Nigel Mansell won the 1992 F1 World Championship comfortably before announcing his shocking switch to American IndyCar racing for the following year. He had become fed up with protracted contract renewal negotiations so departed his beloved Williams and F1 on sour terms. Given these circumstances, it makes Mansell’s return to both for 1994 all the more remarkable.
Mansell (pictured in 1994) won the IndyCar title during his rookie year in 1993. It was an astonishing achievement.
The upcoming book provides more detail, but essentially Nigel’s return to F1 in 1994 was a direct result of Senna’s tragic accident. Because F1 was left without any world champions on the grid and Schumacher was dominating races, Bernie Ecclestone needed to bring some positive news to a sport in crisis. F1’s commercial supremo, therefore, engineered Mansell’s return believing it would give Schumacher a worthy rival whilst also increasing television ratings.
The deal worked for Williams because thus far their FW16 car proved troublesome to set-up so Mansell’s vast experience might help identify that elusive ‘sweet spot’. Moreover, the additional crowds Nigel would pull in during his comeback race, the French Grand Prix, would be attractive to Williams’ French engine suppliers (Renault).
However, Renault were paying Mansell a superstar salary whereas their regular driver, Hill, was on a fraction of that amount. The question was how would Mansell compare with the new stars of Formula One like Schumacher?
Nigel Mansell & his wife, Roseanne, meeting the owner of the Brands Hatch circuit (Nicola Foulston) prior to his first test in the Williams FW16.
A record crowd turned out to watch Mansell testing the 1994 Williams prior to his first race. It underlined what a ‘box office’ draw he was at the time.
“That’s the first time I drove my balls off to get the pole,” Hill said after narrowly beating Mansell to the top spot. “It focused Damon,” Nigel later admitted, “because getting back in the car after two years, I shouldn’t have been anywhere near it.” Hill also claimed that having the 1992 World Champion support his set up feedback within the team helped him gain respect and support internally.
Due to his IndyCar commitments, Mansell couldn’t return again until the final three races of 1994 at which point things were tougher. By then Hill had demanded David Brown, the key Williams engineer who assisted Mansell and Prost to their championships, worked on Damon’s car rather than the #2 Williams. It was a clever move by Hill because Brown and Mansell had a special relationship from 1992, so Hill’s move ensured Mansell didn’t outperform him upon his return.
The 41-year-old was also not used to standing starts because rolling starts were used in IndyCar and his 1992 Williams had been equipped with traction control. Therefore Mansell showed this rustiness by getting massive wheel spin and losing several places during all of his 1994 F1 starts. Furthermore, Mansell claimed to have arrived at F1 events “spaced out” because he was regularly flying backwards and forwards from his home in America.
Mansell was also having to juggle impressing Williams enough to secure a full-time F1 drive with them whilst not harming Hill’s title challenge in the process. Mansell had been competing against David Coulthard for the 1995 Williams drive and things got so competitive between them, that the ex-world champion barred the Scot from entering his garage during the Japanese & Australian race weekends. As a joke, “Coulthard banned” signs appeared in the Williams pits with a photo of the unwanted colleague with a red diagonal stripe across it.
Coulthard had finished a strong second in Portugal before Mansell took over his seat for the final three races of 1994.
Mansell’s best showing did, however, come at the final race of the year after he out-qualified the two title contenders, Hill and Schumacher. Afterwards, the returning F1 star claimed; “I was told all sorts of things by the powers-that-be. ‘You will not be part of this race, don’t get a good start, watch the race, do not interfere…’ So I deliberately didn’t get a very good start and I just sat there and watched.” The race turned into an enthralling duel for the championship until Schumacher collided with Hill to take the 1994 crown under controversial circumstances.
It gifted Mansell the win, but even that did not stop Williams committing to Coulthard for 1995. Mansell then joined the new exciting partnership of McLaren Mercedes, but this proved a major disappointment. After missing the first two races because he had struggled to fit into the car, Mansell then performed poorly before walking away from F1 after only two races with the team. Although that was Mansell’s final Grand Prix, he never officially confirmed his retirement.
According to an upcoming book contributor and the man who replaced Mansell at McLaren in 1995, Mark Blundell, the chemistry between the two was never going to work.
McLaren’s team principal, Ron Dennis, was such a different personality to Mansell and at the time the relationship was seen as a stop-gap so Mercedes could try to lure Schumacher for 1996. Blundell also states “I first knew Nigel when I was a test driver at Williams. Something needed trying, I forget what, and I heard him say, ‘Get the test monkey to do it.’ When I took his drive at McLaren I wanted to make some monkey comment in return, but never got the chance.”
Mark Blundell (pictured in the 1995 McLaren) has kindly contributed towards the upcoming book. His insights are extremely valuable for many reasons.
1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season is a new book which amongst other things explores why the Williams FW16 was initially difficult. This lead Senna to search for a reason why Schumacher’s Benetton had much better traction than his car. What did Senna hear on Schumacher’s car which troubled him and were his suspicions justified? Keep checking www.1994f1.com for more F1 blogs and the release date for the book.
Images courtesy of Rick Dikeman, Fox 1 and Martin Lee via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page and Leigh Burton