Nigel Mansell won the 1992 F1 world championship comfortably before announcing his shocking switch to American Indy car 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 won the Indy Car title in 1993 during his rookie year. It was an astonishing achievement.
Nigel’s return to F1 in 1994 was a direct result of Senna’s tragic accident. F1 was left without any world champions on the grid and Schumacher was dominating. Bernie Ecclestone needed to bring some positive news to a sport in crisis. Subsequently F1’s commercial supremo, engineered Mansell’s return, believing it would give Schumacher a worthy rival whilst also increasing television ratings.
The deal worked for Williams because their FW16 car was proving difficult 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 at the French Grand Prix, would be attractive to Renault, Williams’ French engine suppliers. Renault were paying Mansell a superstar salary while regular driver, Hill, was on a fraction of that amount. The question was, how would Mansell stack up against the new stars of Formula One like Hill, and Schumacher?
Did he still have what it takes?
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.
1994 FRENCH GRAND PRIX - QUALIFYING
1. DAMON HILL 1'16"282
2. NIGEL MANSELL 1'16"359 - GAP 0.077
“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, “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 backing up his set up feedback, he gained respect and support within the team.
Due to his Indy car 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 number 2 Williams. It was a clever move because David Brown and Mansell had a special relationship from 1992. Hill’s move ensured Nigel didn’t outperform him upon his return.
The 41-year-old was also not used to standing starts because rolling starts were used in Indy cars and his 1992 Williams had been equipped with traction control. 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. He was also having to juggle impressing Williams enough to secure a full-time F1 drive, and at the same time not harming Hill’s title challenge in the process.
Nigel 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 before Mansell took over his seat for the final three races of 1994.
Mansell’s best showing came at the infamous Australian Grand Prix, the final race of the year. He out-qualified the both title contenders, Hill and Schumacher and later 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.
Nigel 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 Woking team.
Although that was Mansell’s final Grand Prix he hasn’t officially confirmed his retirement!
According to an upcoming book, Mark Blundell (contributor and the man who replaced Mansell at McLaren in 1995) stated that 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 recalls “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 contributed towards the upcoming book by the author of this blogpost, Ibrar Malik.
Apparently Blundell's insights are extremely valuable for many reasons.
Malik's new book explores a number of contentious issues that blighted the 1994 F1 season.
- What did Senna hear on Schumacher’s car that troubled him?
- Was Senna competing against an illegal Benetton when he died?
- Why Benetton received no serious punishments after the Hockenheim fire
- Why Schumacher’s 1994 teammates all struggled in the car
- Did championship manipulation occur
- Did a return to simpler cars in 1994 contribute to the fatal accidents
There are exclusive contributions from Mark Blundell, Benetton insiders; Willem Toet, Frank Dernie, Simon Morley (the “junior employee” blamed for the Hockenheim fire), Christian Silk & Joan Villadelprat. Antony John Dennis, a Benetton Ford Electronics expert and Williams’ insider Paul West also give their unique insight. The book contains over 200 photos, many of which are rare, and it merely presents the evidence, allowing you to decide what happened.
What is uncovered will astound you!
The book is due for release in January 2019. Keep checking www.1994f1.com for more details and F1 blogs. Alternatively sign up here; http://www.1994f1.com/contact/ to receive the book’s release date & new blogs automatically.