Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nigel Mansell, love, and pronouns

[After Williams signed Alain Prost for 1993, and declined to meet Nigel Mansell's contract demands, Mansell] raved to the tabloids about how unfair it all was, but received rather less sympathy from the English specialist press, whom he had thoroughly alienated in an interview with L'Equipe, in which he described us as 'corrupt' for our unwillingness to rank him with Senna or Prost. Given that Mansell's relationship with the subtleties of the English language was never an easy one, it may be that this was not the adjective he had intended to use; whatever, the damage was done. (Nigel Roebuck, Chasing the Title, p247).

The story of Nigel Mansell is essentially half of a love story. Fail to understand this, and it is impossible to understand Mansell and his Formula 1 career.

Nigel met Rosanne when he was 17 years old, stopping his Mini at the roadside to offer her a lift to Solihull Technical College. They married in 1974, and have been together ever since. Rosanne sold her own road-car to help Nigel buy his first Formula Ford racing car, and, as Simon Taylor recalls in the December issue of Motorsport Magazine, the transition to Formula 3 not only saw Nigel working night-shifts as an office cleaner, and Rosanne working overtime as a British Gas demonstrator, but ultimately required the young couple to sell their own home, raising a paltry £6,000 in the process.

Despite the lack of finance, and a couple of potentially serious accidents in the lower formulae, Mansell's self-belief and courage caught the eye of Lotus boss Colin Chapman, and he gained a precarious foothold in Formula 1. The significance of Rosanne's contribution to his career was aptly characterised by Paul Kimmage in early 2006: "She was there in 1980 when he made his F1 debut for Lotus. She was there in 1985 when he won his first grand prix for Williams at Brands Hatch. She was there in 1986 when he lost the world championship when a rear tyre exploded in Australia. She was there in 1989 when he won on his debut for Ferrari. She was there in 1992 when he was finally crowned champion for Williams. She was there in 1993 when he was IndyCar champion. She was there in 1995 when he drove his last race. For 35 years, she was there."

The story of Nigel and Rosanne Mansell is ultimately a story of sacrifice and devotion, and Mansell's career in Formula 1 is a gripping tale of battles fought against adversity, spectacular overtaking manoeuvres, and ultimately the wresting of the World Championship. Yet despite all this, Mansell's relationship with the specialist press had degenerated into mutual vitriol by the early 1990s.

Nigel's self-belief was matched only by his persecution complex, a strong cultural meme in the Birmingham and Black Country area. Mansell bristled with aggression and paranoia at any criticism he received in print, and his attitude towards the specialist press often led them to deliberately understate his achievements; something of a vicious circle.

To understand Mansell's behaviour, however, one needs to understand not only his egotism and persecution complex, but to comprehend that his antagonism towards the press was also a conjugal reflex response to the presence of an external threat. Nigel and Rosanne, almost as a holistic entity, had made enormous sacrifices to realise their dreams, and any criticism in the press was perceived by Mansell as an attempt to undermine this achievement.

Simon Taylor comments that "When referring to himself, [Mansell] mixes his pronouns, as he always did...: 'When I look back I say to myself, with what we were up against, we were so lucky and fortunate that we accomplished what we did'."

This, however, is to underestimate Mansell. There is no misunderstanding of pronouns in Mansell's words. There were occasions during his racing years when Mansell used 'we' to refer to himself and his team, but at all times it referred to Nigel and Rosanne. As a case in point, consider how Mansell recalls the announcement of his first retirement, at the British Grand Prix in 1990: "It was a genuine decision. Rosanne and I had talked it through before Silverstone, and we'd decided we were being manipulated."

We were being manipulated.

Nigel supported Rosanne as she fought cancer in 2004, and Paul Kimmage's interview concludes with the following Mills and Boonesque lines:

He glances across at Rosanne for confirmation. She shrugs and smiles.

"You know that you’re my hero, don’t you, for all that you’ve been through," he whispers tenderly.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

A friend of mine interviewed him a few years back and said he was one of the *strangest* people he'd ever interviewed. Apparently that day he had a persistent habit of slipping into the third person when talking about himself. And he paid not the slightest attention to the questions he was asked and just went off on his own monologues.

On his day, he could be awesome in a racing car though