Now, I’m not sure whether I’m lucky that the first Grand Prix I ever attended was one of the most exciting races of all time or whether it was so exciting to me because it was my first British Grand Prix. Either way, it’s one of my all-time favourites.
Qualifying in those days wasn’t live on UK television, and so I wasn’t able to watch Nelson Piquet beat Nigel Mansell to pole, with Ayrton Senna in his Lotus over a second adrift in third. For me the weekend started when my uncle picked up myself and my Dad in his bright red, C-Reg Ford Escort for the 5 hour trip from deepest darkest Northumberland, to the epicentre of the racing world that weekend that was Silverstone.
I’d been to national motorbike racing events before, but never anything on this scale, and so the excitement grew with every one of those 300 or so miles, setting off in the dark to arrive on Brackley road, along with hundreds of other cars, vans and buses packed with racegoers, in the blistering sunshine of high summer in the South of England.
Leaving the car parked in the official British Grand Prix public car park (field) before a short walk (long walk) to the circuit, we made our way to our corner of choice: Woodcote, to find that we’d been beaten to it by five thousand other union jack waving, sunburn afflicted Nigel Mansell fans. It was clear we’d have to continue our journey further round the circuit to find a suitable place from which to watch the action that was about to unfold.
We found a nice spot at Abbey and took our seats. And by seats I mean six square inches of grass each, as the crowds built around us. I was all of seven years old, and along with my Dad and uncle, I sat with my cousin who was six. If we had any worries about being able to see over the people in front of us, then we needn’t have, for my uncle came equipped with the one piece of equipment that no racegoer should ever be without: a step-ladder. Perched atop this step-ladder with our heads in the clouds we could see nicely over those around us, right out to sea if we wanted.
This being our first visit to Silverstone & The British Grand Prix, we were unaware of something that quickly became abundantly obvious as soon as the cars appeared on circuit. Abbey ‘curve’, as it was then called, was less a curve than it was a minor irritant on a straight bit for the F1 stars of the day. As such, we didn’t get much time to admire the cars before they flashed from view and off round the circuit to complete another lap.
The race started well for race-leader Piquet. NNNEOOW, NEEEO-NEEEOO-NE-NE-NE-NEOOOOOWW. Twenty six cars roared by time and again, and, as my seven year-old brain thought unjustly, headed by Piquet, with Mansell close behind urged on at every turn by the massively partisan British crowd.
On lap 35 came a hush. Mansell pitted. He wasn’t meant to. Piquet wouldn’t. People looked at each other blankly, seeking answers. Some solace was found when it all went smoothly and appeared routine. But now he was half a minute behind with 30 laps remaining. He can’t make that up, can he??
Almost immediately, Nigel’s fresh tyres started working for him. He was a second a lap quicker than his Brazilian prey. He was two seconds a lap quicker. The lap record was broken. The new lap record was broken. That new lap record was broken. That new new lap record was…you get the picture. By lap 62 he was on his tail. The crowd erupted. Step-ladders shook with the noise. (Okay, ‘step-ladder’ singular).
In an overtake oft reshown on TV, Mansell feinted left, Piquet blocked and Nige darted to his right sending one up the inside going into Stowe. And how we cheered!
But what about fuel?? It was an era where cars ran out of fuel willy and indeed nilly and those 1.5l V6 turbo engines were notoriously thirsty. Was he going to make it? Could it all have been for nought?
Legend has it that Mansell’s Williams FW11 was running on fumes as it crossed the line. He certainly couldn’t have completed another lap as his Williams ran dry on the slowing down lap and stopped. Mansell wins the British Grand Prix!
Cue the track invasion, and as per usual, Nige was at the centre of it all, lapping it all up like an actor during a particularly enthusiastic encore.
‘Bravo Sir’ we all shouted. Or at least we would have if we weren’t hoarse from 90 minutes of screaming encouragement.
Nige would later thank the fans – me, my Dad, my uncle and cousin amongst them – for ‘putting a second a lap in my pocket’. It was our pleasure Nigel.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you different. Nigel Mansell was f*cking magic, and that day, if he’d asked me for the entire contents of my Halifax Little Extra savings account (the princely sum of twelve pounds) I’d have given him it.