren tried very hard to chisel the German out of McLaren in the autumn of 1994.

The reality therefore was that Marlboro's only choice was Nigel - all the other living World Champions were too old. Niki Lauda, the last champion before the Prost/Senna/Piquet era, was 46; Keke Rosberg was 47 and Alan Jones 50. The youngest available World Champion other than 41-year-old Mansell was 1980 World Champion Jody Scheckter, who retired young in 1981 and is still only 45 - although he has not raced for the last 14 years.

Marlboro insisted, despite opposition from McLaren, that it had to be Mansell and so McLaren swallowed its pride and signed him up. The resulting relationship was a disaster right from the start - as many thought it would be.

Within a few weeks McLaren's hard-won reputation for excellence and efficiency had been torpedoed and the team made the laughing stock of F1 when Mansell refused to drive the new MP4/10 because the cockpit was too small for him.

There is no question in my mind that Ron Dennis would have done anything possible to avoid this information being made public and would have preferred Nigel to struggle through the first couple of races quietly retiring after a few laps and blaming the electrics or some other untraceable fault while a new chassis was readied and thus save the team from considerable public embarrassment. Most drivers would have done that and the press would never have found out that there was a problem.

But throughout his career Nigel was never one to pass up the opportunity to complain and having demolished McLaren's hard-won reputation, he then sat out the first two races while Mark Blundell, who is very little different in size to Mansell, took over. The McLaren team worked night and day to build Mansell a new "wide-bodied" car - which they referred to as "The Big Mac".

When it arrived Mansell didn't like it, and he didn't perform. In Barcelona he complained that the car was undriveable and that he did not trust it. The team - which had worked itself into the ground - was stung once again.

Nigel's complaining was a feature throughout his career. This, so they said, was a way in which he put pressure on teams and on himself to produce better performances, but listening to the endless whingeing sometimes grew to be very tiresome - even when Nigel was winning without much difficulty in 1992 he always had a complaint about the car.

This policy helped him to become a major sporting hero in Britain where he painted himself as the underdog - the normal guy fighting against evil foreigners and nasty corporations. The Fleet Street editors liked that and so the mainstream newspaper men were effectively banned from writing anti-Mansell pieces. It was all gung-ho "Our Boy Nige" kind of stuff. The specialist F1 reporters were less kind, and when a few years ago Nigel referred to them as "corrupt" he alienated them all for ever. Telling a journalist that he is corrupt is like telling a driver that he is slow. They don't like it.

Oddly enough, Nigel could be a nice bloke when he wanted to be. He was a strange character - all the great racers are - because at times he could be wonderful company, considerate, friendly and helpful. At other times he would be as unbearable example of what fame and money can do to a simple bloke from the Black Country. He surrounded himself with cringeing flunkies who kowtowed to his every whim. It is often the way with the big stars, they find fame a lonely experience.

But, frankly, his character is not important, because Mansell was - in the final analysis - a great racing driver. Any team could put up with his complaining because he delivered the goods. His mechanics loved him so long as he was fast.

"The thing about Nigel," said one famous F1 figure, "is that he is a fantastic racing driver, so long as he doesn't open his mouth. Really he should be helicoptered into his car with his helmet on and then winched away as soon as he has finished driving."

For a pressman - whether they liked him or not - Mansell was a godsend because whenever he raced there was a drama. He was a showman. He was constantly fighting against the odds. He retired from F1 twice: once at Silverstone in 1990 when his Ferrari broke under him. He was enticed back the following year by Frank Williams and went on to win the 1992 World Championship but when Williams balked at his financial demands for 1993 he quit F1 again - only to be lured to the United States of America by Carl Haas to win the Indycar title.

After Ayrton Senna was killed Mansell returned to F1 again in the middle of last season - and did a handful of races for Williams, winning the season's finale in Adelaide. It was a lucky win because Nigel was half a minute behind Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill when they collided.

It would have been the perfect moment for Mansell to end his career - going out on a high. Racing drivers, however, rarely know when it is time to quit and Mansell insisted that he wanted to go on racing in 1995. He then had to face the indignity of being dropped by Williams in favor of David Coulthard, who had just eight Grands Prix to his name at the time. The alarm bells sounded all around F1 - except, obviously at Marlboro headquarters.

I cannot say I was ever a big fan of Nigel the man, but I always appreciated his ability behind the wheel. He gave F1 fans around the world enormous pleasure and we should not forget that.

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