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great moustachioed sportsmen

Throwback Thursday: Nigel Mansell, World Champion

23 years ago this week, Nigel Mansell secured his one and only F1 world title. The world has changed immensely since that day: for one thing, Mansell no longer sports his famous moustache.

by Jim Weeks
13 August 2015, 6:00am

Photo: PA IMAGES

Despite being acknowledged as one of Britain's greatest racing drivers, Nigel Mansell was only Formula 1 world champion once. In a sport where the machine is as important as the human controlling it, silverware is not the ultimate definition of ability. Still, had Mansell ended his career without a championship trophy it would have been something of an injustice, given his decade of ballsy, never-say-die performances. Fortunately, he clinched that sole title 23 years ago this week at the Hungaroring circuit.

And yet there was something strangely un-Mansell about his title win. In the previous 11 seasons he'd spent in F1, the moustache-sporting Englishman had built his reputation as someone who performed best with his back to the wall and the world staunchly against him (both in the car and the fashion stakes). He was a notorious fighter and non-conformist; during his time as a Ferrari driver, the Italian fans nicknamed him Il Leone (The Lion). He had been world championship runner-up three times, but seemed destined to never take top spot.

But in 1992 he had by far the best machinery on the grid; he could win races for fun, which hardly seemed fitting for the bloke who once fainted while pushing his knackered car over the finish line to salvage a single championship point.

That '92 car — the majestic, beautifully conceived Williams FW14B — was a development of the 1991 machine in which Mansell had won five races and finished as world championship runner-up to Ayrton Senna. Had it not been for three successive retirements at the start of the year, Mansell might have pushed Senna much harder in '91.

But with the car developed to perfection he was free to blow the great Brazilian out of the water in '92. Despite being a veteran of 38, Mansell won a record-breaking first five races on the spin, all of them from pole position, with team-mate Riccardo Patrese second in four of those. With less than a third of the season gone, Mansell already looked a cert for the title.

Senna beat him to the win in Monaco — because Senna always beat everyone in Monaco — with Mansell second, and then came a non-finish in Canada. But after that normal service was resumed, with three wins in a row, including on home soil in Britain.

That sent Mansell to Hungary (round 11 of 16) knowing he could clinch the world title. Having missed out before — most famously when a blown tyre snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in 1986 — he was now on the cusp of the ultimate prize. Patrese was his nearest and only realistic challenger, though even he had less than half Mansell's points. If it didn't happen here, it was going to at some point soon.

At the dusty, twisty Hungaroring circuit he started second to the Italian, then made a slow getaway and slipped to fourth. He had soon moved into P3, with Patrese leading and the McLaren of Senna splitting the Williams cars as the race settled down.

At around half distance the race began to take a series of twists. First Patrese spun out of the lead, and shortly after his engine blew, ending his race and seemingly handing Mansell the title. He now needed to just finish second; for once, he was getting it easy.

Then, as if to make it feel a little more like his kind of triumph, adversity reared its head. Mansell dropped 20 seconds behind leader Senna with a suspected a tyre problem. A pitstop for new tyres dropped him to sixth, and it looked as though he would have to wait another few weeks to be crowned champion.

But with a clear equipment advantage he was able to make quick work of the cars ahead of him. On lap 69 he took second from the McLaren of Gerhard Berger; Senna was long gone and claimed the win, but Mansell's second spot was enough to secure him the world title.

"It's the most astonishing feeling for me, maybe even more so than for other people who've won it without being runner-up three times," he said afterwards. "When you get as close as me and you don't crack it you start to think are you ever going to crack it."

And that is probably the most Mansell thing Mansell ever said.

What happened next was perfectly in keeping with the moustachioed one's story, too. Williams and their engine partner Renault signed the three-time world champion Alain Prost for the 1993 season. As a result Mansell fell out with the team, feeling particularly concerned that Renault would give their French star preferential treatment. Prost went on to win his fourth title in '93, while Mansell moved to the American IndyCar Series to drive for Hollywood star Paul Newman.

And it was here that he achieved one of his greatest feats: despite turning 40 mid-season, racing cars that were new to him on tracks he'd never seen before, plus a few terrifying crashes, Mansell won the title at the first attempt. It is that, as much as his stroll to the F1 crown, that secured his legacy; it is something Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button will likely never consider.

That said, it was the Formula 1 title that opened the door for him to move to America in the first place. And it is the F1 title — along with plenty of adversity leading up to it — for which he will always be remembered.