A CAR magazine archive gem: the time Nigel Mansell stormed out of a Russell Bulgin interview

Published: 08 April 2018

► An archive gem from CAR magazine
► The day Nigel Mansell walked out
► Russell Bulgin story from July 1991

During testing at Silverstone before the San Marino Grand Prix, Nigel Mansell made time to be interviewed by Russell Bulgin 

Nigel Mansell didn’t have to drive a kid in a wheelchair around Silverstone this lunchtime. He didn’t have to wander across for a brief chat before the lad, grinning beneath a Goodyear cap, was bustled back into his parent’s car and dawdled off from whence. There were no reporters in view, no flashguns, no grasshopper whir of motordrives, no satellite uplink. In the way of Formula One, then, there was no coverage and no commercial reason for acting as unpaid chauffeur – this was Ordinary Nige, decent bloke, just acting normally. 

You don’t see Ordinary Nige too much anymore. Instead, you get Nigel Mansell, The 10 Million Dollar Man, in moustache, flat cap and blue driving suit bristling a rainbow patchwork of global marketing hype. The Williams PR man has said that Nigel will talk now that testing has finished. The Williams PR man has to check the questions – ‘we had some French journalists over to talk to Nigel and they all asked him the same thing’ – and judges them ‘interesting’. 

‘Come on, then,’ says a surprisingly small voice cloaked in that West Midlands accent. The voice leads you over to a tiny office in the front of the Williams trailer-unit, a pantry-sized space dominated by a table. ‘I don’t give many interviews now, you know,’ says Mansell slowly, defensively. 

He doesn’t feel too good, Nigel. A cold or ‘flu, he says. He looks terrific, though; handsome in a clean-cut way, and massively powerful in the upper body. You know this, because, as you begin to talk, Nigel Mansell takes his clothes off in front of you. (Fact: Nigel Mansell wears multi-coloured Y-fronts under his race suit.) His chat is punctuated by the fizz of Velcro’d boots being peeled off. Mansell ends up wearing a pair of black jeans, a geometrically patterned grey sweater, training shoes, a long dark blue Boss overcoat and his flat cap. 

He doesn’t seem to be interested in talking too much. Let’s look at this from Mansell’s point of view. He’s just had a so-so day of testing, ending with an engine fire. He says he’s unwell. He says he doesn’t give interviews. The reason he’s talking to you is not that you saw him win his first Formula Three race back in 1979; the reason is that Renault has asked if a journalist from CAR can interview him and Renault makes Williams’ engines, and he and Williams want to keep Renault sweet. 

First question is easy and gentle. Is a day like today one of the few occasions when you can settle down and enjoy driving? Do Formula One drivers still enjoy driving cars? There’s a faint look of disbelief, on Mansell’s face – does he think he’s being put on? ‘Oh Christ, yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.’

Do you look forward to driving every time you get in the car, or are there some days when circumstances are wrong? ‘It depends on the circumstances, on your state of mind. But 99 times out of a hundred you’re always in a positive mood, looking forward to driving the car. It’s always a challenge.’ That doesn’t diminish the longer you’re in Formula One, the longer you’re in racing? ‘Not really. If it does, then you should be retired.’

Which of course, Nigel was. For two months of last year, Nigel Mansell was both Ferrari racing driver and ex-racing driver, simultaneously. Then he came back without ever having been away. So where does the pressure on a Formula One driver come from? Is it the actual driving, the competitiveness … ‘Yeah …’

Mansell looks very bored … or the circumstances of the weekend? ‘Pressure comes from being unreliable, not having a competitive car, doing the best possible job you can and being let down by a piece of equipment that costs, sometimes, less than £5.’

If you look back at Nigel Mansell interviews, you find that this is a typical Mansell response. The pressure in Formula One comes not from within – that sweat-sheen combination of physical acuity, mental application and bold courage – but from the bloody car breaking down once more. If, to Ayrton Senna, Formula One is a mindgame, an existential exercise centred on going ever deeper within yourself, then to Mansell this is boys-together sport crammed in a truculent high-tech wrapper.

Time to switch tactics and discuss Mansell’s past life at Lotus and Ferrari. ‘I don’t want to talk about that,’ says Mansell, flat as only he can be. Why not? ‘Because it’s over, history. And I don’t like talking about history.’ Seven seasons of grand prix racing vanish from the approved question sheet. But why not talk about your past?

‘Number one: I’m not giving interviews at the moment,’ says Nigel, a faint patina of frustration surfacing; this – journalist, list of sanctioned questions, C90 rolling – is apparently, not an interview. ‘I’ve got the utopia of a driver’s position this year, inasmuch as we are going racing to do the job. Everyone’s working the same way. I’ve got a good team-mate. There’s not one percent of aggravation in the team at all.

‘The thing that concerns me is that the press – maybe present company excluded – they all want stories.’ Nigel Mansell is concerned that the press wants stories: this is like saying that travelling at high speed is a big part of a racing driver’s life. A Williams man wanders into the pantry, breaking Mansell’s flow for a moment. 

‘You might give them an interview, they turn it upside down, they upset people and I’m glad that David’s walked in, because he can hear what we’re saying now, as well, because you need a witness these days. I don’t like talking about history: I don’t mind talking about Williams and what we’re trying to achieve. But I’m so positive, and anyone who wants to be negative or ask questions about derogative (sic) things of the past, or problems and that, I’m not interested.’

Try again. Let’s try and define the racing driver’s role in a 170 strong Formula One operation. If you have a decent chassis, engine, and tyres, what do you look for from a team’s people? How much of a psychologist does a driver need to be? How much of the motivation at Williams must come from you?

‘I’d rather not answer that question for these reasons: it’s for other people to judge. My situation with Williams is very strong and very good. But I’m not going to tell people, or the world, or anybody, how we’ve managed to do it or what my beliefs or disbeliefs are. What I can tell you is that might be a question aimed at Patrick [Head] or Frank [Williams], and being owners of the team they might be disposed to give you an answer for it. I’m only a member of the team – I’m the driver.’ So Mansell isn’t going to answer. And then he does. A single sentence pops up. ‘There’s no question that I can motivate, but I wouldn’t say any more than that.’

Mansell makes a gesture to indicate the tape-recorder should be switched off. It is: he talks for a few minutes and cassette hubs begin to rotate once more. Another question. There was an interview with Ayrton Senna in a Car Australia magazine where he chatted about you. One of the things he said was ‘Sometimes he [Mansell] is naive, and people take benefit from it and make life even more difficult for him.’ Do you agree with that?

Mansell effectively ignores the question, deflects it clumsily. ‘I think everyone is entitled to an opinion. I think that what I’d say to you is that there’s an awful lot of people out there that you might be kind to, or give an inch and they take a mile. I’m talking of journalists, reporters; I’m talking of people who deliberately go out of their way to cause trouble, and I think that’s such a big negative side of the sport.’

The discussion has gone into rewind. Mansell continues with what has become familiar: he seems negative about the press, but he is, in fact, really positive about his racing this year. He just doesn’t sound like it. 

‘That’s why I’ve got such a strong, single-minded position this year, that I just don’t want to have interviews and give people the slightest opportunity to misconstrue anything. If they want to deduce from that I’m being negative, then that’s up to them. But, you know, I’m not going to put myself, shall I say, at risk from people who are not positive people themselves, and I’d say that Ayrton’s a very astute man and I know for a fact that he doesn’t give hardly any interviews at all.

‘And the same with Alain Prost.’ Mansell talks about Prost. Prost was his Ferrari team-mate – and, three minutes ago, Ferrari was history ‘and I’m not interested in history.’ ‘I was with Alain for over a year and I saw how he did certain things and all the rest of it, and OK, people realise that things weren’t as rosy with him as they all thought and gave him the benefit of the doubt for years and a fair guy – not necessarily myself, but other people like myself, who try to be honest and fair – you slate us.’ 

This is no longer an interview, if it ever was. This is Mansell explaining that he is positive and the media is negative, and he’s a bit upset about it all, really. But there is a solution. ‘And I think it’s very, very important to put that into context and that’s why I’ve said to [Williams PR] Gary [Crumpler] anyone who wants to do a positive interview, I’ve got no problems at all. Anybody who wants to be negative or derogatory then let them go and write their own piece on their own. They don’t need us for that.’ In the Mansell lexicon ‘positive’ would appear to be a synonym for uncritical. 

‘Can you understand, Russell – because I’ve known you for a long time, right – I’ve equalled Stirling Moss’s record, I’m sick to death and I don’t want this … I’m just telling you personally …’ And Mansell turns the tape machine off again and runs through what has gone before, in case you’ve missed any nuances, with a touch more vehemence. 

Back to the interview that isn’t. It’s easy to see what material things you’ve gained since getting into Formula One – the jet, the lifestyle and so on. But what have you lost – because your life can no longer be simple or anonymous or private? ‘You lose your freedom. There are very few places in the world I can go and be a normal person, being able to go out and not be recognised, being able to play with your children and do things.’

Perhaps this is starting to work: ask a question, get an answer. ‘The biggest penalty you pay is you never get the time back you put in. To be a mechanic, to be a driver, to be associated with Formula One, you sacrifice incredible amounts of time – and time you don’t get back, and time is the most precious thing in anybody’s life. You can’t buy it, you can’t pay for it. That’s when someone says, ‘You’re getting paid this, you’re getting paid that’ – monetary refund for time doesn’t mean a thing. I’d rather give a fortune back and get 10 years back. Another 10 years with my children – the time you miss with your children growing up, it’s gone.’

You get a hard time from the British tabloids. You’ve a terrific story to tell: the struggle on the way up, breaking your neck twice in accidents, and you get a constant slagging from the popular prints. ‘Yeah, what you’ve got to understand, like I understand, is that, unfortunately, whatever I do – if I have a cold, and I’ve been told this by the tabloids – I’m newsworthy. I sell papers. Formula One is very big, very high-powered, there is a lot of money involved, and obviously there’s a lot of interest.’ 

What did you think when Frank Williams called you a pain in the arse, because I’ve seen that quoted somewhere? ‘I think if you speak to Frank Williams, he wouldn’t exactly say that. You’re being negative again, because all you’re doing is depicting what one of the tabloids did. You take it out of context. He was explaining a situation where …’ Mansell looks exasperated. The question refers to a story in the Sun where Williams was misquoted – he joked that Mansell could be a ‘pain in the arse, but a quick pain in the arse,’ an off-the-cuff remark which was splashed all over the paper. This is an excellent example of how tabloids harry Mansell. 

Williams PR Gary Crumpler has been hanging around the pantry in his team anorak and, as Mansell glowers, goes into damage-limitation mode. He says all the things you might expect. ‘I was at the lunch where Frank was talking. At the beginning of the year, Nigel had them [the press] at the conference centre, so we tell them there is plenty of time, any questions, any interviews you want to do, you can do them.

‘So we had all the journalists there and we had half a dozen different national newspapers. The Sun printed that and the Daily Telegraph printed ‘On-board car cameras make the grand prix season more exciting this year’. Because there’s one tiny phrase which is always taken completely out of context that then completely conveys a totally different meaning to any story that’s ever written.’ This is the standard response of the media innocent. 

Mansell interjects. ‘The thing I’ll put you up on now, right, is that I’m shocked you even bring that up. Because that question itself is negative, it’s trying to …’ You attempt to explain, but Mansell is flying. ‘Let me finish, you’ve said it, let me finish. Frank, Patrick, myself, Sheridan [Thynne], even Gary, we all got together and we’re all 100-percent positive, right? For you to even ask what do I think of Frank because he’s actually been quoted as calling me a pain in the arse… what kind of question is that?’

There is no time to reply. Mansell continues. ‘I’ll tell you the reason why. And I know you’ve got that on’ – he points to the tape recorder. ‘What am I going to say? Say, ‘Oh fantastic’? You print that and it’s rubbish, it’s absolute crap, because Frank didn’t say that in that context – and if he did I wouldn’t be sitting here.’ 

It was a deliberately provocative question, Nigel. ‘I know, what I’m saying to you …’ And the tape recorder clicks off. Then Mansell gets up and leaves the truck. Crumpler and Sheridan Thynne stand around, looking ill at ease. Then Nigel bounds back in, and continues. Abruptly, he gets up. He looks a trifle flushed. He turns and shakes your hand. His palm is dry, the grip gentle. ‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘And fuck off.’

Thynne and Crumpler say nothing. He stares hard at the team PR man and says slowly, carefully. ‘No more tape recorders. No more interviews. No more journalists. Do I make myself clear?’ With that, Nigel Mansell moves out of the transporter and talks technical on the pitwall. 

The following week, at a Renault media function in Spain, Nigel Mansell gives a long interview to Tony Dodgins of Autosport Magazine. 

Read more CAR archive features

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000