Thursday, 5 July 2012

1985: European Grand Prix

If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again. A phrase that trips off the tongue easily enough, but imagine trying to apply this principal 72 times to a certain aspect of your life. For that is the number of attempts that Nigel Mansell, CBE, had to make before achieving his first Grand Prix victory, which could easily be forgotten amongst all that followed for the Englishman. And to make things that much sweeter, Mansell achieved his maiden success on home soil and left a former team principal with a rather large portion of egg on his face.

Mansell's rise to the top was a long and hard ordeal, involving a lot of personal sacrifices, both financial and physical. As his career progressed through kart racing, to Formula Ford (1976-78), Formula Three (1978-80) and Formula Two (1980), Mansell invested all of his personal belongings into his quest to become a serious racing driver, giving up his job as an Aerospace Engineer at Lucas Engineering in the process.

However, the toll on Mansell's body was immense: in the 1977 Formula Ford season, Mansell broke his neck in a qualifying event at Brands Hatch (three weeks after giving up his job), and doctors were adamant that Mansell should never race again. This tiny obstacle, and the fact that he was within inches of becoming a quadriplegic, did not deter Mansell from his dream. Frighteningly, he ignored the advice of medical staff, and returned to racing.

This was not an end to the pain, however: a Formula Three crash in 1979 involving Andrea de Cesaris, left Mansell with a broken vertebrae. With some success (1977 British Formula Ford champion and a Formula Three win at Silverstone in 1979) and bravery such as Mansell was portraying, it was hardly surprising when he started to attract the attention of F1 Lotus chief Colin Chapman.

Mansell performed well enough in his Lotus trial to become a fully fledged test driver for the team in 1980. That he had taken vast amounts of painkillers to get him through this (due to the de Cesaris crash), indicates the determination of the man. His testing went so well that Chapman handed three starts to Mansell during the 1980 season.

Mansell's first race ended after just 40 laps, but that only tells half the story. Just before the race, the Lotus mechanics accidentally sprayed Mansell with fuel, meaning the debutant had to race in petrol soaked overalls. Imagine driving 40 laps in a formula one car full stop, and then try and contemplate this whilst suffering first and second degree burns to your buttocks. If for any reason you're still doubting Mansell's desire, then this surely goes to emphasise just how driven (pardon the pun) the man was.

Mansell's time at Lotus was not particularly successful: out of the 58 races he qualified for, he only finished 24 of them. In his defence, the Lotus was not totally reliable at the time, and between 1980-84 Mansell did manage to finish third on five occasions. In 1984, Mansell also secured his first ever pole position, and finished tenth in the drivers championship. But Chapman's death two years earlier spelt trouble for Mansell at Lotus, as his replacement, Peter Warr was, to put it mildly, not his biggest admirer. On Mansell's departure from Lotus to Williams, Warr commented that "He'll never win a Grand Prix as long as I have a hole in my arse." Just as well Mansell didn't need a job reference for his new team then.

The 1985 season would at last provide Mansell with some rewards for his hard work. Six points finishes in his first ten starts of the season, meant as the year progressed, so did both Mansell and Williams. His second place finish in the Belgian Grand Prix was further proof that at last, with the right car and support, Mansell was moving closer and closer to achieving his first Grand Prix victory. That it was achieved after Mansell had cracked ribs and torn chest ligaments in practice after his steering wheel had broken, is yet another example of Mansell's resolve. And then came the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch on Sunday October 6.

Going into the race, Frenchman Alain Prost of McLaren held a 16 point lead over his nearest challenger, Ferrari's Michele Alboreto of Italy; Lotus' Ayrton Senna was in third position, in a year when the Brazilian had won his first two races of his career; Senna's team-mate, Elio de Angelis was a point further back back in fourth, with Mansell's Williams colleague, Keke Rosberg in fifth position. Mansell was eight points behind Rosberg and no doubt desperate to turn his promising season into something more worthwhile.

The battle for pole position turned out to be an exciting duel between the Brazilians Senna and Piquet (Brabham). Piquet held the provisional pole, lapping at 1:09.204, but Senna easily improved on this, clocking 1:08.020. In the second qualifying session, Senna again improved to 1.07.786, and looked set to start Sunday at the head of the grid. However, Piquet hit back with a superb lap time of 1.07.482, and Senna looked done for. Naturally Senna didn't throw in the towel, charging his Lotus around the track in a furious attempt to pip Piquet to pole. Incredibly Senna managed to lap in 1:07.169, even managing to do this whilst having to overtake Prost's slow moving McLaren along the way. It wasn't the first or last time that the diminutive Brazilian would enthrall the F1 viewing world.

The two Williams cars were third and fourth on the grid, Mansell in third, a full 0.890 seconds behind Senna. The surprise package in qualifying was Philippe Streiff (Ligier), who managed to gain fifth place, just ahead of Prost. Prost only needed to finish two points ahead of Alboreto to win the title, and with the Italian in a disappointing 15th place, Prost's chances of securing his first World Championship were looking rosy. Derek Warwick (8th), Martin Brundle (16th), and John Watson (21st) made up the rest of the British contingent, Watson replacing the injured Niki Lauda of McLaren, in his first race for two years, and one which would turn out to be Watson's last ever start in F1.

At the start of the race it looked as if Prost's hopes of wrapping up the title would have to be put on hold for at least another fortnight. Whereas Senna and Mansell both got away well, Rosberg hardly moved, causing Prost to swerve on to the grass to avoid hitting the Finn (although co-commentator James Hunt remained convinced that it was Mansell that had caused the problem). Mansell, after his fine start, slipped from second to fourth, almost leaving the track at the Druids bend. Rosberg recovered to move into second behind Senna, with Piquet in third. Prost slumped to 14th position, trailing Alboreto who had moved up to 9th. As the incomparable Murray Walker intimated, it was very much race on.

Not the ideal start for Prost (far right)

The key incident of the race occurred on lap seven: in attempting to overtake Senna, Rosberg clipped the the leader, as Senna closed the door on the Finn. Unfortunately Piquet could not avoid hitting the spinning Rosberg, and lost his front wheel and wing in the incident, finishing his race. Rosberg managed to rejoin the race, after a sojourn to the grass, but his left rear tyre had been seriously damaged in his collision with Piquet, leading to his Williams car limping into the pits. After a lengthy pit stop of 19.75 seconds, Rosberg rejoined the race. The frustration that Rosberg would have felt as this time ticked by in the pits must have been unbearable. Come the end of the race, the timing of this pit stop took on a greater significance, especially to Nigel Mansell.

The duration of Rosberg's pit stop played directly into Mansell's hands. On leaving the pits, Rosberg pulled out immediately in front of Senna and Mansell, and with Senna unable to pass Rosberg, Mansell seized his opportunity, overtaking Senna on the inside to move into the lead. Worse was to follow for Senna: Rosberg let Mansell past on the Hawthorn Bend, but promptly slammed the door shut on Senna. "Rosberg's angry with Senna, there's no doubt about that" stated James Hunt, and it was obvious to all that in helping his team-mate, Rosberg was also getting what he must have seen as an early dose of revenge on Senna. As Mansell pulled away from Rosberg and Senna, Prost was closing in on sixth placed Alboreto. Mansell's lead began to steadily grow, as Senna started to lose ground on Rosberg in front of him, allowing Elio de Angelis to gain ground on his Lotus team-mate.

Prost maintained his steady progress through the field, challenging Ferrari's Stefan Johansson for fifth place, and when Alboreto was forced into the pits on lap 13, Prost had one hand on the championship trophy. Even after a rapid 10.08 seconds pit stop, Alboreto's title hopes were in ruins, and shortly afterwards his season was laid to rest as his Ferrari suffered a blown turbo. To the general confusion of everyone, Alboreto continued to drive his flaming car back to the pits, instead of pulling over safely to the side of the track, and ended up bringing the car to a halt in the pits whilst standing in the cockpit. All of this now meant that Prost only had to claim fifth position to claim the world title. Prost, however, was not having everything his own way, as fellow countryman Jacques Laffite firstly overtook Prost to claim sixth, and soon pushed past Johansson to edge into fifth.

After 19 laps, Mansell had stretched his lead on Senna to almost 10 seconds (9.720 to be precise). Brabham's Marc Surer eased past de Angelis to move into third place, and began to gain ground on second placed Senna. Jacques Laffite also passed de Angelis, the Frenchman 41-year-old "driving an absolute storming race" in the words of Hunt. Mansell stretched his lead to 12 seconds after 25 laps, and 13 seconds by lap 31, as Senna became involved in a battle with Surer and Lafitte. Rosberg, despite losing a lap in the Senna incident, had now worked his way back up to 11th.

Surer finally achieved the inevitable, as Senna could no longer hold off the Brabham on lap 36, and just a lap later Lafitte moved into third, meaning Senna had gone from second to fourth in no time at all. Prost was forced to enter the pits after 37 laps, requiring a full tyre change, and although he did lose ground after a 16.90 seconds pit stop, he rejoined the race in eighth position. Prost would soon gain a place when Britain's Martin Brundle was forced out of the race with his engine smoking in the pits, and Prost began tearing around the track, breaking the Brands Hatch lap record on three occasions, clocking 1:12:237 on lap 42, 1:11:872 on lap 44, and 1:11:655 on lap 49. Johansson, free a last from the pursuing Prost, overtook de Angelis to move into fifth place. 

Murray Walker tempted fate on lap 49 by stating that Mansell's Williams was "running like a train"; presumably and hopefully he wasn't referring to a British Rail model? Lafitte's earlier surge was beginning to hit the buffers, as on lap 51 Senna regained third place, Hunt questioning the durability of Lafitte's tyres (indeed shortly afterwards Lafitte would pit to get his tyres changed). Mansell led Surer by 17 seconds, with Senna 8 seconds further back. With just over 20 laps to go, Mansell fans looked on anxiously, knowing he would never have a better chance to break his duck.

Lafitte's pit stop had pushed Prost up to sixth, one place short of the title clinching two points he required. Within a few laps, Prost overtook de Angelis and lapped team-mate Watson at the same time, thus putting him within touching distance of the title. His position was strengthened greatly when Johansson was forced to wait in the pits for an eternity on lap 57, pushing the champion elect to fourth place. If Prost's promotion up the field was impressive then he had nothing on Keke Rosberg, who now sat in sixth.

Lafitte and Johansson both retired on laps 58 and 59 respectively, leaving 13 cars on the circuit (Lafitte did have the small consolation of breaking Prost's lap record prior to his exit). When Marc Surer's impressive race ended on lap 62 with a spectacular turbo fire, Prost moved into third position. However, heavy traffic, involving Riccardo Patrese, Thierry Boutsen and Philippe Streiff, checked Prost's progress, allowing Rosberg to continue his amazing ascent through the positions, and into third place. The race for Prost towards the world title dominated the television pictures, but to nervous British fans, it was a case of no news being good news, as far as Mansell was concerned.

But this didn't stop Murray Walker getting anxious when the coverage did eventually switch back to Mansell, as the excitable commentator started imagining that the Williams car was starting to slow: "Is Nigel Mansell slowing? No, optical illusion." Walker, like the rest of us, was naturally beginning to get a little twitchy as the chequered flag drew closer. But nothing was going to stop Mansell, with Hunt wholesome in his praise of the Brit: "A marvellous drive by Nigel Mansell", adding that the Belgium Grand Prix had finally seen Mansell come of age. As Mansell crossed the line, Walker was understandably triumphant as he announced of Mansell: "He is exultant, he is exuberant, and he's got every justification to be." Walker, to his credit, did not try to hide his favouritism: "I must admit I've been looking forward to saying this for a long time....a brilliant win for Nigel Mansell." After 72 races, Mansell had finally done it.

Behind Mansell, Ayrton Senna came in second, and Rosberg pulled off a remarkable third place finish. Prost clinched the world championship, finishing in fourth place (his lowest placed finish of the season), becoming France's first F1 title winner. Fifth place went to de Angelis, Thierry Boutsen of the Arrows team claimed sixth, and although John Watson was a full two laps behind Mansell, there was no shame in his seventh place finish. Watson had been the last British racer to win a Grand Prix (in Long Beach, USA, in 1983), but thankfully for British fans, that monkey, along with Mansell's winless streak, had been firmly shaken off.

Mansell, who moved up to sixth in the championship table, thanked the home fans for helping him to his win, later pointing out that "At every corner it was incredible. There were Union Jacks all over the place and thousands of people jumping in the air holding their fingers up to tell me how many laps (to go)." It was evident from Mansell's gait, and from his post-race interview, that his ribs were causing him a great deal of pain, though to a man as tough as Mansell this was probably just a minor setback.

Of course, you know how it is: you wait for one Grand Prix victory, and then another one comes along straight away. Mansell won the South African Grand Prix just 13 days later, and he probably didn't want 1985 to come to an end. Unfortunately, Mansell couldn't make it a hat-trick of victories in Australia, as he failed to finish the race, in a sad portent of what was to follow in 1986. In the next two seasons, Mansell won a total of 11 Grand Prix races, unfortunately not enough to win him a world championship, although in 1986 Mansell would win his first BBC Sports Personality of the Year award (not the greatest consolation admittedly). Within two years of Brands Hatch, Mansell's career had changed for the considerable better. I do wonder what Peter Warr made of it all at the time?

Patience isn't a quality all that evident in modern day sport, just ask Andre Villas-Boas. Fortunately for some sportsmen in the 1980s, such as Mansell, Alex Ferguson (a whole four years without a trophy), and Steve Waugh (27 test matches before his first century), people were given a bit more time to prove their worth, which suited Nigel Mansell just fine. Because after 72 attempts, Mansell finally put the doubters in their place, and put the foundations in place for all that was to follow, culminating in his world championship triumph of 1992. If at first you don't succeed....

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