At the age of 57, almost two decades after he became Formula One world champion, Nigel Mansell is still behind the wheel of the brand he believes in.
Nigell Mansell just can't leave the track, or Lotus
The small group of men waiting for their rides outside the Yas Hotel kill time watching one of the circuit's sports cars lapping on the track below. It's only when they learn who's at the wheel that they pull out their cameras and scramble for a better view. At the age of 57, almost two decades after he became Formula One world champion, Nigel Mansell still has that effect on motor racing fans.
Mansell's appearance in Abu Dhabi last week as a "brand ambassador" for Lotus had personal as well as historical resonance. He was there to help with the development and sales of Lotus's new T125, but also to put into perspective the marque's return to F1.
Mansell was given his big break by Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus, in 1980. "I think Colin would be very proud of what Lotus are trying to achieve," says Mansell, looking perfectly at home in Lotus-badged fireproof overalls as he waits for his first drive in the T125. "It's a courageous new beginning."
Mansell knows all about courage. In the 1970s, with the support of his wife, Rosanne - whom he publicly described as "my hero … for all that you've been through" - he gave up a perfectly good job as an aerospace engineer and sold all their possessions and the family home to pursue his F1 dream.
In 1977, he broke his neck racing in Formula Ford at Brands Hatch but discharged himself from hospital, risking permanent paralysis, to take the championship. Next came Formula Three and a series of typically aggressive drives that cost Mansell a broken back. They also caught Chapman's attention.
Mansell stayed with Lotus for four years before moving on to Williams and Ferrari. With 31 wins between 1980 and 1992, he remains Britain's most successful Formula One driver, and the fourth most accomplished in the world, after Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
According to his biography on the Formula One website, "He was hugely determined, immensely aggressive and spectacularly daring". Unsurprisingly, that all-or-nothing approach has left its mark. "The injuries are there for life," he says. "I mean, you break your back three times, you break your neck and loads of other bones in your body, and it never goes away."
Not that he has any regrets. "The thing that is so good about that, and so bad, is that I did all my racing when the barriers were right on the edge of the corners - and some very fast corners - so when something broke on the car or you made a mistake you paid the highest penalty."
It made for exciting races. But then, as he reflects, "A lot of people when I was racing lost their lives".
Among them was Senna, who succeeded Mansell at Lotus in 1985. The Brazilian followed him again in 1994, and it was while driving for Williams that Senna was killed when his car hit the concrete at Imola. The previous day, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was also killed during qualifying.
"The fantastic thing since 1994 at Imola, where the late, great Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger lost their lives in one weekend, has been the changes in technology and safety and the redesign of corners on circuits worldwide," says Mansell.
But there's a "but" coming. "Safety should always be there, but not to the detriment of losing some fantastic corners. There is a balance. Some of the circuits today are more sterile than they should be."
Today, Mansell's hair is not as vividly dark as it used to be and the trademark moustache has gone, but he hasn't lost his taste for racing; last year, he took on the 24 Hours of Le Mans with his sons, Leo and Greg, but crashed his Ginetta-Zytek Z09R within five laps of the start.
Mansell's sons, he says, will be going back this year. Same car? "Maybe, maybe not." In a Lotus, then? After all, last month his sons were part of a five-man Lotus factory team that drove an Evora GT4 to third in class in the Dunlop 24 Hours of Dubai.
"At the moment we are very happy that we have a collaboration with Lotus, so Leo and Greg might be doing some more races with Lotus." And Mansell? He smiles. "Well, you never know."
Something else brings a ready smile to Mansell's face - the mention of Nelson Piquet.
Mansell fell out with Piquet spectacularly after the Brazilian joined him at Williams-Honda in 1986 and proceeded to try to psych out the Brit with a series of attacks and snide comments in the press.
"A lot of people did their talking on the circuit, but there was a handful of drivers who, if they couldn't beat you on the circuit, used every tactic in the book," says Mansell.
In 1987, Mansell battled his way from 20 places down to beat Piquet, climbing out of his car to kiss the Silverstone tarmac as the jubilant fans invaded the track.
"Wonderful moment," muses Mansell. "The team weren't very happy and Nelson certainly wasn't, but the British fans were, and I was ecstatic, so that's all that mattered."
After winning the championship in 1992, Mansell fell out with Frank Williams and left F1 for the American Cart series, which he won in his first year. He remains the only driver to hold both championships simultaneously.
He doesn't, he says, regret leaving F1 when he did.
"No. Politics were getting stronger and stronger in Formula One at that time and I went to America and made some very special history there. I can look back with very fond memories. I succeeded in living my dream and standing on top of the world."
Sometimes, he says, he still has to pinch himself.
"When I look back on the things we had to conquer and endure, I sometimes wonder, did we really do it?"
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