Features - News Feature

APRIL 1, 1989

Nigel Mansell talks about himself and about Ferrari


In England every pub has a slightly inebriated man in the corner. Invariably this gent has an opinion about Nigel Mansell: race ace, celebrity, harrassed hero, diva, family man, policeman -- you hear it all. It's fun listening, but what is he really like? What you hear in the pubs comes only from what appears in the newspapers -- and you cannot always trust that.

In England every pub has a slightly inebriated man in the corner. Invariably this gent has an opinion about Nigel Mansell: race ace, celebrity, harrassed hero, diva, family man, policeman -- you hear it all. It's fun listening, but what is he really like? What you hear in the pubs comes only from what appears in the newspapers -- and you cannot always trust that.

The British tabloid press has a curious habit of creating heroes in order to shoot them down. Anyone who has transcended the sport to become 'a personality' is a potential target for the less savoury members of the Fleet Street fraternity. As a result mansell doesn't give that many interviews.

"I've never really been interested in my public image," he says, finally tracked down without the never-ending crowd of wellwishers, hangers-on and eager men with microphones. "I've always been my own person. I know my own personality and I'm not wavered one way or the other."

In this respect mansell is cautious -- it doesn't always look that way when he's out on a quick lap -- but it is a necessary evil.

"To begin with people give you a lot of advice. Some disliked me for my stubborness. In the later years the people who didn't like me now respect me."

That's certainly true. Whatever else you hear, it is rare to find someone who does not respect his all-too-obvious talent behind the wheel of a Formula 1 racing car -- unless the inebriated gent in the corner is more than moderately out of his skull and unable to reason properly.

He isn't unapproachable once you get through the protection, as efficient as American football blockers. And when he warms to a subject you notice the colder, carefully-worded, professional approach begin to drop and the Birmingham accent is more obvious. he becomes a person rather than an image. Is it a normal person?

"I certainly hope so!" he smiles. "Every medical examination tells me I'm a human being -- just! I've been very fortunate in that I've always been very solid on the ground. I've been quite renowned for being dogmatic in that way. My police work makes me realise what is happening in the world. Ignorance is very blissful and I'd suggest that if anybody was to spend a week going out with the police and see what they have to deal with on a day to day basis -- and deal with so admirably -- they would realise there is a lot more to life. I would say my feet are a lot more on the ground than many people.

"I'm very determined. I know what is correct for me. Someone can give me the best advice, but I know that my character couldn't do the role as they wanted me to. I have no wish to play that part. It's like someone looking at a movie script and saying, 'Can I do the lead role for this?' They read the script and say, 'Yes I can do that or no, it's not for me.' I can only ever be what I am. If someone wants to change me, that's their problem, not mine. I think a lot of people who get the chance in F1 try to please too many people instead of being their own person. I personally believe in the years I have been in F1 I have seen a lot of good drivers who have gone to the wall because they haven't been themselves. They've tried to please other people."

In this respect mansell is very different from the norm. He is very publicly a family man -- something often derided in a world where racing drivers are supposed to be glamorous playboys with their feet permanently way off the ground. But he doesn't care.

"I think in my private life, my family, my children, my home, my various other business interests, I've been very lucky. I figure there is still time to win the World Championship and if it comes my way, great. But it's not the be-all-and-end-all of my life. If it comes, thank you, I will accept it with open arms, but if it doesn't I won't be that disappointed."

It's a very different Mansell from the early years, more relaxed and self-confident.

"One of the things I have learnt is to be happy and contented. It's easier now because the fire that's burning is controllable. When you are on your way up the fire is generally totally out of control. I think that is the difference between a mature driver and someone coming up; controlling one's feelings, controlling one's aggression. It starts to happen when you win your first race. That's a big milestone, then it changes after you've won your 10th race and again in the teens. You have different feelings, different views and different control over the situation. It's amazing going through the transitions, the different feelings and views you have about doing your job."

Looking back how does he sees those early years now?

"I was very fortunate -- a little like Johnny Herbert is because he couldn't be with a better team, or a better team manager than Peter Collins -- because I was with Colin Chapman. For the first few years in F1 nothing else mattered. What anyone thought of me didn't concern me. What Colin said to me was gospel.

"The best drivers had passed through his fingers. The way he treated me was not as a team owner, but as a father figure. When he departed so unexpectedly I became my own person."

Mansell's career has been full of ups and downs since the days of Chapman and particular moments stand out.

"I have one regret -- listening to my pit crew saying there is no need to change tyres in Adelaide in 1986. I should have just forced the issue and come into the pits. Hindsight being 20-20, it's very easy to say that, but there are are lots of 'ifs', 'buts' and 'onlys' in F1. In my particular case with only 16 laps to go, I think it was a shame that the tyre didn't hold together, and that the team didn't see fit to change tyres. In some ways the championship was lost for me, but I don't blame anybody for that and I can live with that.

"That was absolutly the lowest point in my career. Every driver in Formula 1 is driving for that one thing, the championship. That is what keeps you going.

"It was like my friend Greg Norman in the Masters golf. When Larry Myers chipped in from nowhere to win, it took Greg about a year to get over it. I think the situation for me was more or less the same. Fortunately I won a load of races again in 1987."

And a high point? "Rio! No, I think the highest point of the career emotionally was back in 1987 at Silverstone, coming from behind and setting 11 new track records in the last 19 laps to beat Nelson Piquet. What made it for me was not just winning, but the way the crowd reacted. I'd never seen that happen. That was a very special day."

And Rio? That too must have been quite special. Visiting Italy he must feel that same kind of support from the famed Ferrari fans -- the tifosi?

"Well I've only been in Italy for two days since Rio! Really I saw the difference before the end of last year when I actually signed for Ferrari. Bearing in mind that I signed for them six months before the end of the season, my reception in Italy was different overnight.

"Subsequently I was driving at Fiorano and setting good times initially and now I've won in Rio. It goes without saying I think that they are very enthusiastic. Everyone knows how emotional they are. What can I say? They are just fantastic to have on your side. It is a very good feeling to have that many people pulling for you. I've felt it against me in he past and at times it can be quite disconcerting. But I don't think there will be too many people at San Marino causing problems for the Ferraris!"

It's a valid point, particularly judging by the crowds opposite the pits during the Imola testing, where this interview took place. The crowd cheered loudly every time mansell appeared.

"In any racing driver's view Ferrari has always held a mystique and a feeling of, 'Wouldn't it be fantastic to win with Ferrari'. Circumstances have seen fit to put me in a Ferrari. The Gods saw fit to let me win my first race with Ferrari. That's a pretty hard act to follow now!"

The San Marino organisers are expecting up to 300,000 fans for the race this weekend. All will be saying 'mansell is going to win' (in Italian!). How does he feel about that?

"I hope they are right. Let's not be shy about this! If it is down to willing the Ferrari on, then let it be me or Gerhard who wins for them. I've got no problems if Gerhard wins here -- as long as I am second...

"Gerhard is very good. Very professional. And he's very, very, fast. He demands a lot from his car which is good because we are pushing in the same direction. I think we are working very well together because we both really want to win. We both know what is required to win. It hasn't been the same for me with a team mate since the days with Keke (Rosberg) really, although I had a very good relationship with Riccardo last year. Gerhard and I get on very well with one another.

"I feel I have a new lease of career being at Ferrari. I had a similar thing when I went from Lotus to Williams. I had a fantastic time and really a tremendous amount of success at Williams, but I come to Ferrari and I feel different again. It's extraordinary.

"The Italians are so different to work with, in some ways it's very hard, and in other ways it's very satisfying. They definitely reciprocate in a number of ways that English teams don't. Probably because they show their emotions more. Where I feel Ferrari win a lot of credit with the drivers is that, if you do something wrong, they will let you know instantly. Then it is forgotten and you go from strength to strength.

"I also have the opportunity, being with Ferrari, of having my children with me a little more often. Italians are more aware of the family unit. With an English team I would never have dreamt of taking my children to a test whereas I have already taken my son to Fiorano when I was testing. It was fabulous, they took him off and showed him things. It was fabulous for him and fine by them."

Presently mansell is 'multo contento' at Ferrari, but will he be able to win in Italy as happened in Rio? Subsequent tests have seen identical problems to those experienced before the Brazilian race.

"Gerhard, who has done all the testing here at Imola in the last few days, hasn't managed to do more than five laps at a time. He said to me yesterday, 'How the f-lipping heck did you manage to do 61 laps'. He still doesn't believe it!

"We have to have a little bit of luck in this game and I think the Gods shone favourably on us that day and we were very fortunate. All I did was put my hands up and say, 'Thank you very much'."

Such were the problems during practice in Brazil that mansell had actually booked an early flight to Europe on the Sunday afternoon!

"Lap after lap the car kept going and, by lap 30, I was thinking 'Well, I've missed my early plane now'. I was actually getting a little bit angry with the car, thinking, 'This car is probably going to break down just before the end of the race, so all the hard work is going to be thrown out of the window'. Saying that and, joking apart, if you get a Grand Prix car past half distance you hopefully have more than a 50 percent chance of getting through to the end, it's the first 30-40 laps that are the biggest problem.

"As the race continued it was like being in a torture chamber, because of all the problems we had been through on the Friday and Saturday. In the last 15 laps I have never driven so slowly in a Grand Prix car to win a race. I was nursing it like you wouldn't believe. And I was so conscious of the engine, the gearbox, bearing in mind I had been towed in five times in qualifying and I hadn't completed any session without stopping. In the warm-up in the morning I managed to do one lap!

"My mind was programming every eventuality from the point of view of things going wrong and, just to make my life a little bit more exciting, we had that problem with the steering wheel with only 20 laps to go. That drew my attention to something which I wasn't expecting!

"It didn't cross my mind that I was going to win first time out in a Ferrari. I've won a number of races now and I know that until you pass that chequered flag you have never won, so I never once thought, 'Here I am I am going to win my first race', until I went past the line. Then my first thought was, 'Is it really over? Did I really win it?'. There were quite mixed emotions. Perhaps one shouldn't be honest and say that there was a lot of relief that the car had kept going, but there was..."

Emotion is not something you hear a lot of in Grand Prix racing.

"When you are actually doing the job, you have to be very cool. You have to be very precise and very little emotion should come into it. But outside the car, I think I'm just like any normal person. I'll react to certain and won't react to other things.

"Concentration is very important, to be relaxed. If I ever got uptight in a racing car -- which I don't think I have for a number of years now -- I think it would time to walk away.

"Many people, particularly in the last couple of years, have said, 'Why do I keep doing it?' I do it because I like doing it, because I have the feeling of still being very competitive, still having the capability to win.

"If you are reliable enough, win enough and finish enough races in the points, you get the elusive World Championship.

"Now with 14 wins I am very comfortable. I am very happy to be off 13. I didn't like the number at all! Twelve was all right, 14's great, but obviously I want to win more races. I am now with Graham Hill, Sir Jack Brabham, Ayrton Senna and Emerson Fittipaldi on 14 wins. I'm the only one that hasn't won a World Championship. I missed that by one point and obviously a fair bit of bad luck.

"I took a stand last year: for the rest of my career, I will only ever do a one-year contract. I think you will always be offered a good drive if you are good enough. I'll just take every year as it comes, if I am happy I shall stay where I am, if I'm not happy I'll look and see what is happening elsewhere. I am now a proven winner, and, as such, you don't have to worry about subsequent years, they take care of themselves. For the foreseeable future -- a two-three year plan -- I see myself only doing Formula 1."

As long as he remains in F1, Nigel will continue to lead very much of an 'If it's Tuesday it must be Belgium' kind of life.

"It's unbelievably chaotic! At present my family are at our home in the Mediterranean. I dropped them off on the way down here. I have an HS125 800 series jet so, to a certain extent, travelling is as comfortable as one can make it. Having said that it is still very arduous at times. In between you try to see the family and sleep in your own bed for a couple of nights.

"I'm fortunate that my wife is my closest friend. I'm very lucky, I've been with her for 18 years, and we've been married 14 years. My children have made me a lot more understanding. You join the club and realise there are far better things in life to just winning races, earning money or anything like that.

Money has made Nigel an extremely wealthy man, how does he look upon it, now he has plenty?

"To a certain extent money has never been the be-all-and-end-all. What comes before money, even before you become a sportsman in F1, is your health and happiness. Without them there is no amount of money which can make you happy.

"It would be fair to say I don't pay too much importance to money. Having said that when it comes to negotiating contracts, I can be be as fierce and as hard as the next man!"

The wealth from being a Grand Prix star has enabled Nigel to live (some of the time!) on the Isle of Man.

"Financially, it costs me!" he says. "We pay 20% tax. No matter what retainer you have, 20% of some of the figures that are bandied around is a lot of money to pay the taxman.

"By putting all that aside, I wouldn't change it for one minute. It's worth it. The Isle of Man is very special. I call it a little country all on its own. It has its own government, its own laws and its own way of life. The people there are tremendous. They know me, but everyone is able to live the life that they would chose. I don't think that is possible for me in England anymore.

"You can go to Monte Carlo and the weather would be better and you wouldn't pay any tax, but you wouldn't be able to have to have the facility to have a home like we have on the island, you wouldn't have the schooling for the children. There are times, especially when the weather is bad for three or four days on the trot, when I am thinking 'Oh dear, this is getting me down a little bit', but to put that into perspective, I haven't spent more than three months on the island a year in the last six."

As everyone now knows, Nigel is the island's most famous policeman -- a special constable.

"I feel I contribute every time I go out with them and I do as much police work as conceivably possible. I have been involved with the police since 1980. You may remember I used to go out on patrol with the Los Angeles Police Department.

"The things I have witnessed is prolific compared to what happens in England; arresting people on drugs, heroin, going on a proper drugs bust, going out on helicopter patrol at night and even being in a car chase! I've actually been to a shootout. I was ducking for cover and I wasn't very happy! Everyone's got bullet proof vests and guns and there's poor me , having signed my life away -- you have to do that because if you get killed or hurt you can't sue the police for being with them -- having probably the most frightening time I've ever had in my life!"

Less wellknown than his police work on the Isle of Man, is Nigel Mansell the businessman: car dealerships, retail businesses and a major new development -- Pine Cliffs Golf and Country Club -- in Portugal.

"I've never sat down and given anyone a lowdown of what we are into. We presently employ about 220 people. I'm very interested in that side of life. In the years to come we will be involved in a few more things."

The pressures must mount up with all this activity. Doesn't being an 'action man' ever get to him?

"You talk about pressure in motor racing, but I don't feel that. It is my job of work. I could talk to you for five years about the pressures of playing golf! I had a go in the Australian Open. How pressure can screw you in golf is unbelievable!

"I think, you are as old as you feel and as young as you feel. Some days you can get up and feel dreadful -- about 90 years old -- especially after a Grand Prix. The next day you get up and feel revitalised and ready to go and take on the youngsters again."

At 34, Mansell is a race ace, celebrity, family man, policeman and businessman. People make of him what they wish.

And this interviewer? What do I make of him? Well, the occasional #10 from an ardent fan in a bar (funnily enough) who bets on Nigel winning the World Championship without fail every year. Some years I take the bet, others I do not, thus far it has been financially rewarding, but I'm not altogether certain my income will remain constant in the years ahead.

As a person? Once you get through the blockers, he's a lot more fun than the Mansell image would have you believe...