Motor Racing: Stubborn Mansell driven to distraction: A unique British racer has spent his whole career picking himself up after setbacks. Derick Allsop reflects on a champion's determination

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The Independent Online
IT IS consistent with the turmoil of Nigel Mansell's career that his decision to retire from Formula One should have been made in such strained circumstances. As he has often reminded us, nothing came easily.

The history books will record that Mansell has been one of motor racing's most successful drivers, with more grand prix wins than any other Briton and, after three runner-up places, the supreme prize of the world championship.

And yet statistics alone will never adequately reflect the drama, spectacle and controversy which have accompanied his every turn of the wheel since he embarked upon a racing trail as a boy of 10, wrestling karts around obscure, primitive tracks.

Frank Williams, managing director of his team, Williams-Renault, will, in due course, give his version of the events that convinced Britain's first world champion for 16 years that he should leave the sport's premier category, and he may have good grounds for believing Mansell was not blameless.

There appears, however, to be an unavoidable feeling that fate has again been less than fair to the 39-year-old driver. Even when he reached the pinnacle, he was confronted with another peak to scale. It was one climb too many.

There have perhaps been times when Mansell's sense of injustice has been misplaced and his handling of political matters has rarely been smooth or accomplished. The man and the driver have been debated to roughly equal degrees over the years and few observers have been unwilling to express an opinion either way. Such is the nature of the beast.

The personal analysis is largely irrelevant, anyway. If he has deficiencies in the art of diplomacy it is of no import to the paying public.

He is paid to perform and compete, and he performs and competes as few can. What cannot be disputed is his impact on motor racing, sport and beyond. His achievements ought to be a source of inspiration.

Unlike many of his contemporaries in Formula One, he did not come from a wealthy family or have sponsorship money on tap to fund his ambitions. He started with a pounds 25 lawn-mower engine which fell off in his first race. He simply picked it up and got on with his racing. Many times since, he has had to pick himself up.

Through senior karting competition and into single-seater car racing, he was undeterred by injuries and financial hardships. Suggestions that he was too crude and made too many mistakes merely served to galvanise his combative qualities.

After Frank Williams signed him the first time, for the 1985 season, Mansell generated a momentum few thought him capable of. Certainly not Williams. The idea was that Mansell would be a useful No 2 to Nelson Piquet. It was not Mansell's idea. He suddenly had the stage to demonstrate his pace and, gradually, his racecraft.

The calamities continued, he was twice close to winning the championship and always his course was eventful. He developed a remarkable rapport with the motor racing public, not only in Britain but around the world. He became renowned for the outrageous overtaking manoeuvre and, if it did not always come off, what the heck? His racing was honest, unbridled and entertaining. Try to restrain him and you take away his very strength, his very attraction.

When he joined Ferrari in 1989, the Italian team and their supporters were enraptured by his cavalier driving and he was genuinely touched by their warm embrace. They call him 'Il Leone', the Lion, and yet he was also a bit of a pussy-cat, soft and vulnerable. He liked to be loved. Ferrari gave him that love, the way his family and close friends had. He was made to feel wanted.

Alain Prost's arrival, the following season, undermined his position and he felt he was being driven out. His vulnerability was exposed again and he announced his intention to retire at the end of that year.

Williams, however, stepped in and gave him the opportunity he has made the most of. He, in return, provided them with the leadership they had desperately sought and drove a lance through the heart of McLaren-Honda's domination.

Whatever the reasons for his split with Williams, Mansell felt unwanted and that was the situation he could no longer bear. Williams, by way of response, might argue that he had had his fill of Mansell. They have never claimed to be close friends and why should they be? This is a business, as Williams has consistently reminded us. The stakes are high, egos massive and brittle.

Williams' often revived comment that Mansell could be 'a pain in the bum' outside the car is a fairly accurate barometer of their relationship.

Mansell can be stubborn to the point of plain cussedness. But then it is that very characteristic that has been fundamental to the driver's success and contributed so much to the team's success.

He refuses to give in. He pushes and pushes until he finally breaks down the barriers. His is ultra- competitive, be it on the racetrack, on the golf course or on the football pitch. He fights on where others flinch, commits where others cower.

The first time he tried his luck on a jet-ski the machine shot out of control and he was thrown into the supports of the jetty. He grappled with the contraption for the best part of an hour, repeatedly hauling himself out of the water, until, exhausted but satisfied, he had mastered it.

Time moves on and there will be new stars to fill the front row places on the grid and the newspaper headlines.

There may not, alas, be anyone quite like Mansell; he has been a catalyst for incident and conjecture like no other.

Certainly as far as British motor racing is concerned, he leaves a huge void. We must hope that Martin Brundle, or Johnny Herbert, or Damon Hill, or Mark Blundell can come through to challenge the best in the world and nourish the nation's enthusiasm for the sport.

Bernie Ecclestone, the president of Foca and the vice-president of Fisa and the man who runs the Formula One show, suggests that Mansell's absence will not adversely affect the attendance at next year's British Grand Prix.

That remains to be seen. What you have to doubt is whether the atmosphere at Silverstone can ever be the same, post Mansell.

That, probably more than anything, represents the true measure of the man and the driver.

Tomorrow: Nigel Mansell's column

(Photograph omitted)