The Williams-Renault driver dug ever deeper into his reserves of will-power to complete the first qualifying session with a lap of 1min 18.965sec, an average speed of more than 148mph. He was a remarkable two seconds quicker than last year.
Somewhere in the trailing dust were the rest: Riccardo Patrese, in the other Williams, 1.9sec behind; Ayrton Senna, in a McLaren-Honda, 2.7sec back; Michael Schumacher, in a Benetton-Ford, 3.1sec adrift. It was no contest, a fact reflected in the Englishman's odds of 2-7 for the race. If man and machine prove reliable, he will have a British-record 28th victory and a world-championship lead of at least 36 points with seven rounds of the campaign remaining.
Three other British drivers are on the provisional grid. Martin Brundle (Benetton-Ford) is sixth, Johnny Herbert (Lotus-Ford) is seventh, and Damon Hill (Brabham-Judd) 26th, which will be good enough to earn him his grand prix debut on the track where his late father, Graham, retired from racing.
Top of the bill, however, was Mansell, inevitably, and he relished every moment of it, playing to the gallery of 40,000 with increasingly more breathtaking feats. His first flying lap, 1:20.7, would have been sufficient to head the overnight standings, but for Mansell it was a mere loosener. Soon he was down to 20.5, next 19.7, which was as much as he thought possible. There was more: 19.6, and then, with what seemed his finale, a 19.1. That, surely, was it.
'I would have settled for that,' he said, 'but I thought I'd give it another go because there were so many people here.'
So the great showman went back on and gave them his encore: another two-tenths of a second quicker.
'I really didn't think that could be for real,' he said. 'It would be nice to do a 150mph lap, but I think I'll stick at that. Through Copse, Becketts, Stowe, under the Bridge - I couldn't have gone quicker. You have to commit yourself and I do that. This is my circuit and I always feel I am able to do something special here. Now, though, we have to do our homework for the race.'
A succinct comment on Mansell's time came from Herbert: 'Man, that's crazy.'
As McLaren expected, they were never able to spoil the script, but the gulf between them and Mansell was even greater than they feared. Schumacher split the two McLaren drivers, but Brundle was unhappy to be trailing Gerhard Berger. 'I should be higher up the grid than this,' Brundle, who was third behind Mansell and Patrese in last week's French Grand Prix, said. 'We didn't get the set-up right and we'll have to make changes for tomorrow. We should be looking at third and fourth on the grid.'
Herbert salvaged a healthy position late in the session after spinning his Lotus. He said: 'I managed to prevent the car going into the gravel trap, which would have finished my session, but in braking I bent the wishbone. When we fixed that, I got in a reasonable lap. There's a lot more to come, more from the car than me.'
Hill, who has so far laboured in vain to qualify the Brabham, found a little extra inspiration to haul the car on to the last provisional place. He said: 'I don't want the campers to get wet, but I must admit I don't mind if it rains in the second session. I saw my father in his last race here in 1975 and it would be fantastic to make my grand prix debut here.'
Backstage, speculation on the future of the main players has gathered pace. Senna help generate it by suggesting moves would be confirmed within a fortnight. According to French sources, Alain Prost, currently on a sabbatical, seems certain to join Williams in place of Patrese. Mansell has expressed his preference for the Italian but, as Patrick Faure, the president of Renault Sport, politely but firmly pointed out, it is not for Mansell to pick the team.
Faure stressed he wanted Mansell to stay, underlying the company's wish to win even more races next year. So far this season Mansell has six victories, while Patrese awaits his first. He said: 'When Senna and Prost were together at McLaren, they won 15 of the 16 races in the 1988 season.'
If Mansell chooses not to ride with Prost, he could go to Ferarri. Another theory is that Senna may join the Italians, leaving Prost the opportunity to return to McLaren, with whom he won three championships. Senna said: 'The decision will be sooner than you think. In the next 15 days. Prost is coming back, either to Williams or McLaren. One of the four drivers there will lose his place.' Asked whether he would be prepared to partner Mansell or Prost, he replied: 'I don't care. I'm going my own way.'
FIRST QUALIFYING TIMES
BRITISH GRAND PRIX (Silverstone, 5.226km, 3.247 miles): 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 18.965sec (ave speed 238.252kph, 148.043mph); 2 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:20.884; 3 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda 1:21.706; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:22.066; 5 G Berger (Aut) McLaren-Honda 1:22.296; 6 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:23.489; 7 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:23.605; 8 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:23.723; 9 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus-Ford 1:23.813; 10 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:23.957; 11 B Gachot (Bel) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:24.065; 12 M Alboreto (It) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:24.198; 13 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:24.545; 14 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 1:24.558; 15 G Tarquini (It) Fondmetal- Ford 1:24.761; 16 U Katayama (Jap) Venturi- Lamborghini 1:24.851; 17 A Suzuki (Jap) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:24.924; 18 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:24.984; 19 J J Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari 1:25.037; 20 O Groulliard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:25.096; 21 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 1:25.123; 22 P Martini (It) Dallara- Ferrari 1:25.221; 23 S Modena (It) Jordan- Yamaha 1:25.362; 24 M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan- Yamaha 1:25.988; 25 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi- Lamborghini 1:25.998; 26 D Hill (GB) Brabham- Judd 1:26.378; 27 A Zanardi (It) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:26.458; 28 P Belmondo (Fr) March- Ilmor 1:27.995; 29 A Chiesa (Swit) Fondmetal- Ford 1:28.452; 30 E Van De Poele (Bel) Brabham-Judd 1:28.719.Reuse content