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Nearly Mansell

If the sun had shone, last Sunday’s big race in Adelaide would have been the perfect last Grand Prix of the Formula One season. If Nigel Mansell’s left rear tyre hadn’t blown out, he would have been world champion. But the sun didn’t and the tyre did, reducing the Adelaide Grand Prix to the status of merely wonderful and depriving Mansell of the championship. Since the same shunt might well have deprived him of his life, however, Mansell had cause to bless his fortune while he cursed it.

Last year’s first-ever Adelaide Grand Prix had mightily pleased the Formula One circus, which travels the world constantly and thus had global standards of comparison. Everyone was impressed with the effort, enthusiasm and prodigious amount of money that the Australians had put into the event. All these things were once again available on an even larger scale. The chief sponsor, Foster’s Lager, enticed by the prospect of a worldwide television audience of 700 million people in forty-three countries, did not stint the outlay. The viewing public totalled almost three-quarters of the population of China. Even after you subtracted the under-age and allowed for those countries in which the consumption of alcohol is discouraged for religious reasons, it still added up to an awfully big potential fan club for the amber fluid. Foster’s duly painted out the whole town in yellow and blue, affixing a huge letter F to anything or anyone that could not fight back.

Not even the America’s Cup would be so identified with one product. Sporting sponsorship had reached an apotheosis. But no amount of hype can fix fate. Chance had been kind to bring the world championship all the way down to the wire. Having just failed to clinch things in Mexico, Mansell needed only to finish in the first three in Adelaide and he would be champion no matter what anybody else did. But if he didn’t, either Alain Prost, driving for McLaren, or Nelson Piquet, Mansell’s co-star in the Williams-Honda team, could snatch the championship by finishing first. Prost was the reigning champion and would like to stay that way. Piquet had been champion twice before and after several frustrating years in cars that broke down he would like to be champion again. Our Nigel was up against it.

Or perhaps I should say your Nigel. He is a nice man on top of being a terrific driver but when in Australia the present writer reverts to being an Australian and is much drawn to Alan Jones. Jonesie was yet another erstwhile world champion, but after a premature retirement he had now spent more than a year guiding the chassis of the Lola while the Ford engine behind his shoulders either failed to develop any significant power or simply fell to pieces. When the car worked he drove as well as ever, but it seldom did. The Australian Press has by now learned something about Grand Prix racing, but the idea that the local star driver might lose because his car couldn’t win is a pretty subtle concept for the average media man to grasp, especially with so much free Foster’s on tap. Jones was therefore under heavy pressure. From Day One of the meeting he was interviewed almost out of his mind.

So were they all, of course. In Australia, too much coverage chases too few stories. When a really big story crops up, the stampede is not to be believed. The Grand Prix drivers hardly dared leave the Hilton. Ayrton Senna, the brilliant young Brazilian respected for his hot shoe even by those drivers who don’t like his one-track mind, was badgered in the lift by Press and lit up like Christmas by portable television lights as he stepped lithely into the lobby. The lobby was jammed with race fans, autograph hounds and groupies, but so was the whole city.

Adelaide is a very pretty city. Laid out spaciously on flat land with the hills in the background strictly a backdrop, it is mostly only one storey high. Two storeys rate as imposing and any public building with a clock tower counts as a landmark. Flowers cascade over wrought-iron balconies. Outside of Grand Prix time, not a lot happens except the Adelaide festival, which has won international fame in the literary world but understandably doesn’t generate the same fizz among the local girls as handsome young men dicing with death, etc. No doubt Julian Barnes, guesting at the festival next year, will set hearts beating, but he would be the first to admit that when reading aloud from one of his books he doesn’t crank out as much aura as Nelson Piquet doing 200 mph, or even two miles per hour. Piquet just has to stand there and the young ladies bite the backs of their hands.

They are also very fond of Gerhard Berger, Andrea de Cesaris, Alessandro Nannini, Stefan Johansson and almost anyone else with his face in the official programme, including Murray Walker, the BBC race commentator who knows everything but gets it mixed up in moments of excitement. The Grand Prix circus, knowing that Murray loves the sport, is collectively very fond of him, but from Murray’s angle what makes Australia so remarkable is that the fans are fond of him too. Murray Walker is a big star in Australia. When the sunlight bounces off that bald head, he gets mobbed.

Alas, raindrops bounced instead. This year it had not rained even in Monaco. Rain in Adelaide seemed like an insult. On Friday morning, the first session of untimed practice for the Formula One cars took place in an atmosphere of threatening downpour, periodically relieved by an actual downpour. Winding, as it did last year, through the city streets, with a detour into the racecourse for horses, the track, as it did not last year, either gleamed with rain or, worse, pretended to be dry. Greg Norman was a guest in Mansell’s pit. Mansell had spent some time during the previous week playing golf with Norman and admiring his accomplishments. Now it was time for Norman to admire Mansell. Such, at any rate, was the surmise of several cynical motor racing journalists when Mansell, after howling away in an impressive manner, almost immediately clouted a wall, thereby dislocating the Williams-Honda FW11’s precisely calibrated pull-rod rear suspension.

This indelicacy paled, however, beside what Patrick Tambay did to his Lola. Whacking the wall sideways at considerable speed, he reduced the car to abstract sculpture. Johansson did roughly the same thing to his Ferrari but in a more detached manner. He looked at the wall for a long time while the Ferrari was sliding towards it, as if he were picking out the nicest place to hit it. Derek Warwick (Brabham) was fortunate merely to skid off into a sandpit and get stuck. When a crane picked the car up he stayed strapped in, thinking that the crane driver might put him back on the track. Instead, he was lifted over the fence. He took this in good part, although after a frustrating year he would have been justified if he had shaken his fist at the sky, the car and the cruel world.

The word ‘tragedy’ is used too often in sports reporting. It was a tragic year for Brabham only to the extent that Elio de Angelis, while testing the car in France, lost his life. But for Warwick and Riccardo Patrese, though nothing worse happened to them than disappointment, it was certainly the kind of season that reminds the racing driver, by wasting it, of how little time he has at the top. Gordon Murray’s revolutionary low-profile design just never came right. The BMW engine was immensely powerful but the back end of the car floated. Here, at the last race of the season, Warwick was still getting wheelspin in sixth gear on the straight.

It hurts to see such a marvellous driver nobbled by the machinery. In sports car racing, Warwick is right on top. At Le Mans I saw him drive the Jaguar through the Mulsanne Kink at 240 mph in the dark. As I shivered with terror behind the armco barrier it occurred to me that a man who can do such things should be pleased with himself. But for Warwick, what really counts is F1. If the Grand Prix cars don’t quite reach the top speeds of the sports cars, it is only because the straights are short. The speeds they reach, they reach faster. They do everything more quickly. Formula One is the ultimate test of a driver’s reflexes and to waste a year in a duff car hurts like being locked up for something you didn’t do.

Lunch was announced by a mass drop of parachutists out of the clouds. An aerobatic biplane performed between the cloud base and the ground, making the space available look generous by looping the loop sideways. Outside the hospitality tents it rained on the barbecues. Then the hooter went for an hour of timed practice, which lasted for forty-five minutes before a sudden cloudburst washed it out. Mansell, Senna, Piquet and Prost were fastest in that order. They had really been hurrying, because although there would be another qualifying session next day, it might rain even harder. Adelaide is closer to the South Pole than its citizens care to admit.

After practice a pair of Royal Australian Air Force F-18s arrived overhead with a bang, slowed down and stunted about under the cumulo-nimbus, which was almost touching the ground. They did a last pass with their afterburners on and the thumping blast was answered from the car park by the yelp of 100 alarms. The track was then occupied by Superkarts, which look like toys but go at 140 mph when they are not being rained on. This time they were not rained on. They were hailed on. In the paddocks behind the pits and the grandstands, the clay was churned to gunk. The Ligier team freely employed the word ‘merde’.

Friday evening there was a ball under a marquee in front of the Hilton. This was the hottest ticket in Australia. Those whose applications for tickets had been successful — apparently money wasn’t enough, you had to own land — turned up in 1920s costumes on the assumption that they would be doing the Charleston in close proximity to George Harrison and Mark Knopfler, not to mention all those fabulous-looking racing drivers. And indeed Harrison and Knopfler were nearby, but had other plans. So did the drivers. Only Jones put in an appearance. He had to. It was his turf and his sponsor. Bravely he kept smiling, but would probably rather have been getting his beauty sleep like the others. This rain thing was no joke. You could hear it on the roof of the tent.

But it was during this very night that the race organisers showed their strength. The impossible had been allowed for. Many tons of wood chips were schlepped into position and spread on the mud. The merde was converted to muesli. Tramping through this stuff, you still got your trainers caked with glop, but it looked no worse than breakfast food with a high bran content. Saturday morning was thus given an air of defiance. As if charmed, all the water stayed up in the sky for the solitary hour of timed practice on which starting positions would depend.

With only two permitted sets of qualifying tyres each, the top drivers like to put in at least one of their quick laps towards the end of the session, when they know what mark their rivals have set. This final session therefore usually boils down to a rush to be last. With so much rain waiting to fall, however, there was an equal imperative to get in early.

Mansell dealt with the problem by setting a fast time early on and consolidating it with about ten minutes to go. The Williams-Honda was a thrilling sight as it hurried. For qualifying, the F1 cars carry only a cupful of fuel and the engines are up-rated, to various degrees depending on the circuit.

At Hockenheim the Honda engine had been set to deliver about 1,100 horsepower. Here at Adelaide it was presumably asked to do a bit less, but whatever it did was enough to be going on with. All the fastest cars were averaging about 130 mph but Mansell was perceptibly faster, golden poplars of sparks suddenly growing behind the car as its undertray bottomed on the long straight at a speed of about 215 mph, give or take a breath. His pole position would have seemed secure, except that Senna had one set of qualifying tyres left and was notorious for the last-minute scorching lap. More often than not he snatches the pole and more often than not he subsequently loses the race. The Lotus-Renault is a thirsty beast, apt, during the race, to collapse from neurosis while trying to reconcile two contradictory urges — to go fast and to save petrol.

When qualifying, however, the car has only one thing on its mind. Like the tyres, the engine is built to last only a brief time, and some say that even the chassis is meant to be thrown away afterwards. Rival teams make disparaging remarks (‘They’re wheeling out the cheap car for Senna’ was one variation I overheard) but perhaps this is partly their way of dealing with the consideration that Senna is a driver talented beyond earthly measure. It has been said that he tries too hard, but the same was said of Michelangelo. Anyway, with about two minutes left in the session, he dropped from the jacks, circulated once to warm up, and then started a lap which scared people who saw only a part of it. In the Channel 9 control room, from which the race would be transmitted to the world, I saw it all.

Through the screens of twenty-two television monitors, like a message being passed by a sequence of bonfires, the Lotus slid and twitched, with Senna’s lemon-yellow helmet wagging from side to side with the G-force and the sparks spouting up in columns behind him as if the road had been split by a burst pipe full of liquid gold. On the long straight the camera helicopter panned with him but he left it nailed to the sky. He would have taken the pole for sure if he had not been balked near the end by a broken Zakspeed parked in the racing line. Thwarted, he eased right off and let his previous lap count. He was still well up in the grid.

Nor, with so much room to overtake, did grid position really matter that much. Senna had merely been following his personal quest to see everyone else off. Mansell and Piquet, on the other hand, had demonstrated the clear superiority of the Williams-Honda in its present form. Perhaps a little slower over two flying laps, it would be a lot stronger over two hours — strong enough to fulfil Niki Lauda’s famous precept for the racing driver, to win as slowly as possible. McLaren, the dominant team before Williams edged them out, would still be in contention. Keke Rosberg, due to retire, was eager to go out with a repeat of last year’s victory, and it is only Prost’s lack of histrionics which keeps making him a surprise winner, when really he wins so often that he should only ever be a surprise loser. But Mansell and Piquet were sitting pretty for the race, and Mansell was sitting even prettier for the championship, since he didn’t even have to finish first.

Grand Prix drivers take a long time to mature because they must strike a balance between two opposing forces — competitiveness and patience. Mansell by now, after ten years of effort, was the master of his own mind and unlikely to succumb to complacency. But a lot of other people were being complacent on his behalf. Nigel, they thought, would do it with a gear to spare. That night the streets were full of revellers. A total of forty-nine people were busted for inebriation, which meant that thousands of others, some of them drunker than anybody I have ever seen, got away with it. The drivers wisely took room service. To emerge from the lift would have meant ambush in the lobby, whose decorative clumps of potted plants had autograph-hunters hiding out among them like bands of partisans. When the lift doors sighed open, anyone who looked like a celebrity went down under a scrum. There was a Rosberg look-alike — a photographer from Belgium or somewhere — who simply found it less exhausting to sign Rosberg’s name than to run away.

On television there was Adelaide Grand Prix on every channel. You couldn’t switch the thing on without seeing Jackie Stewart. Leaving aside the question of his strange compulsion to sell everyone in the world a Rolex watch, Jackie is an admirable man on several levels. Not only did he win more Grand Prix races than anybody else ever, but his long and unremitting campaign for safety has ensured that the men drawn to the sport nowadays will most likely live to talk about it afterwards. If they want to talk about it the way Jackie does, however, they will need their own television station.

In the rain-washed shopping malls, dancing fans wore paper hats shaped like racing cars in Foster’s colours. They wore the scarlet letter, and it was F. In the Hilton lobby the autograph hounds, like veteran revolutionaries growing beards in the hills, shared the long vigil that might yield them George Harrison. The drivers, lulled by Jackie’s bagpipe drone, slept early. The rest of us watched the sky. It was all cloud. Not a star to be seen.

Race day dawned with the sky still dark. Rain spat occasionally right up to and through the morning warm-up, during which Teo Fabi totalled his Benetton. Jones was down to his last engine, all the others having seized up or disintegrated. Back again at the start of two days’ hard work, he had no hope. Everyone else spent the time driving in race trim. After the frenzy of qualifying, this was a return to realism, and immediately Prost started looking more of a threat. But the Williams-Hondas didn’t miss a beat. Their only problem was everybody else’s problem too. Would it rain a lot, or just a little bit? What if it didn’t rain at all? There were piles of different tyres to choose from, but once they were on the car they couldn’t be changed without losing time.

At lunch, there were not only historic cars but historic drivers. Shipped out to Adelaide at huge expense, one of the ten examples of the Mercedes Benz 300 SLR ever made went by with a stately old man at the wheel. It was Juan Manuel Fangio, five times champion of the world, and nobody doubted that if he chose to put his foot down the Rennsportwagen would depart from sight like a startled hare. Behind the big Mercedes came the smaller but prettier C-type Jaguar with Stirling Moss at the wheel. Never world champion, Moss deserved to be many times over. When he drove for Mercedes in the days of team orders, he was obliged to come second to Fangio even though he might well have won. Here he was coming second again, and still not complaining.

Behind Moss came Sir Jack Brabham, the Australian expatriate who first demonstrated the disproportionate influence his country could have on this strange sport which would be like an art if it were not like an industry. Three times world champion, he won his third championship in a car he built himself — an extraordinary combination of talents, never now to be repeated, because the technology of car design has become too specialised. It was a Wagnerian experience to see these heroic figures burbling gently along in cars which once frightened the horses. You got the impression that Valhalla had gone into the used car business. The purple and grey clouds billowing up from the south did nothing to dispel the effect.

As the time to start engines approached, everything happened in the air except sunlight. Parachutists dropped in swarms, helicopters charged each other, an F-18 came back and started all the car alarms again. It was like a war up there. You would have thought that all the noise would pull rain out of the clouds the way a gunshot can start an avalanche.

But somehow the track stayed dry. Perhaps Foster’s had even more clout than we imagined. The cars rolled out on slick tyres, to be inundated by media as they sat on the grid, but by nothing else. Incommunicado inside their helmets, the drivers were safe at last from being interviewed.

At the start, Mansell was slow to get going, but that might have been wise. While Piquet, Senna and Rosberg broke away, Mansell settled into a nice steady fourth, content to let a certain amount of self-destruction take place up ahead. Rosberg, using all the road and most of the kerb, got past Senna and set off after Piquet in a boom-or-bust effort that probably didn’t bother Mansell as much as it thrilled the spectators. It also seemed possible that Piquet was over-doing the boost, which would slow him down later. Senna was already slowing down, with something broken. Mansell slid past him without effort into third place. Rosberg went past Piquet in spectacular fashion but for Mansell the real news was how his mirrors were suddenly full of Prost, a mobile Marlboro billboard breathing down his neck.

Prost went by and Mansell was fourth again, but there was a long way to go, although not for Jones, who finished a miserable season in a stationary car, the Foster’s can painted on his helmet staying all too still for the TV cameras. The ambitious brewery was learning the hard way that the sponsor, too, must take a chance. Their driver was out. Their Grand Prix, though, was getting lucky at last. The sky didn’t exactly brighten but the air was turning dry. To prove it, the cars kept on speeding up.

As Prost closed on Piquet, the Brazilian spun out, which might have said something about the state of his tyres, but more likely meant that he didn’t relish the idea of having Prost ahead of him as well as Rosberg. The Honda engine has an awe-inspiring amount of grunt, but it can stall like any other. Piquet kept it going all the way through the spin, gunned it at the right moment and got back on the road, having shown why he earns $64,000 a week. He now had both the McLarens ahead of him and Mansell as well. If Piquet’s tyres had gone sour, it looked as if Mansell’s hadn’t. It was a large assumption but seemed reasonable.

Nearing half-way, Prost got a puncture and came in early for his tyre change, which a surprised pit crew fumbled. So it was Rosberg, Mansell and Piquet, with things looking rosy for your Nigel, whom, with Jonesie out of the running, I was now once again thinking of as my Nigel too, although Piquet was refusing to be shaken off.

Piquet tucked in behind Mansell for a tow down the straight, one Williams-Honda travelling in the other’s vacuum at 200 mph. Piquet overtook and Mansell didn’t fight — a sensible reticence. Rosberg was 35 seconds in front, but a bigger worry was Prost, only 12 seconds behind despite everything that had happened to him. While Rosberg, variously described by Murray Walker as ‘the moustachioed Finn’ or ‘the virtually chain-smoking Finn’ hurtled on, the race behind him came alive.

Should Rosberg do the unexpected — i.e. stay in one piece and win the race — then Mansell could still win the championship, but not from fourth position. He couldn’t afford to let Prost get by. For several laps that must have seemed like several years, Mansell had Prost on his back like a knapsack. Some of the pressure was eased by the departure of the moustachioed, virtually chain-smoking Finn, one of whose tyres unravelled like a liquorice strap. Tyres were turning into the story of the race, although for a few minutes more nobody knew just how exciting the story would get. Prost went past Mansell and neither Mansell nor his general staff in the pits felt inclined to mark the occasion with a stop for new wheels. Controversy will rage for ever about whether this should have been done, but the short answer is that at the time there seemed no reason.

The whole Williams-Honda operation is state of the art technology. The car carries telemetry which enables the crew in the pit to consult all the same read-outs as the driver. In their collective wisdom they decided to let him stay out there, all unaware that one of the four rubber balloons holding that miracle of advanced engineering an inch off the ground was about to go pop.

Racing tyres are advanced engineering in themselves and are built to do almost anything except burst, but this one did, while the car was travelling at the full 200 knots. The instant effect was for the undertray in the left rear corner to smack the ground, sending up a gusher of sparks which would have caused Mansell, had he been facing the other way, to give up the ghost out of sheer fright. But he was fully occupied facing forward. The front right wheel lifted off the ground and then came down again as the undertray bounced up. Mansell had either two front wheels to steer through or only one, depending. Instead of locking his arms rigid, cramming on the brakes and yelling for help as you or I would have done, he drove the car all the way down to a standstill. Luckily this had plenty of room to take place in. If the straight had been shorter, or he had blown the tyre farther down it, he would have spun into the wall and out of this world. When the car came to rest, the ragged rubber casing looped around the empty silver rim gave a last vicious twitch, like a conger eel dying on deck.

Prost won the race and his second championship in a row. In his acceptance speech he was generous to Mansell, having known disappointment himself. Late next morning Adelaide woke with a cracking hangover to find that the clouds were at last going. The Grand Prix circus had already gone, but not before booking the same rooms for next year. Rain or shine, they like Adelaide almost as much as Adelaide likes them.

Observer, 2 November, 1986