The Hungaroring holds a special place in the heart of Nigel Mansell. It’s a circuit where he achieved one of his greatest victories (for Ferrari, in 1989) and the place where he was crowned the 1992 World Champion. Ahead of the 34th consecutive running of the Hungarian Grand Prix, Mansell talked to Károly Méhes by phone from his home in Florida.
Images © Károly Méhes
When you heard that Formula 1 would be heading behind the Iron Curtain in 1986, how did you feel? What did you expect?
I thought it was fascinating and brilliant, because Hungary is a really special place. It was a great idea to bring Formula 1 to Budapest and put the city on the world stage.
What are your memories of driving the Hungaroring?
We know, of course, that the track in Hungary is very demanding, very physical, with short straights and many corners. It is a hard race for the car and the driver. But it’s great if you don’t have power steering or traction control, because the driver has more input. You can really drive the circuit properly, it was fantastic.
You received a horse as a birthday gift at the 1987 Hungarian Grand Prix.
My birthday was always during the race weekend, or a few days before or after. In 1987, I was given a horse named Skála which I offered to the Pethő Institute [a rehabilitation centre for disabled children]. I hope it worked out well for them. It was a beautiful horse, and I spent an extraordinary evening sitting on the horse in the middle of the Hungarian capital.
You led commandingly in that year’s race, but a loose wheel nut robbed you of the victory. Still hurts?
Yes, every race you lose because of mechanical failure hurts, especially when you see how reliable the cars are today. I think I was leading by 90 seconds when the wheel nut came off. It was not a good day.
But it was a good day at the 1989 Hungarian GP, wasn’t it?
Brilliant. I had won my first race for Ferrari in Brazil which was already a bit of mystery, because it kept on breaking down after that. We developed the car on a week to week basis. The reliability started to get better, which gave us more confidence and optimism. It was just a question of working on the reliability and the race pace at the same the time. Together with Maurizio Nardon, my race engineer at Ferrari, we changed the front wing flaps to add more downforce for qualifying and the warm up. This made the car a lot more stable at the front. The tyre degradation at the Hungaroring is very high; without good balance, it can be difficult. I always knew if can get the balance for the race I would have a very good chance. And this proved to be the case.
The start was the most important part of the race for me, because I qualified outside of the top six, where I should have been. I made a fantastic start to move from 12th to 7th which was very, very important. Then I overtook Ayrton Senna during the race, which was a fantastic manoeuvre. Winning the race was a brilliant result for Ferrari and also myself.
Where would you rate this win among your many illustrious victories?
I think it has to be in the top three. Maybe one or two. Because it was so demanding. Obviously, Silverstone in 1987 was a great victory… but for me, technically, the Hungarian race in 1989 could have been the best victory I had because nobody thought we would be competitive from 12th on the grid. But I had a great start, then settled down and made a great overtake which went down in history. Yes, definitely up there among my best races.
Did you speak with Ayrton after the race about your pass on him?
Yes… all I can say, he wasn’t happy!
You clinched the 1992 World Championship in Hungary. How do you remember it?
If you have a dream to win the World Championship, and the dream comes true, it is truly fantastic. You join the most incredible elite club in the world by becoming World Champion. It was so special in those days, because we didn’t have the reliability of the cars of today. The competition back in the late 1980s and early 1990s was enormous. We had more than 40 cars trying to qualify for 26 places on the grid. We had so many great World Champions racing together. It was incredibly competitive, the tracks were incredibly dangerous as we know, but this was racing at its best.
What about the aftermath?
It was truly magnificent. When I got home we had a celebration, the government gave me a welcoming party so the week after was very, very special. The only thing that wasn’t special was that within 24 hours of winning the Championship, I was told that I wouldn’t be driving for Williams next year. That wasn’t special. But it doesn’t matter, because when one door closes, another one opens and we had a fantastic time in America.