Nigel Mansell’s decision to take part in 3 BTCC weekends of the 1998 BTCC season was always going to create drama and intregue. Today, we look back at that year & the story behind it.
On 20th March 1998, the worst kept secret in the BTCC paddock was confirmed. Ford announced that Nigel Mansell would take part in 3 BTCC meetings during the forthcoming BTCC season, with the first coming at Donington Park in June. He would then take part in the August Bank Holiday meeting at Brands Hatch, before finishing up in the final round of the season at Silverstone.
At the time, 43-year-old Mansell said: “Joining Ford Mondeo Racing to tackle the most competitive touring car championship in the world is an exciting challenge and one which I’m looking forward to immensely.”
Mansell’s signature was a real statement by the BTCC, which was riding on the crest of a wave. Nigel hadn’t raced on a UK circuit since 1993 & his popularity and stature would be a big boost to the championship. Ford would run Will Hoy and Craig Baird throughout the season & Baird would step down for Nigel in the races he was contractually signed up for.
Mansell had never taken part in an official BTCC race before, but he had participated in the 1993 ToCA Shootout, which was an end of season non-championship race. Sadly for Nigel, this ended with him in hospital after a controversial incident with Top Gear’s Tiff Needell.
Before his first race meeting, Nigel would undertake a significant testing programme, to get him best prepared for the job at hand. “I think we’ve got the ingredients to be very competitive this year, the only thing is that they haven’t all come together yet. We are behind the leaders in the BTCC series at the moment, mainly because they’ve done a lot of testing and development. Ford and the Mondeo team have got to catch up a little bit, but we can do that, so I will be getting a couple of tests in before my first race in June.”
After a brief run at MIRA to shakedown the car, Nigel took part in 3 days of testing, driving the ’97 Mondeo at Silverstone in an official TOCA test. “I was really impressed that Nigel did an official TOCA test this early on”, said Dick Bennetts, boss of West Surrey Racing, who were running the Ford contract. “He showed a lot of interest and wanted to sit in on the debriefs and help Will and Craig.”
It was an eventful run for Nigel, who told Autosport, “It’s brought back a lot of fond memories. There was an incident on my last run, two cars collided in front of me – amusing to watch, but not so much to be a part of. Then, John Cleland’s driveshaft nearly hit me! It’s all been very exciting.“
Whilst it was exciting, the test was frustrating for the Ford camp, with only half a morning of any dry running. Still, Nigel was only one second from Will Hoy, who was in the 1998 Ford Mondeo – things were looking promising for the former F1 champion.
“It’s been very fruitful. I’ve learnt an awful lot about the team & the car, mainly because the conditions have been changing every 15 minutes! I had a few moments, all of which I caught. I had a lot of fun.“
The West Surrey Racing team, meanwhile, are celebrating their first ever BTCC victory, as Will Hoy took a surprise victory at a wet Silverstone. Benefitting from the wet weather performance of the Mondeo. It was their first ever victory in the BTCC.
Nigel’s vigourous testing regime continues, as the team head to Pembrey in Wales for a two day test. After the test, he said “It’s been exceedingly good to come here and test – seeing how much goes on behind the scenes. We’ve had a few problems with the weather, but it’s been a great two day test. We’ve really pushed the cars to the limit and that is why we wanted a private test.”
Meanwhile, with excitement building for Nigel’s debut at Donington, talks of another ex-F1 star joining him on the grid were gathering pace. 1979 F1 champion, Jody Schecketer is being touted for a drive with either Nissan, Renault or Honda. He’s been pencilled in to race at the same 3 meetings that Mansell is contesting. BTCC boss Alan Gow claims an 80% chance of the deal happening, whilst Jody wants a deal done by the end of May.
“A decision is going to be made either way by Friday (end of May). Last week, I was going to say no, but something has come up which could be interesting. If they can do it with everything being right, I will race. If it isn’t decided by the end of the week, it will be too late. It already is, really – but that is half of the fun of it!”
Meanwhile, Nigel Mansell was looking further ahead to the Bathurst 1000 in October, discussing the possibility of entering the event with Alan Gow. Gow is quoted as saying, “I’ve spoken to Nigel about doing Bathurst & it is a matter of whether the right deal can be organised. It’s mainly down to money, but he also wants a competitive car to race in. It’s unlikely to happen, but not through a lack of desire.”
Sadly, the additional challengers to Mansell didn’t come to fruition, but Mansell-mania had hit fever pitch and the fans and drivers were all looking forward to seeing how Nigel would get on.
Nigel arrived at Donington for the Thursday test prior to the race weekend and immediately found himself caught up in problems, as he was hit up the backside by Mark Lemmer in his independent Vauxhall Vectra at the chicane. Nigel lost valuable track time as the rear of his Mondeo was destroyed & the WSR mechanics worked hard to rebuild the car, whilst Nigel complained of a sore neck.
Saturday comes along and the circuit is awash with Mansell mania. Not just from the fans, but the media clambered around Mansell, his car & his WSR pit garage – all desperate to take a look at “Il Leone” in his first race back on home soil since 1993. Qualifying was a mixed bag – Nigel qualified 19th on the grid for the feature race, disappointing many. Mansell soon recovered, however, and qualified a superb 3rd place for the sprint race – Nigel feeling that his lap time had answered the critics. “For me, the weekend has already been made worthwhile,” he said. “3rd? That’s pretty high up the grid really. I think an awful lot of people will be queuing up behind me in the race!”
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 & Mansell’s chances of taking a strong result had surely increased. The packed crowd had reached fever-pitch levels of excitement, despite the dismal weather – Nigel being mobbed by adoring fans around every corner. He kept them happy, signing all sorts of pictures and other bits and bobs.
As the Sprint race started, disaster struck, Mansell bogged down and dropped back down the order. His superb qualifying lap to take 3rd position, was wasted. Worse was to come, as only a few laps later, he went off the track and straight into the Coppice tyre barrier. An absolute disaster – his heavily damaged Mondeo dragged back to the pits for repairs. Would they be ready for the second race? It looked unlikely. Better news for Ford, was that Will Hoy finished 3rd, taking his second podium of the season for the team.
After the race, Nigel joked, “I think I have some unfinished business here… I’ve christened the bridge, I’ve christened Coppice, I’ve got one more race to try and christen someone else!”
Incredibly, 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. His battles with Matt Neal and Morbidelli in particular, were an incredible watch. The safety car soon came out and neutralised the pack, as a bunch of cars were collected from the gravel and moved to safety.
As the pack settled, Mansell found himself in 4th place, much to the shock and amazement of the others. Cleland told BBC anchor 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?!”
It wasn’t luck though & he showed that as the race restarted – battling and passing David Leslie and John Cleland. Then, race leader Anthony Reid spun & was out of the race. Mansell was leading this race from 19th place on the grid. He couldn’t win it, could he?
Nigel continued to lead for several laps, but the wet track had slowly started to dry out & Nigel’s relative inexperience in a touring car began to show. He struggled to keep the tyres healthy & John Cleland slowly reeled him in & passed him.
John Cleland told us in a previous article, “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!”
Nigel eventually finished 5th, after a post race penalty for passing Audi’s Yvan Muller under the Safety Car. The result, however, was almost irrelevant. Nigel had starred in the best touring car race that the world has ever seen.
BBC commentator Charlie Cox said, “I thought the first race was the best I had seen, but the second was simply astonishing! I’ve not seen anything like it before. It was perfect – not only was there great action, there was an amazing storyline with Nigel making his debut. He put the BTCC into context, because his sheer ability to muscle a car around a wet track was amazing, but the regulars beat him in the end.”
After the dust settled on Nigel’s incredible full BTCC debut, many were passing on their thoughts. Alan Gow, Chief Executive of TOCA said, “Nigel’s presence brought an enourmous amount of credibility to the championship. He wouldn’t compete in anything that’s less than very serious. He’s done it properly and give 100 percent.”
Nigel’s team mate Will Hoy, was full of praise for him too. “When I look back on my career, I can say Nigel Mansell was my team mate & that is a great privilege. He brings huge benefits for the championship, Ford & the team.”
It was also announced in July that Prodrive would be taking over the build and preparation of the Ford Mondeos in the BTCC for the 1999 season. Many are suggesting that Ford are now shifting focus onto the 1999 season, which would obviously have a detrimental affect on the 1998 program.
Despite this, the team were getting everything ready for Nigel’s next appearance in the BTCC, at the August Bank Holiday meeting at Brands Hatch.
It was announced in early August that Nigel would have extra competition at Brands Hatch, in the form of Top Gear presenter, Tiff Needell. Tiff would be returning to the BTCC for a one off appearance with Nissan, in a third Primera. The two have not exactly been on friendly terms after they collided at the 1993 TOCA Shoot-Out at Donington Park. Tiff told DRIVETRIBE, “In Mansell’s world it was all my fault, but I have no idea what else he thought I could have done to avoid him!”
During his announcement for this one-off drive, Tiff said, “I’ve always wanted to have a go in a good car & it will be so much more technologically advanced than the Nissan I drove in 1994.”
As Brands Hatch approached, the weather was typical for an August Bank Holiday, dry and very hot. The Ford team would have been disappointed, as they always have more luck in the wet conditions. Mansell and team mate Hoy had qualified 18th and 14th respectively for the first race of the day.
However, things would only get worse at the race started. Tiff Needell, who had qualified 12th in his Nissan, collided with Will Hoy at the first corner, leaving Hoy in the gravel. Then, whilst coming out of Druids, Nigel had another coming together with Lemmer, with the Mondeo getting airbourne after a big hit into the barriers. Both Ford’s effectively out of the race on lap 1 & the mechanics had a big job on to get Mansell’s heavily battered Mondeo into shape for Race 2.
“I had a great start & the next thing I know, I get a nudge up the back,” Nigel said. Unsurprisingly, Mark Lemmer had a totally different view point. “Nigel got on the outside out of Druids. All he had to do was go downhill and claim the next corner, but he just came across me. I don’t know where he thought I had disappeared to!”
Impressively, the West Surrey Racing squad had got Mansell’s Mondeo fully repaired for the second race of the day. Nigel would line up 20th on the grid for the 50 lap feature race & the first half of the race was unusually quiet, until he came upon Tiff Needell in his Nissan – the two hardly bosom buddies after their collision at Donington in the TOCA Shoot-out in 1993. It didn’t take long for the two to come into grief, as Mansell rammed into the back of Needell’s Nissan at Druids. Needell states that it ruined his race, as his suspension was all bent from the imapct. Nigel claimed that Tiff was brake-testing him. It was inevitable that the two would come into grief at some point. “After the race, Nigel, rather forcefully, tried to blame me for our little incident!” Tiff told Top Gear after the race.
Nigel soon started to complain of handling problems with his Mondeo & suspected he might have had a puncture resulting from the contact with Needell. Pitting, the team took a lengthy pitstop to look to see if there were any problems. There was no puncture & the team couldn’t see any issues, so sent him back out again. The one saving grace for Nigel was that it did count as his mandatory pitstop.
Shortly afterwards, Mansell was told on the radio that he was given a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pits. Over, the team radio, Mansell was furious. “They can get stuffed!” he said, probably unaware that his rant was being broadcast in the race footage. When asked again to pull into the pits for a drive through, Nigel continuted his rant. “Negative, they can get stuffed. I saw 68kph once!” The pitlane speed limit was 64kph, so the drive through penalty was justified. A few laps later, Nigel completed his drive-through penalty, ranting over the radio and gesticulating in his car, he was not a happy bunny.
Once back out on track, Nigel was well down the order and started to get lapped by the race leaders. Letting them past, he was hit by Honda’s Peter Kox as he was lapping him. Nigel race ended there, ironically in exactly the same barrier as he ended Race 1. After the race, he was furious. “I seem to have a big bullseye on the side or the back of the car. As you could see, when the race leaders were coming by, I was letting them past…. then one of the Honda’s, was it Knox… just hit me, I hope the observers saw that one!”
Unsurprisingly, Kox had a different viewpoint. Talking after the race, he said “I respect Nigel a lot as a racing driver, but today he was all over the place on the track.”
It had been a very tough weekend for Mansell & the Ford team.
1980 F1 Champion, Alan Jones was linked with a guest drive at Renault for the BTCC season finale, another challenger to Nigel Mansell, who would also be participating in the meeting. Jones drove for the Williams Touring Car Engineering team at Bathurst in 1997, so is known to the team.
Nigel himself, wasn’t so sure about entering at Silverstone. After crashing out of both races in the disasterous Brands Hatch meeting, he said, “I hope I race at Silverstone. I’ll wait and see. I’m just pleased to see that I am in one piece, to be honest with you!” He also criticised the Mondeo, implying that Ford is concentrating too much on its higher profile 1999 programme, which 1997 BTCC champion Alain Menu had recently committed to. “The car’s just not competitive and there is no smokescreen to disguise it.”
There was also a small disagreement about whether Nigel wanted to have an on-board camera in his Mondeo for the final race. Nigel was reported to be upset with the TV coverage from the last race at Brands Hatch, in particular, the radio link where initially he refused to serve a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pit lane. He wanted a written apology from the TV production company. TOCA then installed the camera in the sister car of Will Hoy’s instead. Alan Gow resolved the issue, saying “He didn’t refuse to have a camera, but did prefer not to have one. Will (Hoy) had more of a chance of being in the thick of the action. If we had been resolute about Nigel carrying one, they would have had to comply.”
Qualifying at Silverstone was on a damp and misty day, conditions that the Ford team were hoping for. At first, things were looking good as Nigel held pole position early on in the session. However, in getting that early pace, Nigel used his tyres up and only had 2 new tyres to run at the end of the session, as the track dried. Eventually, Nigel dropped to 18th on the grid. Nigel was a little downhearted. “It was one of those sessions that could have gone either way. We knew it wasn’t going to rain again, so the track in theory should get quicker and drier. However, for the few races I have been to this year, there has always been someone that goes off and brings dirt on the circuit or someone puts oil down on the circuit. I gambled a little bit on the using the tyres up early getting pole position – which I held on to for 10 minutes, but it didn’t pay off. Will is 12th and I’m 18th & being totally honest with you, that’s all you can expect from the car at the moment.”
Nigel’s final BTCC races were his least dramatic, but at least he was enjoying himself this time, unlike his last outing at Brands Hatch. He finished 14th in the sprint race, not helped by suspension damage caused by contact after Robb Gravett’s Honda dropped oil over the track. In the feature race, Mansell nearly scored points again as he was running a solid 10th place. Unfortunately, he was then tapped into a spin by former F1 colleague, Derek Warwick. Mansell wasn’t best pleased. “I thought he was quick enough to get past me cleanly, but he decided to gently touch me quite hard and I went flying off backwards. Still, it’s been a lot of fun & I have enjoyed it. I was staying on the same pace with Will & Will is a good driver. The cars are not at their best & we finished! “ Nigel finished his final race in a solid 11th place.
Nigel’s BTCC year is very much a blueprint of his overall career. Plenty of drama, with lots of ups and downs. “It started off very well indeed, I came on board with tremendous expectations and enthusiasm with testing and consulting & to be fair to the team, we made quite a step forward, I salute Dick Bennetts and WSR. I’ve got on very well with Will Hoy as my team mate this year, Will is a very good driver who’s driven very well this year. He’s got a great turn of speed & not a very competitive car & he deserves a good drive next year.”
Dick Bennetts certainly shared Nigel’s enthusiasm for the year they’ve spent together. “Nigel and I have never worked together before, but I have read books & seen a lot of interviews with Nigel & I have to say I have found him very pleasant to work with – he is straight and honest & that is the way we operate and I think that was an important factor.”
However, Ford’s decision to focus on their new campaign for 1999 disappointed Mansell. “The new strategy at Ford meant that we basically stood still after that decision (to go with Prodrive) was made, because they put all their efforts into next year. That strategy will hopefully bear fruit for them, because they have certainly sacrificed a fair bit this year.”
Despite Alan Gow’s best efforts, Nigel never made the trip to Bathurst to race in the legendary event, meaning Silverstone 1998 was the last time Nigel drove in a touring car competitively.
Nigel experienced the highs of Donington and the lows of Brands Hatch & whilst nobody can question his committment, there are still questions about his performances.
Would he have succedded with a better car? I guess we will never know.