Our Nige is back in town to play golf and catch up on the British GP. Super-fan David Johns enjoyed a quick pitstop with the still ultra-competitive Brummie legend
Nigel Mansell and I have met before – not that he’d know it, although he’ll certainly remember the occasion. To my immense pleasure, as well as a little bit of shame, as a young lad I was one of the many delirious British F1 fans who invaded the track after ‘Our Nige’ won the 1992 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Such was the excitement, enthusiasm and sheer volume of fans, Nigel was forced to abandon his Williams F1 car on his celebration lap and hotfoot it to the podium with the help of security men. To this day I’ve never forgotten the moment I patted the great man’s helmet as he clambered out of his car.
Thankfully for Nigel, as well as me, our second encounter after all these years was much less frenetic. The great man is heading back to Birmingham over the coming weeks, not to race but to play golf in the British Par 3 Championship – and keep and eye on this year’s British GP at Silverstone too.
When we spoke on the eve of his return, it was clear Nigel is looking forward to being back in the Midlands. “Birmingham and the Midlands have changed immeasurably in recent times for all the right reasons and is challenging for a better status than London,” he said. “I don’t think there is any question that anyone who has been away for any length of time is shocked to go back and find what a fantastic modernised and rejuvenated city Birmingham has become. It’s a great cultural centre to visit.”
He added: “As for the golf, the Farmfoods British Par 3 event at Nailcote Hall is fantastic. It’s played on a brilliant course where the accuracy of your shot is everything. They are lovely people who organise the event and I am delighted to be taking part again this year – I am very much looking forward to it.”
As the only person to ever hold the Formula One and US Indy Car titles simultaneously, Nigel features large as one of the most revered sons of Brum, so much so that he has a star on Birmingham’s famous Walk of Stars, an honour he would never dreamed of receiving as a kid growing up in Baughton, Upton-upon-Severn and then Hall Green, Birmingham.
The winner of 31 Formula One races and 1992 world champion who drove for Lotus, Ferrari, Williams and McLaren, was one of four children. The family lived in what Nigel’s describes as a ‘modest’ semi-detached house with not a lot of money. He attended Rosslyn School (sometimes referred to as Hall Green Bilateral) before going to Sharmans Cross Comprehensive in Shirley, Solihull from 12 to 16 and then Solihull Technical College and Matthew Boulton College, Birmingham. “Growing up in the area was interesting, eventful, educational and for the most part enjoyable,” he says
But as detailed in his autobiography, there was a dark side to those years when Nigel revealed how he suffered frequently as a target of school bullying. His father worked at Lucas Aerospace, which entailed the family moving around quite a bit, and the young Mansell always seemed to be the ‘new kid’ being picked on at school. His experiences growing up heavily influenced his desire to help youngsters from whatever backgrounds, culminating in him becoming president of the UK Youth charity which has a membership of nearly one million young people. Nigel has personally raised more than £1million for UK Youth projects and in 2012 he was awarded the CBE by Prince Charles for his services to children. “I’m still working hard with the UK Youth charity as every year there are new challenges, which is normal,” he explains. “I am very excited about the future of UK Youth as without question it is one of the great national charities.”
Another local charity, Midlands Air Ambulance, also benefits from Nigel’s ongoing support as one of its celebrity fund-raising ambassadors. The air ambulance base at Strensham is near where Nigel was born and the role of air ambulances in saving drivers’ lives at motor racing events is well documented. “The Midlands Air Ambulance has a close connection to Formula One and motorsport in the region and to every one of us who drives on our busiest roads and motorway networks each day,” he said.
One thing’s for sure, none of us wants to see the air ambulance in action when the F1 drivers come to Silverstone for the British GP on 16 July. What does Nigel make of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and the rest? “They are definitely more protected these days, but that certainly doesn’t make them any more or less of a driver – they still have a job to do,” he says. “Evolution has changed significantly where the longevity and lifetime of a driver has almost doubled due to the incredible advances in technology and safety.”
And what about Silverstone itself? “I think without question there is an element of rose-tinted spectacles when we look at Silverstone,” says Nigel. “But it is still a fantastic GP circuit and can be viewed among the best and quickest in the world, but like anything it needs reinvestment constantly.”
The name Nigel Mansell will forever inspire generations of British sports fans, but the man himself plays down the fame. “I was an enthusiastic and honest driver who gave my all in the car, and the fans truly embraced this,” he explains. “I have always been of the mindset that if you get knocked back you dust yourself off and start again which is something I think the fans really appreciated.”