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Nigel Mansell: ‘Ayrton could block like a double-decker bus at Monaco’
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Nigel Mansell: ‘Ayrton could block like a double-decker bus at Monaco’

The Monaco Grand Prix is the race many Formula One drivers want to win most but for Nigel Mansell it was always the one that got away. The former world champion has no regrets, however: well, perhaps that he didn’t quite go far enough during his magnificent battle with Ayrton Senna on the streets of Monte Carlo in 1992.

“We got so close and he blocked so well, and badly,” Mansell recalls. “All these years later I think perhaps I should have just nudged him up the back at one of the corners. If we had switched sides and Ayrton had been following me I feel sure he would have knocked me at one of the corners, but it was still a fantastic race.”

Mansell won the title that year but alongside his achievements of becoming an F1 and IndyCar champion, the 70-year-old remains the driver with the most grand prix wins – 31 – without having taken the chequered flag in Monaco.

In his pomp he was irrepressible, but few may know that nowadays he likes to use a spot of magic to make a difference in children’s lives. Mansell is president of the charity UK Youth, dedicated to helping disadvantaged young people, and when he meets the kids involved he makes a connection not by playing on his past but with sleight of hand. “I get a pack of cards and do tricks, making cards appear and all the rest of it,” he says.

“Doing a little bit of magic for them gets them engaged and you have to engage young people because they all have stories. Someone might say: ‘You used to drive cars didn’t you?’ I say: ‘Occasionally, it’s a bit like a taxi, it’s just like a fast taxi,’ and they laugh and all of a sudden you’re one of their mates.”

Yet he could tell them some mighty tales and the driver the Ferrari fans proclaimed as Il Leone – the Lion – happily relives one of Monaco’s greatest finales.

Driving the Adrian Newey-designed FW14B Williams in 1992, Mansell had been all conquering with five wins on the trot, optimistic of a sixth to end his Monaco hoodoo.

Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna.View image in fullscreen

In qualifying he was a full second quicker than his teammate, Riccardo Patrese, with Senna in the McLaren in third but without the pace to match. Done and dusted it seemed, even with Senna the master in Monaco. By 1992 he had four wins from five and would, before his untimely death 30 years ago at Imola, take a record six victories in the principality.

Looking for any edge, Senna burst past Patrese at the start to be in the right place to take advantage should Mansell falter. But his efforts appeared to have been in vain, with the British driver 30 seconds clear by lap 71. Then it fell apart. Going through the tunnel Mansell felt something go in the rear, a puncture perhaps, but it was also suspected to be a loose wheel nut, either way he had to pit.

Senna took the lead and Mansell set off after him like a man possessed. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I could catch him with the fresh rubber,” he says. The gap was 5.1sec but with three laps to go he had caught Senna and was climbing all over the rear wing of the McLaren.

What followed was epic. Mansell charged, dived and pulled every trick in the book to try to pass or force an error, but to no avail. Senna drove a brilliant defensive line and, as is so often the case in Monaco, there was no way past. Afterwards Mansell congratulated Senna but he believes nowadays it would be a different story, while taking nothing away from the fight they enjoyed.

“With the rules as they were, Ayrton could block like a double-decker bus,” he says. “But today he would have got 10 stop-go penalties, he wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“The thing to be taken away from it is how two incredible champions can race together within inches on a circuit like Monaco and not hit one another. Even with the blocking and brake-testing we still didn’t hit one another and we put on a hell of a show for those last few laps.”

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The McLaren-Honda MP4/7A of Ayrton Senna, crosses the line ahead of the Williams-Renault FW14B of Nigel Mansell to win the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix.View image in fullscreen

That hell of a show concluded with images of an exhausted Mansell, barely able to stand, having to be physically supported up to the podium. He is, however, having none of suggestions that it was theatrics, explaining he drove that season with three broken toes and insists Monaco was punishing.

“I put every bit of energy into doing it,” he says. “The pain I had in my leg and foot after that race was the worst pain I had in any race that year, it was incredible. So yes it was exhaustion. The nervous energy driving under those rigours is mind-blowing. I never told anybody the pain I was in. All I wanted to do was collapse, I was just relieved it was over.”

It had been an immense fight but considering it now, it is Senna’s death Mansell still finds it hard to come to terms with. “There is still a part of me that thinks he is around, everybody thought Ayrton was bulletproof,” he says. “Even 30 years on for part of me it still feels like a bit of a shock.

“Ayrton was an icon of the sport, what he was able to do inside and outside the car was incredible, I am proud to have known and raced so hard with him.”

Mansell went on to win four more grands prix that season and took the title in Hungary. Il Leone was indomitable but Monaco remained out of reach and Senna knew the scale of his achievement acknowledging: “It felt good to tame the lion.”

Source: theguardian.com