Autosport 70: How an F1 champion conquered Indycar
Nigel Mansell was the Formula 1 world champion when he decided to switch to Indycar for 1993. In the 14 August 2014 CART special issue of Autosport magazine, he told us why he made the move and described the challenges he had to overcome
Nigel Mansell spent just two seasons in Indycar racing in 1993-94, and during that short stay he put the series in the international spotlight like never before. He broke all the records by winning the title in his rookie year, and impressed even the most sceptical observers with his commitment in the car. And, as ever, drama seemed to follow him around, on and off the track.
Mansell's move to America, as the reigning Formula 1 world champion at the very top of his game, remains one of the most remarkable episodes in recent motorsport history. It stemmed from the implosion of his negotiations with Williams for 1993.
"It's no secret that at that time there were the golden drivers, Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost - in no particular order - who controlled the whole driver market," recalls Mansell.
"A lot of drivers, including Riccardo Patrese and myself, suffered the indignity that they would go to the teams, make the cars work, and then when they got the cars working well the golden drivers would come knocking on the door and say, 'I'd like to drive for you'.
"Obviously I was looking forward to the opportunity to defend my world championship in the way that I won it, with all the hard work that Riccardo and I put into it. Then 'bingo', the golden triangle comes knocking on the door..."
Having just achieved his lifetime's ambition, Mansell felt undermined when it emerged that Prost, on the sidelines in 1992, had agreed to driver for Williams in 1993. He recalls that his close ally and Williams director Sheridan Thynne relayed the news that he'd been dreading: "It was the happiest day of my life, winning the world championship for Williams, only for me to find out 24 hours later that my services wouldn't really be required going forward."
Discussions continued with team boss Frank Williams, but Mansell insists he was never given a proper chance to stay at the team. Matters came to a head at Monza [in September], where he convened a press conference on Sunday morning. Just before it started, a last-minute offer was relayed to him by a junior team member, but it was too late. Mansell announced in dramatic style that he would not be driving for Williams in 1993, was retiring from F1, and was considering a move to Indycars.
Two decades on, he bears no animosity to Prost: "You're a bit wiser as you get older, and I fully understand and accept now that if you've got Renault engines and Elf and they want to support a French driver who just happens to be Alain, it's not his fault. Good for him, I wish I had been in his position.
"He was signed very early and then I found out subsequently they had wanted to break my contract for 1991 anyway, because he'd wanted to be there for 1992. So I was lucky even to be there for 1992."
Mansell had been pondering an alternative future in Indycars for several weeks. The Newman/Haas seat about to be vacated by McLaren-bound Michael Andretti had obvious appeal, given the history of the team. He had bought a house in Florida the previous year, and his young family loved the States, so everything seemed to fit.
"It was daunting, it was a bit of a shock to the system, because you're circulating a mile track in 20 seconds. I think the g-loading was the biggest shock, how long you sustained and held the g-load" Nigel Mansell
"People say the Indycar deal was done, but there was no deal done until after the Monza incident, because I wasn't sure whether or not I was going to retire," he adds. "It wasn't something that just happened quickly, it was something that took a period of time, because I wasn't sure.
"I figured that if Williams was really sincere with their last-minute gesture, as I'd call it, they would have followed through. But nothing followed through.
"I think the thing that probably moved us to go to Indycar in the end was basically Paul Newman. He was a genuine, thoroughbred racer, a charming man, and an incredible legend in his own lifetime as a movie star, obviously. People didn't know him as a human being, but we did. He just said, 'From what I can see you just need to have a lot of fun', and I think that's what swung it."
Having signed up, Mansell paid a social visit to the final race of the 1992 Indycar season at Laguna Seca, where he was well received by both fans and the sport's insiders.
When he got behind the wheel of the car in testing - initially on a road course - he quickly impressed the team. His first oval experience, at Phoenix, proved to be an eye-opener, but from the off, there was no doubting his commitment in the Lola T93/00.
"It was daunting," he says. "It was a bit of a shock to the system, because you're circulating a mile track in 20 seconds. I think the g-loading was the biggest shock, how long you sustained and held the g-load.
"And the other thing was that if you came out of the throttle the car would swap ends on you, or do something really nasty to you, because of the blown tunnel underneath that just sucked the car down."
Mansell's season could hardly have got off to a better start. On the streets of Surfers Paradise he took pole and enjoyed an eventful race that set the tone for the season to follow - a charging drive and some great passes, mixed with a brush with authority.
"It was brilliant, but they tried to nobble me there a few times with a so-called yellow flag, overtaking Emerson Fittipaldi, and a stop/go penalty," remembers Mansell. "We still managed to win and I'm very proud of that race."
As a debut performance, it was right up there with fellow Brit and F1 champion Graham Hill, who won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 1966.
Next stop was Phoenix for his first oval race, and another step on the learning curve he'd embarked on in testing at the same venue. He was fastest in the first practice session, but early in the second he spun and hit the wall. The massive rear impact punched a hole in the concrete.
"I learned very painfully at the second race, with 148 stitches in my back and a few other things," he recalls. "My back was completely smashed. To have a 14-by-12 inch section of your flesh taken out and have to be zipped apart and patchwork quilted down, is not recommended!"
Over the years Mansell had been somewhat accident prone, and had often been criticised for appearing to make a meal out of discomfort. This time no one could deny that he really had been seriously hurt.
In the subsequent weeks, veteran Indycar doctors Terry Trammell and Steve Olvey regularly had to drain fluid that had accumulated in Mansell's back - they'd never come across anything like it before, and his case history made US medical journals.
As Olvey explained in his autobiography: "Dr Trammell would later name this 'Mansell's lesion'. The only description of a similar one that we could find was from a pathologist who described it in deceased victims of plane crashes."
"If I'm really honest about it I'm not sure you could do it in this day and age, with the health and safety. I was so drugged up with painkillers and these localised anaesthetic injections that they put in my back I'm not sure if I should have been driving at all" Nigel Mansell
Having missed the Phoenix race Mansell was affected for some time: "I can remember them drawing the biggest syringe of fluid out of my back so I could qualify at Long Beach [round three] a few weeks after, and giving me pain killing injections in the bottom of my spine.
"To get on pole and manage to hold on to third in the race there was a big ask, but we managed to do it. I'm very grateful to Terry and Steve. They helped me for the whole season."
Next came the month of May and Mansell's first experience of Indianapolis: "That was ugly, because I still had the stitches in my back. I was pulling loads of stitches and snapping them. It was an awful feeling. The stitches would sustain 3-3.7G - they would be pulling but they wouldn't pull apart - but when you tweak it at 4G, I felt my back rip. I did the minimum laps I could.
"If I'm really honest about it I'm not sure you could do it in this day and age, with the health and safety. I was so drugged up with painkillers and these localised anaesthetic injections that they put in my back I'm not sure if I should have been driving at all."
Nevertheless he made an impressive 500 debut, challenging for the lead in his first oval start. He ultimately finished third, behind Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk after both veterans had wrong-footed leader Mansell at a late restart, leaving him with a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Again they nobbled me, they put a full course yellow out when there was no crash on the circuit," he says. "There was no debris, nothing. Lyn St James came into the wrong pit. They didn't want me, or a rookie, to win it, so they threw a full course yellow, which was very disappointing."
Mansell made amends just a week later by winning on the Milwaukee Mile: "That was brilliant, winning Milwaukee was the real start of the campaign. I had to get my act together and we got the car hooked up.
"It was a very bumpy circuit, a very physical circuit, and I think that's the reason why I did well. I got some of my strength back. It wasn't my favourite circuit, but winning there was good."
There followed a run of street and road courses. Mansell retired after a collision in Detroit, finished second at Portland (below), third at Cleveland, and then stopped with a mechanical problem after a troubled weekend in Toronto. He enjoyed the competitiveness of the series, but was convinced that sometimes form was out of a driver's hands.
"It was run as an equalised formula, so you had the pop-off valves for the turbo engines," he says. "They were given out randomly, and randomly I got some good ones, and randomly I got some indifferent ones, and if you get indifferent ones you can't win."
The series then returned to the ovals, and remarkably Mansell continued where he left off by winning the prestigious Michigan 500 and a week later at New Hampshire. He'd now triumphed in three of his four oval starts.
"I rewrote the rules on oval racing," he adds. "Everyone said you couldn't do this and you couldn't do that. Some of them were right, hence my crash at Phoenix. But in that crash I learned to do things a different way, and at New Hampshire I passed Paul Tracy on the outside in Turn 2. It was an amazing move that no one had ever seen before in their racing. I did some other things as well.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say I enjoyed it. It was thoroughbred racing. It was very worrying, racing on an oval, because if something happens to your car you know you're going to get hurt. So I didn't enjoy that. I'm really thrilled that I've been there and done it, but I'm glad that I'm not doing it any more!
The low point came at Indianapolis, where a furious Mansell was hit by hapless backmarker Dennis Vitolo as the cars filed into the pitlane during a yellow flag
"But I enjoyed the challenge, I enjoyed the engineering and setting the car up, because it's totally different to an F1 car, because of all the cross weights and everything. I enjoyed getting the tyre staggers right, and I enjoyed making sure the engineer and all the mechanics did their job."
The final part of the season mirrored the first as Mansell experienced mixed fortunes on road courses, and won the only remaining oval event at Nazareth. With one race still to run, he secured the title.
Mansell's second year in America in 1994 was to prove frustrating. Penske was the dominant force, newcomer Reynard made a big impact, and Lola found itself left behind.
"Lola had dropped the ball, and Reynard had come out with an exceptional car," reckons Mansell. "Sadly 1994 should have been another good year, but it wasn't at all, and we weren't competitive."
The low point came at Indianapolis, where a furious Mansell was hit by hapless backmarker Dennis Vitolo as the cars filed into the pitlane during a yellow flag. Things began to unravel and, while Mansell took three poles, there were no wins and just three podium finishes by the end of a disappointing season.
Everything had changed when the opportunity arose to return to Williams in the French GP and the last three races of the F1 season, in a deal brokered by Carl Haas and Bernie Ecclestone. Mansell had planned to remain in Indycar for several more seasons - he says he had a contract until 1997 - but circumstances decreed that instead he turned his attention back to Europe for 1995.
He still has regrets about not being given the opportunity to gun for a second world championship with Williams in 1993, but that's counterbalanced by what he achieved in Indycars: "It would have been fantastic. I'm a sportsman and I'm not a politician, and even all these years later it's disappointing for the fans, and for me especially, and some of our sponsors," he says.
"Subsequently we had another fantastic adventure in America, which was brilliant, because it was terribly exciting and very challenging.
"We all move on, I opened another door, and we won back-to-back championships. We rewrote history, and we had a great time."
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