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The Domination Game


Nigel Mansell and Williams blitzed their opposition throughout 1992, yet ended the year in acrimony, what went wrong?


He had a reputation for not being keen on testing. But there he was pounding round Estoril, in February. At seven days, this was the longest pre-season evaluation Williams, the most fastidious of teams, had ever done. For they had a very big decision to make: passive or active?


Nigel Mansell was beginning to dig the latter suspension, having been one of its sternest critics. But whatever the decision, he knew this would be his best chance of righting that 1986 Adelaide wrong.


He was fighting fit, extolling the virtues of his new Florida lifestyle — and he was on it. Every session. He’d often downplay the advantage he possessed in the shape of Adrian Newey’s FW14B. But when he was in it, he couldn’t help himself. He loved it. Revelled in it.


Adrian Newey: “I joined Williams in the middle of 1990, just in time to design the FW14 of ’91. It was the first time I’d designed an Fl car that won races. But our reliability wasn’t good enough; we had a lot of gearbox problems. Patrick Head was good enough to give me a pretty free hand. He always enjoyed the design of the gearbox and transmission, and gave me the general packaging, layout and aerodynamics. Very trusting. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.”


Patrick Head: “Active suspension was very tempting, but we were very concerned about our ability to make the car reliable [this was only the second year in which all 16 GPs counted]. Nigel was very wary initially because he’d done a lot of testing of the Lotus system, and it had dumped him in a pool of oil a few times.”


The pendulum, though, had swung active’s way…


David Brown, race engineer: “Nigel was gagging for it at the beginning of the season. He’d obviously primed himself over the winter, and never let up. The active car was quick immediately. There was obviously an advantage in it and, as ever with Nigel, if there was an advantage, he’d adopt it and get on with it.”


Newey: “Nigel quickly realised we had a very good car, and that his most likely rival for the title was going to be Riccardo [Patrese, his team-mate]. So he set about systematically demoralising him.”


Brown: “We had the ritual weigh-in at the first race [South African GP, Kyalami], and Nigel was determined to be lighter than Riccardo…”


Newey: “I remember something about a dummy helmet…”


Brown: “There were all sorts of shenanigans. No stone was left unturned in this effort for Nigel to be lighter. And he was [76kg to 78]. He was chuffed; Riccardo got extremely Italian about it.”


It was about to get a lot worse for Riccardo: his pole-sitting teammate was 1.5sec quicker in qualifying and romped to a 34sec victory…


Newey: “The car looked competitive but, as always, you’re never quite sure where you are until that first race. To qualify on pole by a big margin and then win, without any serious reliability problems through the weekend, was really something.”


Brown: “Kyalami was a bit of a surprise — it was certainly a surprise to Riccardo how much quicker Nigel was.”


Head: “In 1991, Nigel and Riccardo were close on performance, but in ’92 Nigel stepped up. The main reason for this was the feeling EH and feedback from the active system. Nigel worked out that, if you persuaded yourself to trust it, it would be there once you had got into the cornet He adapted; Riccardo always wished it was a standard car.”

Newey: “Nigel definitely outpsyched Riccardo, but I think he would have outdriven him in any case. The active car was suited to his style — aggressive, throw it in, have belief in it. You had to muscle it because it was generating so much downforce. In the high-speed corners, Nigel was much quicker; it didn’t have power steering, which it should have done in hindsight, and Nigel has tremendous upperbody strength.”


Riccardo Patrese: “Nigel also benefited more from the traction control than I did. The year before, exiting slow corners, I was always able to carry a little more speed because I controlled the power and traction better. In 1992, the computer controlled it.”


Mansell made hay, winning the first five races — South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Spain and San Marino— on the bounce. Williams and Renault (the 67-degree RS3C V10) had produced a couple of gems, the rest hadn’t: McLaren were in a flap, sending six cars to Interlagos, and no longer had F1’s best engine; Rory Byrne’s neat Benetton 192 was also short of breath; Fen-ari’s twin-floor chassis was a disaster. “The gap is false,” said Nigel. To be fair to him, it did verge on the unbelievable.


Head: “People were saying the car is so fast relative to the others that Nigel wins easily. That was annoying for Nigel, because he was driving the arse off it. I can understand it from his point of view: he’d been in a position to win championships before and it hadn’t worked out; all of a sudden it was working out, and everybody was saying to him, ‘Oh well, a monkey would win in that car.’ It couldn’t have been too pleasant for him. He had to say, It may be a good car, but I’m driving it very well.”


Mansell eventually snapped during the post-race press conference in Barcelona, telling one journalist: “You must be on drugs.” Those close to the team were more appreciative of his efforts that day…


Williams: “Spain in the wet is the race that stands out for me. Nigel just disappeared at the start When Michael Schumacher began pulling him in at about two-thirds distance, and we thought there was a problem. But when Michael got within 2sec, Nigel pulled away again at 2.5sec a lap.”


Brown: “We were all right in the dry, but when it got very wet, Schumacher started to reel him. We were all wondering what was going on; talking to Nigel after the race, so was he. He couldn’t understand where Schumacher was getting his times from. In true Nigel fashion, he decided he must be doing something wrong and so started driving on all the weird bits of the circuit, off-line everywhere. He found a load of grip that way and went faster again.”


On the track at least, it seemed Mansell had it all under control — and some of it under wraps…


Newey: “He developed a couple of things that Patrick and I were slow to realise. There were various knobs in the cockpit that allowed you to change things such as ride height and the suspension settings. What Nigel would do was put them in one position, which is what would go down on the set-up sheets because, when you looked in the cockpit, that’s where they were. (We didn’t actually record those particular channels on the telemetry). Then he’d go out and, with David Brown’s blessing, change them on the circuit “This developed to the point where Nigel and David would have a communal debrief as normal, them on one side of the table, Riccardo and his engineer on the other, but whatever they talked about was a load of rubbish mainly designed to fool Riccardo. Then they’d go away and have their proper debrief. From a team point of view, it was not constructive; from Nigel’s point of view, it was quite smart.”


Brown: “We often discussed the car in relaxed circumstances out of hours. I don’t think it was to the detriment of anybody in the team. Nigel required a bit of personal attention, and if that’s what it took to get the best out of him as a driver, then I was happy to meet him in the evening. As far as debriefs are concerned, there was a structure and we adhered to that structure.”


Newey: “What Nigel was doing was running the front much lower. He’d get a fair bit of performance out of it, though it would make the car more difficult to drive. Then in the debriefs Riccardo would say, ‘I think I’ll try going lower at the front’, and Nigel would say, ‘You don’t want to do that, it’s much quicker Wit’s higher.”


Mansell’s run of success eventually came to an end in round six, Monaco, courtesy of a late pitstop caused by a loose wheel nut…


Newey: “It was the result of a very stupid thing. One of the ties on the tyre blanket had got trapped between the wheel and the disc bell when the nut was being done up on the grid — bits of strand were still there after the race. As a consequence, the nut worked loose.”

It was the `nut behind the wheel’ that failed in Canada, where Mansell made his only major mistake of the season…


Brown: “He tried to staightline the chicane in circumstances that no normal man would have attempted! I think he got a bit fazed by Senna. He was suitably pissed off.”

Mansell was up against it in Magny-Cours, too, Patrese leading the early stages. Rain caused the race to be red-flagged, which is when Riccardo’s season was turned on its car…


Patrese: “I think it had been decided at the beginning of the year that I couldn’t go for the championship. But it was never said clearly to me, before Magny-Cours, that I had to be second. In my mind, I thought I could go for the title. That moment was a very sad one for me, because I was driving well and I could have won. But when they stopped the race Patrick told me. I think it was hard for him to say because he was always for me, but I realised I had to come down from my cloud.”


Silverstone was next up — Mansell’s Cloud Nine. Critics said his performance there proved he’d been holding back; believers said he’d just dug extra deep. Whatever, he pulled out a pole lap of apocalyptic proportions, almost 2sec faster than Patrese, 3sec ahead of Senna…


Head: “Silverstone qualifying was pretty special.”


Brown: “The car was quite soft, and it used to move around a bit. Riccardo found it difficult at places like Copse Comer to put absolute faith in the car, whereas Nigel would just get on with it. He just had the confidence. Riccardo walked into the truck, came up to Nigel, looking very stem with his hands on his hips, and said, ‘Stand up!’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to hit him!’ Nigel stood up, and Riccardo stuck his hand out and said, ‘Show me the size of them!”


Mansell wouldn’t allow himself to dare think it, but the fide was now a formality; the press and the rest of the paddock were much more interested in 1993, and who would be driving for Williams. Prost had been linked to the Didcot team as early as Mexico, which is where Frank Williams made his first offer to Mansell — and allegedly told him to prepare to have Prost as his next team-mate. By the time of Hockenheim, Prost was said to be a shoe-in for Williams.


Mansell railed against this. Prost had outmanoeuvred him and outraced him at Ferrari. Already a formidable foe, sorry, team-mate, Prost’s strong links with Williams’ engine supplier made Mansell understandably nervous. He made it known that he’d be happier to have Senna alongside. Sadly, the title run-in was a sideshow. It boiled down to Hungary, but only after heated discussions between Mansell, Williams and Head. There was, though, a title to be won…


Brown: “In Hungary, Nigel had a left-rear puncture. The active car had a detection system whereby it would issue a warning if there was a steady degradation in the attitude of the car. We hauled him in and that put him well down. He had to finish third to take the title. Patrick had misunderstood this and told him that he had to be second, so he attempted a do-or-die move on Gerhard Berger — and pulled it off.” Job done. Everything else up in the air — especially when Senna mischievously announced he would drive for Williams for free…


Newey: “I do have sympathy for Nigel. You could argue that the car carried it, but nevertheless he was particularly dominant He deserved it. But the last few races were clouded by the fact that Frank had signed Prost, and therefore Nigel was effectively out of a drive. I always got on very well with him and so felt slightly aggrieved, especially over the fact that Frank and Patrick knew about it for a long time. Actually, I think Nigel would have beaten Prost in the active car.”


Patrese: “I would have been happy to stay at Williams for 1993, but I thought there was no room, because Nigel was the champion and Prost was coming. It seemed to me incredible that an English driver could win the championship with an English team then leave for America. I was sure they’d find a compromise. I couldn’t wait any longer and signed for Benetton.”


Just hours before the Italian Grand Prix, though, Mansell announced his second retirement from F1; Indycars would be his focus in 1993.


A weight had lifted from his shoulders. He suddenly seemed more assured than Prost and Senna as they bickered over the Williams drive. There would be numerous rumours before the year was out that Nigel wouldn’t go Stateside: Bernie Ecclestone, worried that he might lose Mansell and Senna to Indycars, stepped in; The Sun launched a ‘Save our Nige’ campaign. There is no doubt that Mansell loved all the attention, or that he quietly milked the situation, but at no stage did he go back on his deal with Newman-Haas. He had a couple of unnecessary digs at Prost “the chauffeur”, demanded a reduction in F1 ‘s high-tech (just as he was leaving!), but generally gave the impression that he was well out of it. His Australian Grand Prix collision with Senna was the final nail in this particular coffin…


Brown: “Adelaide was a shame, really. At the end of the day they were the two best guys out there, and they were racing and playing as many games as they could with each other. It was an even bigger shame that it had all gone a bit sour between Nigel and Frank. This meant we were losing our star man, the champion driver. Nigel was the force behind our enthusiasm to gain a technical advantage, and the absolute need to be at the front all the time. When he’s keen about something, he’s absolutely unstoppable; when he’s not, it’s exactly the opposite. But he was on it all the time, and drove us to greater things, showed us what could be achieved. He made a massive contribution during that season. He didn’t just get in the car and pedal it every fortnight.”


Head: “It was rather a pity that we weren’t able to run Nigel in 1993. As it was, leaving enabled Nigel to win an Indy championship which probably meant more to him than another F1 title. The process we went through wasn’t pleasant, though.”


Williams: “Over the years the team had quite a few rocky moments, and Nigel didn’t hesitate in expressing his disappointment in his own well-known way. But in 1992 things went well — for most of the year. Nigel had a winning car, but by that time he’d developed into an unstoppable driver. He was almost in a class of his own that year We couldn’t have won without him.”


Or he without them. But modem F1, sadly, isn’t all about winning.

By Adam Cooper, Paul Fearnley and David Malsher of Motor Sport Magazine (1992), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.