After much success in karts, he graduated to Formula Ford in 1976 where his obvious ability helped him to six wins in his first season and the British Formula Ford Championship the following year, a season in which he suffered a broken neck in a crash at Brands Hatch.
With trademark Mansell grit, when doctors told him he was lucky not to be paralysed and that he should quit racing for six months, he discharged himself from hospital, jumped back in the car and picked straight up where he left off.
British Formula 3 followed in 1977 and ’78, but with an underpowered car success was limited. His efforts would be rewarded with a Formula 1 test with Lotus, team boss Colin Chapman having being suitably impressed at his endeavours in F3.
The Paul Ricard test was for Chapman to determine who should fill the vacant Lotus seat alongside Mario Andretti for 1980, and would see Nigel competing against, amongst others, Elio De Angelis who would eventually get the drive.
In typical Mansell style, he’d broken vertebrae in his back in a spectacular F3 crash prior to the test, but was able to conceal the extent of his injuries from the team with painkillers, barely allowing him to participate.
It’s not wholly surprising that the drive went elsewhere.
Mansell did sufficiently well to earn a ‘test driver’ role at Lotus for the 1980 season, and doing this he was able to remain on Chapman’s radar. As a reward for his efforts in testing and with clear ability, he was given his Formula 1 debut in the Austrian Grand Prix of 1980.
Petrol leaked into the cockpit of his Lotus 81 causing burns to Mansell’s *cough* ‘nether regions’, but true to form he fought on until the engine gave up and he had no choice but to retire.
Two further drives with Lotus in 1980 led to a full time drive for 1981. By now, however, Lotus were in decline, and their cars were difficult to drive for an inexperienced Mansell. Despite largely indifferent results, Colin Chapman’s confidence in him remained. Upon Chapman’s untimely death in 1982 however, the support disappeared, and Mansell felt he was being edged out.
Some fine drives in 1983 and 1984, including building up a commanding lead in the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix (unbelievably there were other drivers in that race other than Ayrton Senna!), before hitting the barrier and retiring, earned Nigel a drive with the Williams-Honda team for 1985 alongside Keke Rosberg.
Rosberg, not keen to have the Englishman as a team-mate having heard he was trouble, started looking for a way out of Williams and put together a plan to move to McLaren for 1986, just as the Williams-Honda partnership was bearing fruit.
Rosberg would later admit that he’d been wholly wrong about Mansell and wished he’d given it more time before reacting.
Mansell secured his long-awaited first win at Brands Hatch in late 1985, and that was quickly followed by his second in the very next Grand Prix at Kylami. This set he and Williams up nicely for a tilt at the championship the following year.
Five Grand Prix wins would follow in 1986, culminating in spectacular finale at Adelaide where Mansell’s tyre would explode when he was in touching distance of the Championship, denying him the prize and handing it to McLaren’s Alain Prost.
Disgruntled team-mate Nelson Piquet, with whom Nigel had battled all season long and who also missed out on the title, had been guilty of underestimating the Englishman, and thought he’d stroll to the title with the Williams-Honda being the class of the field and the support of a below-par teammate.
But it was not to be and in an effort to unsettle Mansell, and unhappy the Sir Frank refused to throw all of his & Williams’ considerable might behind him, Piquet instigated a feud that would continue into 1987.
The season would continue in the same vein, but despite winning six races to Piquet’s three (including a sensational win in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone), he lost out to his team-mate when his season came to an abrupt and painful end when he crashed heavily in Friday Qualifying, ruling him out of the remaining two races of the season.
Under considerable pressure from Honda to drop Mansell and replace him with a Japanese driver, Sir Frank stood firm and Honda joined Piquet in leaving Williams to go to Lotus, who were more accommodating with their driver demands, already employing Satoru Nakajima in their #2 car. And Piquet had the subservient team-mate he longed for. (So subservient in fact that he didn’t qualify for five Grands Prix in the next two years, presumably so as not to get in Piquet’s way (Miaow!)).
Without a works engine deal, Williams were forced to use naturally aspirated Judd V10 engines for 1988, in a season where its turbo-powered rivals McLaren, Ferrari & Lotus all benefitted from between 60 & 80bhp more.
Mansell managed only two finishes, both in second place at a wet Silverstone and at tight, twisty Jerez where power is less important. But this was scant reward for a tough season that followed two world championship near-misses.
Il Commendatore called for 1989 and when that old bugger wants you to drive for Ferrari, you drive for Ferrari.
After a dream start, winning on his debut in Brazil, Mansell suffered a series of reliability issues, largely caused by the team’s revolutionary semi-automatic gearbox. Another win in Hungary from 12th on the grid followed, before being joined at Ferrari by Alain Prost for 1990.
A frustrating year of mechanical issues, while Prost reeled off the wins contributed to Nigel announcing his retirement from the sport after another disappointing DNF at the British Grand Prix.
An offer from Williams to drive their new, Adrian Newey designed FW14 for 1991 convinced Mansell to rethink his retirement, and after a shaky start as Williams mastered the numerous gizmos that would ultimately make the car a world beater, he started winning.
Five wins that year took him to second place in the World Drivers Championship behind Senna, and the die was cast for 1992.
Five wins in the first five races set Mansell on course for the championship crown he’d been cruelly denied twice. Four further race wins, and Mansell and Williams won the title in record time.
But the good times weren’t to last. Renault were keen to seat Alain Prost in the other Williams, and having experienced Prost’s political machinations before, Mansell decided he would need to be rewarded handsomely for conceding his #1 status within the team. Williams felt he was asking too much and withdrew their offer, and Mansell, once again, announced his intention to retire.
Off he went to CART, and won the IndyCar title at his first attempt, being the holder of both F1 and IndyCar titles simultaneously for the first time in history.
His title defence wasn’t quite as straightforward, the three-car Penske team having raised their game significantly, and Nigel began looking back across the pond.
After Ayrton Senna’s death at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994, Williams & F1, with a dearth of big-name drivers were keen for Nige to return. And for a reputed £1m a race, return he did, winning the final of four outings in the FW16.
By now Nigel sought a full time return to Formula 1, and agreed a deal in principle to once again driver for Williams. But Williams were looking to the future and preferred instead to opt for young Scotsman David Coulthard. Who knows what Mansell could have achieved in the 1995 FW17 – I daresay he wouldn’t have been intimidated by Benetton and Schumacher in the way Coulthard and Hill were that year.
Mansell instead joined McLaren but their car was too small for the bulky Brit and difficult to drive.
After two races, Mansell called it a day.