In 1993, Nigel Mansell did the unthinkable. After winning the 1992 Formula 1 championship, Mansell flew to America and won the ’93 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Indy Car World Series championship for Newman-Haas Racing at the age of 40. With the wins, he became the only driver to hold both major open-wheel titles at the same time.
Autoweek recently sat down with the 64-year-old Mansell on his home turf in the U.K. to get his take on the state of F1:
Autoweek: Modern Formula 1 drivers seem to focus on F1 and little else—and then along comes Fernando Alonso. Alonso raced in the Indy 500 last year, and this year it’s the WEC and the Rolex 24 at Daytona. What do you make of Alonso’s extracurricular activities?
Nigel Mansell: I’m absolutely staggered at the patience that Alonso demonstrated last year and the self-control. Being in a great team like McLaren and with a great manufacturer like Honda, for them not to get it right for so many years and for him to keep his motivation as high as it has been I think is a great testament to him as a person.
I think the distraction of him going to do Indy was fantastic. Very, very important for him to learn a new discipline, which is what you have to do because the Indy 500 is nothing like Formula 1, and if you get it wrong you pay a very high price. You’re averaging around about 230 mph, so, if you put a foot wrong, the barriers are there right next to you, unlike Formula 1 where you have got the runoffs. So, I think it was an education, and I know Fernando explained that in a lot of the (press) conferences he had. He had a lot of respect for the drivers there, but I think that overall it will make him a better driver than he is now.
AW: Nico Hülkenberg went to compete in the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours—winning the race with Porsche. Is this something that you would like to see more of?
NM: Well, don’t forget that the Formula 1 drivers years ago used to do that. They used to cross over an awful lot, and it’s just time restraints and contractual restraints. If there’s an opportunity, then I think yeah, it’s wonderful. It’s good for the sport.
AW: Is it a sign of the changing face of the sport from the Bernie Ecclestone era to the Liberty Media era that the drivers are able to do this?
NM: Possibly, but I think it’s also dangerous for any driver to try and change their discipline because, of course, if they go over to a different discipline and don’t do very well, it’s not going to look too good for Formula 1. So everybody protects their own opportunities and careers. You have to be very careful in what you do and how you do it.
AW: You have firsthand experience driving with Honda power in your Williams between 1985 and 1987. Can you believe the difficulties that Honda and McLaren have had the last couple of years?
NM: No, but I think that it’s grossly unfair, as well, to just blame one or the other, because it’s a marriage. I know with all of the years that I spent with the late great Colin Chapman and Lotus and the Williams team—I remember all the success that we had with Honda with Williams—that the whole thing had to jell.
I think what we’ve seen is two mighty manufacturers, who are mighty in their own ways, but together as a package don’t work, and something went terribly wrong somewhere.
I’m incredibly disappointed, as are all the sporting fans around the world, because McLaren-Honda should have been the most incredible competitive package, but it wasn’t.
AW: Safety is a hot topic in Formula 1, and the halo has been introduced for the 2018 season. Do you sometimes look back at the cars that you drove and wonder what was going through your head when you stepped into the cockpit?
NM: For me, I shouldn’t say it but I will: I’m not a fan of the halo. If you’re a race car driver, you have to accept some part of that it’s a little bit dangerous.
We drove cars that barely had seats in them years ago. We were just sitting on metal floors with a bit of foam. We had no runoffs, so invariably, if you went off the circuit, you had a big accident and that’s why people were killed and injured so readily. The safety standards now and the FIA and the manufacturers have built the cars like they’re almost bulletproof—it’s fantastic.
The longevity of a race car driver now is twice what it was in the ’80s. You’ve got many Grand Prix drivers now doing over 300 Grands Prix, and that’s unheard of. I mean, if you had a career of 180-something Grands Prix, years ago you actually thought that you’d had a stellar career, and now it’s very different.
AW: Finally, if you were running the sport, what changes would you propose to improve it and bring back the fans?
NM: The easiest thing to say to that and the hardest thing to achieve—and I’m not being critical of anybody—is, in the ’80s, the most amazing thing that was in Formula 1 was that predominantly 20 or 22 of the cars on the grid had the same engine: the Cosworth DFV. Beautiful-sounding engine.
Then you had the Ferraris, you had the Alfas maybe and you had the Renaults. You can only have super competition if you have a level playing field. I understand technology has to move forward, but when you think that back in the ’80s you had teams of 100 or more people and that was a major team. When I was with Ferrari, we just had 150 people—now there are thousands.
And the budgets that some teams have. If they admit it, you’re talking about budgets of 500 million pounds ($700 million) plus. There’s a huge dysfunctional disparity. It’s not a level playing field.