Evening Standard

Leading man: Nigel Mansell believes, when he was at his best, he could have beaten all of today's F1 drivers, except perhaps Sebastian Vettel. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Nigel Mansell is being measured for a dinner jacket to wear at a charity golf event he is organising. “Always had a big neck,” he says with a laugh, as the tailor notes down a collar size of 17 and a half.

The 1992 Formula One champion, whose 31 Grand Prix wins are more than any other British driver, has never been scared to stick his neck out. He has no doubts that, if he were racing today, he would be the best.

“I’ve probably just turned the age when I have to concede that I might be a bit too old,” the 57-year-old says. “But, in my heyday, no problem at all. I’d absolutely beat the present lot.”

But there is one driver he concedes who might have given him a fight.

“The person who’s jumped out of all the drivers in recent years is Sebastian Vettel. He’s shown something special. This year he’s shown a maturity and a turn of speed, especially in qualifying. He’s matured over the winter, driven flawlessly pretty much in every race.

“The secret with Sebastian is that he’s been afforded the opportunity to defend the world championship in a better way than he won it. Having done it before, you’re on a roll. And his opponents are making driving mistakes, technical mistakes.”

However, it was Vettel who made a mistake in Sunday’s rain-affected Canadian Grand Prix. Having led nearly all the way, the Red Bull driver – under pressure from Jenson Button – momentarily lost control on the last lap, allowing the Briton to edge past and win.

Despite that, Vettel still leads the drivers’ championship by 60 points and Mansell says: “It was a race of stopping and starting, the safety car was on far too long and the race should have been restarted earlier. Button made seven pit stops, was last and still won. That was brilliant.”

Those are not words Mansell would use about the performance of Button’s McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton. He crashed out at Montreal after colliding with Button, leaving him questioning what Hamilton was up to.

“Jenson was lucky he did not have a rear suspension problem or a puncture as a result of the collision with Hamilton,” Mansell says.

“The fact that both of them are champions is not the issue. You always have rivalry in a team and there is pressure to do better than your team-mate.”

Three-times champion Niki Lauda labelled Hamilton “completely mad” after the race and said that he fears the Briton’s driving could lead to a death.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that but Hamilton has to learn to be patient,” says Mansell, who emphasises this point by referring to what happened in Monaco two weeks ago.

Hamilton endured frustration in qualifying for that race as a crash by Sauber’s Sergio Perez disrupted the session and prevented the McLaren man improving his time. To add to Hamilton’s misery he was docked two places on the grid to ninth for cutting the chicane and he was then penalised twice in the race for colliding with Felipe Massa of Ferrari and Pastor Maldonado of Williams. Afterwards he had a rant at the stewards and escaped further penalties by apologising.

“You have to have a little bit of lady luck and there’s no question Lewis had bad luck in qualifying,” Mansell says.

“I’m sure he would have been right up there at the front of the group but the accident happened and you have to accept it. But to force the issue in the manner he did in the race was unfortunate.

“He must learn you have to take your luck when it comes. When it goes against you, don’t push it.”

For Mansell, this shows a lack of respect for other drivers. He explains: “In our days drivers had a healthier respect for each other because they realised the dangers and they weren’t so crazy in the car.

“When I started in Formula One in the late Seventies the circuit wasn’t safe. Anywhere between two and six people a year were being killed. There were some races where several died. You knew it was a numbers game and you hoped your number wasn’t up.

“There’s no question the FIA [the sport’s governing body] have done a wonderful amount of work for the safety of the drivers. The downside is that the drivers think they are bullet-proof. So they take far greater risks, they don’t have as much respect for one another as they should. That’s not great for the sport.”

And Mansell feels that technology has radically changed motor racing.

“In our day the driver probably had more input into the car,” he says. “We didn’t have power steering or fully automated gearboxes. We didn’t have all the technical whizzes that are on the car now, so we actually controlled the car far more than the drivers today. We could sometimes still do a job without the expertise of the engineers. Now the driver can’t do a good job without them.

“We didn’t have any simulators. We had to do it on the track all the time. Now they’ve got simulators for everything. And, if they have an accident or go off, then you just press a button, re-set and away you go again.”

So could this explain Crashgate when, during the Singapore Grand Prix in 2008, Renault ordered Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash deliberately in order to help his team-mate Fernando Alonso win the race?

“It’s a very good point,” Mansell says. “It seems to me a lot of drivers have lost their personalities or are not able to express themselves. However, it’s a very commercial market and manufacturers have a far bigger say than ever before.”

While there have been big changes in Formula One, Mansell is hoping to affect change in a very different field – youth education.

Spread in front of us is a copy of the Evening Standard with our Get London Reading initiative. “The Standard campaign is a very good thing,” Mansell says. “The greatest thing in life is giving education to young people and empowering them to make more of the right decisions than the wrong ones.”

He is president of UK Youth, a charity which is promoting non-formal teaching opportunities. “In one year, we reach 750,000 to one million kids and every child who goes through a programme with UK Youth has a 97 per cent success rate of getting a diploma or a certificate or a pass.”

Government cutbacks mean the charity has to be more visible now to raise money and this has led Mansell to promoting biking.

Last year the Nigel Mansell Cycle challenge was a ride across the country covering 1,375 miles in 13 days. This year Mansell has set up an elite cycling team led by Magnus Backstedt, a former Tour de France rider. While too old for the team, in three weeks’ time he will cycle from London to Paris hoping to raise £100,000.

As he cycles, Mansell will once again wish he had become a golfer rather than a racing driver. Six years ago, he tried and failed to get a Tour card.

“It’s a wonderful office to go on the best golf courses in the world and play every day,” he says. “In Formula One, if you have 10 to 15 years then you’ve done very well. Had I been a golfer I could have still been playing.”

Image courtesy of Rory Lindsay


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