Sunday 14th June 1998, the day Mansell Mania descended on Donington Park, as the former F1 and Indycar World Champion took part in his first official BTCC race meeting, after appearing in a non-championship race in 1993.
20 years on, we look back at that weekend with some of the major players…
THE BUILD UP
On 20th March 1998, Ford announced that Nigel Mansell would take part in 3 BTCC meetings during the forthcoming BTCC season, with the first coming at Donington Park. Before then, Nigel would undertake a significant testing programme, to get him best prepared for the job at hand, telling the press so.
NM: “We’ve come on board with Ford Motor Company, they’ve obviously not been as competitive as they wished to have been these last few years & they asked if I would come on board to help consult, develop, test and to do three races for them. Actually, it was my idea to do the three races! I think we have got the ingredients to be very competitive this year, the only thing is that they haven’t come together yet. Ford and the Mondeo team have got to catch up a bit, but we can do that & I’ll be getting a few test sessions in before my first race in June.”
THE RACE MEETING
Mansell’s race weekend started disastrously, as he was the innocent party in a warm up shunt with independent driver Mark Lemmer, meaning his Mondeo had to be rebuilt before the race meeting. The team rushed the Mondeo back to the WSR base overnight to fit a new rear onto the chassis.
The race weekend proper approached and there was a special atmosphere developing in the paddock and grandstands. You could tell that this wasn’t going to be just any old BTCC meeting, as John Cleland told us.
JC: As soon as the race meeting began, you could tell the difference in atmosphere. We had a Formula 1 World Champion and IndyCar Champion in our midst and TOCA had done a great job in promoting and building the hype surrounding Nigel racing that weekend. Their work, inevitably, brought in loads more spectators.”
Qualifying was a mixed bag for Nigel. He pulled off a stunning lap in the one-shot showdown to bag 3rd place for the Sprint race, but found himself in 19th place on the grid for the feature.
Race day brought on a whole different challenge, as everyone woke up to wet weather. The West Surrey Racing crew must have been delighted, as Nigel’s team-mate Will Hoy had taken their first ever BTCC win earlier in the season at Silverstone, in similar conditions. Ford’s chances of taking a strong result had surely increased.
NM: “The car is very competitive in these types of conditions and secretly, the Ford team were hoping it may be a bit damp this weekend!”
During the Sunday morning warm up session, a regular thing during this era, Nigel clashed with John Cleland. Little did we know that this was just a taster of the action to come!
JC: It was a harmless bit of fun on my part. It was very damp in warm up and my Vectra was great in those conditions. As the session started, Nigel was first out pit lane and I was right on his bumper! When touring car drivers leave the pit lane for the first time, they normal dab the brake pedal to make sure it is there because the guys have had the brakes off overnight, so you bring the pedal back up. You make sure that you have a brake pedal. Coming out of the pits, Nigel’s brake lights didn’t go on – and then into Redgate, no brakes again and going quickly. I thought to myself, that’s brave!! It was then that I decided to lay down my marker for the day! In the run down to the Old Hairpin, I dived down the inside of Nigel, just close enough to rub mirrors, a bit like a welcome handshake!”
Cleland topped the morning warm-up session, but had to deal with a disgruntled Mansell after the session.
JC: “He obviously didn’t like that and came stamping into my garage and asked me “what was going on?” I just explained it was a Touring Car Drivers way of saying hello and that was how it was going to be for the rest of the day.”
If Nigel thought things were going to get easier, he would have a shock, a poor start meant he would drop from 3rd on the grid – to 8th and only three laps into the race, he planted his Mondeo into the tyre wall at Coppice, giving the Ford Mondeo team and busy period between the races.
To soften the blow for the team, Nigel’s team-mate, Will Hoy had grabbed his 2nd podium finish of the year with third place, underlining the Ford’s ability in the wet. The winner of the sprint race was Anthony Reid, who took his first ever BTCC victory.
AR: “It was great to take my first ever victory in the BTCC. Mansell fever took the Championship to an even higher level than before.”
After the race, Nigel joked, “I think I have some unfinished business here… I’ve christend the bridge, I’ve christened Coppice, I’ve got one more race to try and christen someone else!”
Thankfully, the West Surrey Racing mechanics were able to repair Nigel’s Mondeo for him to line up 19th on the grid for the start of the feature race. Weather conditions were still damp, but heavy rain was still threatening.
The start of the race was pretty hectic, as Tim Harvey, Alain Menu and Will Hoy all off and out by the end of Lap 3. Nigel was slowly making his way up through the pack as the pit stops began. With the weather taking a turn for the worse, there were no tactical decisions to be made, everyone came in for wets and with the number of cars in the scenery, the safety car came out to collect the likes of Rydell, Gravett, Radisich, Kox, Plato and Thompson.
As the pack neutralised, Mansell found himself in 4th place, much to the shock and amazement of the others. Cleland told Steve Rider after the race, “When we were ready for the restart & he was in the gaggle, I thought to myself – How can one man be so lucky?!”
As the race restarted, Anthony Reid led, being hunted down by his Nissan team mate, David Leslie – with Nigel and John Cleland in hot pursuit.
JC: “There was so much going on that race even I can’t remember but the very best of the best were in that race – Muller, Warwick, Mansell, Leslie, Reid. The lead changed so often I lost count!”
Mansell and Cleland again diced for position for over a lap, with both of them getting past David Leslie and bringing Muller along for company – the racing was so fraught that Muller went from 5th under the Dunlop bridge, to leading over the line! That wouldn’t last, as Muller ended up off the track at turn one, at the same time as Nigel and Cleland are dicing wheel to wheel through the Craner Curves, with Mansell coming out on top and setting about the leader Reid.
The racing was so fraught and exciting, that commentators Charlie Cox and John Watson were noticeably out of breath during the broadcast!
Mansell started to reel leader in the race leader Reid and was right on his bumper at they approached Coppice, with the weather worseneing still, Reid aquaplaned off and into the tyre barrier, leaving Nigel Mansell in the lead and the Donington crowd absolutely stunned. He had gone from 19th on the grid to leading the race – could he win?
JC: “Reid fell off along with Harvey and Hoy at McLeans and they were standing on the banking with the best view in the house! Nigel was in front of me and I thought to myself – shit, he isn’t winning this race and making us all look like goons in our own series!”
The race calmed down slightly after that, with Mansell initially starting to pull away from Cleland. As the weather passed and the track surface got drier, Cleland started to reel the Mondeo in.
JC: “Following him, I could see that each lap into the chicane it was getting drier which means you wind more brake to the rear to compensate for the change in conditions. I could see Nigel was not doing that, therefore making his Mondeo a bit unstable on the brakes. I could see that I would be able to get him into the chicane and then go on to win the race!”
As the laps ticked over, Cleland got close to Nigel coming under the bridge, he was about to make his move – but Mansell overshoots the corner and ends up gifting the place to Cleland! Nigel would have further struggles over the remainder of the race and would go on to finish 4th. After the race finished, Nigel was penalised by the stewards, who had adjudged that he passed Audi’s Yvan Muller under yellow flags. This dropped Nigel down to 5th position.
The win was John Cleland’s final BTCC victory & beating Nigel had made it even sweeter.
JC: “It’s not every day you get the chance to race an F1 World Champion – far less beat him! That was nice, but just beating all the other regular BTCC guys was what mattered most. Combined age of the top 4 was about 182 years of age!”
Nigel went on to make 2 other appearances at BTCC meetings, but he would not trouble the front-runners again & often ended up in the barrier. This led Mansell to believe that he was being targeted by other drivers. A claim disputed by Cleland.
JC: “Targeted? Absolutely not. Nigel was never a target! The reason he thought that was because of his run in with Tiff Needell years before when he hit the bridge at Donington in the 1993 TOCA Shootout. Plus, the Ford Mondeo he was driving was not the best that year and that meant he was mixing it with some people I would not accept a lift to the pub with! That brought the inevitable contact – at no point did any of us think anything other than what a great draw he was for our championship.”