Nigel Mansell was ‘affected enormously’ by F1 return after Ayrton Senna’s death

Jon Wilde
Nigel Mansell with Sir Frank Williams upon his return to the team in 1994.

Nigel Mansell with Sir Frank Williams upon his return to the team in 1994.

Nigel Mansell has reflected on the time when Bernie Ecclestone lured him back from America to fill some of the gaping F1 void left by Ayrton Senna’s death.

In 1994, Senna began the season as the only World Champion in Formula 1. He had won the title three times but not since 1991, with Mansell (1992) now in IndyCar and reigning title-holder Alain Prost having retired.

Tragically, Senna lost his life in a crash during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, early in a season when Michael Schumacher and the Brazilian’s team-mate at Williams, Damon Hill, battled it out for the crown.

However, at the time, Schumacher and Hill were hardly household names and so Ecclestone, clearly feeling the sport needed a lift and an injection of personality, went out of his way to bring back Mansell.

The Briton made a guest appearance for Williams, in place of David Coulthard, at the French Grand Prix two months after Senna’s demise and then returned for the last three races of the campaign.

He even gained the final F1 victory of his career in the Australian Grand Prix, which is probably remembered more for the controversial collision between Schumacher and Hill that decided the title in the German’s favour.

Speaking in an interview with Adrian Flux, Mansell recalled the part Ecclestone had played in convincing him to give up IndyCar racing and put himself back in the F1 fold.

“I won’t go into the details but I had four or five contracts in America and I was really happy in America and defending the title, or at least trying to,” said the 69-year-old.

“And then two drivers on that terrible fateful weekend at Imola – Roland Ratzenberger died on the Saturday, Ayrton died on the Sunday. It was horrendous.

“And obviously at that time then, there was no Formula 1 World Champion that was then racing in Formula 1, so Bernie Ecclestone decided he had to do something about that.

“He did some miraculous negotiations behind closed doors, which I can’t even imagine how he did it. He bought all my contracts out in America and obviously brought me back to Formula 1.

“It was the most amazing thing then psychologically. Ayrton was such a huge figure – to drive a dead man’s car wasn’t very pleasant and it affected me enormously.”

Nigel Mansell leads Ayrton Senna. Barcelona September 1991.
Williams driver Nigel Mansell in front of McLaren's Ayrton Senna. Barcelona September 1991.

Mansell also told of a private test he took part in for Williams which, when word got out that it was happening, was suddenly private no longer.

“We had the test at Brands Hatch when nobody was there, and within an hour or so there’s tens of thousands of people there,” he recalled.

“It was extraordinary, and I enjoyed driving the car. I hadn’t driven the car for almost two years.

“My first race (French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours) I put it on the front row of the grid, so even better.”

The Classic will be held at Silverstone across the weekend of August 26-28 and will feature a host of attractions, including Mansell’s F1 world title-winning car from 30 years ago being part of an interactive display.