Having focused on Hill and Prost in the first instalment, Kevin Ayres now turns his attention to two drivers who had mixed success when returning to former teams – Nigel Mansell and Fernando Alonso. The varying fortunes of these two drivers during their second (and third) spells suggest that there was more to their returns than just searching for victory. A level of respect for their former teams and the romanticism of recreating history were also present in their decision-making process.
Nigel Mansell: Williams (1985 – 1988, 1991 – 1992, 1994)
The ever popular British Lion of F1, Mansell’s career has become synonymous with the predominantly blue and white cars of Williams. When you think of the ‘Red 5’ pounding round Silverstone, outfoxing Piquet on Hangar Straight in 1987, or giving Senna a lift on the slow down lap in 1991, you think of Mansell. Yet when Frank Williams decided to pair the young Brit with former World Champion Keke Rosberg for the 1985 season, it was seen as something of a gamble by the Grove based outfit.
In the four seasons Mansell raced with Lotus from 1980 to 1984, the Birmingham born racer only managed five podiums and one pole position. Further to this, Nigel’s team-mate during this period, Elio de Angelis, outscored him in every season bar one. Not helped by a bitter feud with newly promoted team boss Peter Warr (following the tragic death of Lotus’ founder Colin Chapman in 1982), for Mansell 1985 was make or break. He simply had to make it work with Williams.
Equally for Nigel, the move to the Grove based team would have been something of a risk for the British driver. Despite winning the title in ’82 with Rosberg, Williams had failed to capitalise on the shifting landscape F1 was experiencing at the time. Gone was the focus on aero, replaced by a turbo war between the big manufacturers. Since Rosberg’s glory, Williams had only won two races, compared to the multiple victories being notched up by the likes of Brabham, McLaren and Renault during the same period. For Williams, Mansell could be just the injection of skill and determination the team needed.
Come the end of the ’85 season, this proved to be the case. No longer was Mansell the nearly-man; brave, fearless but ultimately winless. Brands Hatch, a circuit Mansell came to know well in junior categories, expertly plied his knowledge and speed to win the European Grand Prix and claim his first of many victories. For Williams, four victories that year saw the team leap up the constructor’s table to third, ahead of Mansell’s former team, Lotus. The pairing of Mansell and Williams had been vindicated; a legendary partnership was born.
If 1985 was a taste of things to come, the 1986 and 1987 seasons merely cemented Mansell and Williams’ reputation as dogged, determined racers who would fight tooth and nail for victory, even against team-mates (Silverstone ’87 springs to mind!), yet the title remained elusive for Mansell. Difficult circumstances surrounding Frank Williams’ life-threatening injuries in ’86 were swiftly followed by intra-team rivalry and politics with Nigel’s two-time World Champion team-mate, Nelson Piquet (who subsequently beat Mansell to the title in ’87). The loss of Honda engines to McLaren at the end of ’87 signalled the beginning of the end of Mansell’s time with Frank Williams’ outfit. Having dragged his uncompetitive Williams-Judd to the podium just twice during the whole of the 1988 season, Mansell received the call from the ‘Old Man’ himself, Enzo Ferrari, and promptly left for Maranello to partner Gerhard Berger for 1989.
Despite Mansell’s Italian adventure, turning his back on the team who believed in him and nurtured his talent more than any other, it would be Williams at the end of 1990 who would rescue Nigel’s career from the jaws of retirement. Fearing preferential treatment to his newly signed team-mate Alain Prost at Ferrari, Mansell duly announced his retirement from F1 at the 1990 British Grand Prix. Hearing the news, Williams gave Nigel an offer unlikely to be matched – unrivalled number one status at the Grove based outfit if he signed a two year contract. The offer was too good for ‘Il Leone’ to refuse.
It was to be a decision Mansell would not regret. Over the next two seasons, the Williams FW14 and FW14B were the class of the field, claiming 17 wins from the 32 races contested across ’91 and ‘92. Even more remarkably, 14 of those 17 race wins came from Nigel. His complete annihilation of the field earnt him his long awaited first World Championship in 1992. Another notable record was also taken by Mansell during that season as the most victorious British F1 driver of all time, overhauling Jackie Stewart’s long held record of 27 wins. Mansell himself would hold the record for 22 years, only beaten recently by Lewis Hamilton’s ever-increasing tally of wins in 2014. Having achieved his lifelong ambition, and with rumours circulating that Alain Prost was considering returning to F1 with Williams for next season, Mansell duly retired for the second time at the end of the 1992 season. However, Nigel’s Williams adventure had yet one more, somewhat tainted twist to come…
1994 promised so much for the Grove based outfit. With Adrian Newey as Chief Designer, Renault V10s and the driving force of Ayrton Senna steering the ship, it seemed the stars had aligned for Williams to continue where they had left off for the previous two seasons. But a regulation change banning electronic aids such as the innovative, space age tech of active suspension (pioneered and perfected by Williams) during the pre-season left Frank’s team on the back foot. Further tragedy would unfold, with Senna’s death at San Marino creating a massive hole not just within Williams, but within the sport as a whole. How could it ever be filled? As a mark of respect, Williams only fielded one car for the following race at Monaco. However, they knew the now vacant seat had to be filled. David Coulthard, the team’s test driver, could fill the gap quickly having already tested the FW16 throughout pre-season. Yet the team needed some experience on the driver front – one must remember that Damon Hill was himself fairly new to the F1 scene, having completed his first full season only the year before. And so the phone call was made – Nigel was once again stepping into the cockpit of a Williams, this time in what was one of the Grove team’s darkest periods in the sport.
In a way, the reasons for hiring Mansell again had almost come full circle – in 1985, Williams needed the strength and tenacity Mansell possessed to help bring success back to the team. Fast forward nine years and Williams needed Mansell’s strength and tenacity more than ever. A guest appearance at the 1994 French Grand Prix confirmed the British driver’s racecraft had not deserted him – qualifying second, Mansell was set for a podium on his return before transmission failure put paid to a remarkable return to the sport. Mansell would not be called on again until the last three races of the season, in the midst of a titanic title between Mansell’s team-mate, Damon Hill, and Benetton’s Michael Schumacher. Whilst Jerez and Suzuka were largely forgettable affairs, the season-ending Australian Grand Prix would provide Mansell and Williams with one final taste of former glories together. Having secured pole position, Nigel gentlemanly allowed the two title protagonists to pass as the lights dimmed and let Hill and Schumacher decide the title amongst themselves – and decide it they did. A controversial collision between Hill and Schumacher eliminated both drivers from the race, allowing Mansell to inherit the lead. Holding off a fast-charging Berger, Mansell claimed his 31st and final victory.
In 1985, Mansell started his career with Williams as something of an unknown quantity. By the time he had finished in ‘94, he had become a legend in his own right. The fact that Mansell returned to Williams not once, but twice, shows that driver and team were indeed stronger together – victories, even during guest appearances, would suggest this to be the case.
Fernando Alonso: Renault (2003 – 2006, 2008 – 2009) and McLaren (2007, 2015 – 2018)
Not to be out-done by Mansell, Alonso holds a rare record of being one of the few F1 drivers in the history of the sport to return to two former teams. Having begun his career with Minardi in 2001, Fernando’s manager Flavio Briatore expertly maneuvered the young Spaniard into the Renault fold for 2002, having become Team Principal of the recently revived French team. With Alonso testing for the Enstone based team, Briatore once again decided to shuffle his deck of cards for the 2003 season; Jenson Button (who outscored and largely outraced his team-mate Jarno Trulli, who was retained) was out – Alonso, Flavio’s Ace in the pack, was in.
With all the headlines being grabbed by the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in recent years, it’s easy to forget that it was Alonso who first broke many of the records which had stood for years, if not decades. Some fell in his debut season for the Enstone based team – youngest pole sitter at Malaysia was shortly followed by the youngest ever Grand Prix winner at the 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix, a record which up until that point was held by Bruce McLaren, who himself took the record at the 1959 American Grand Prix. Yet it was not just the records that mattered, it was the manner in which Alonso was creating his own history. Starting on pole at the Hungaroring, the Spaniard displayed a commanding performance to lead all bar one lap and lap Michael Schumacher, of all people. This was not just a victory from Alonso – this was a signal of intent. Give Alonso the support and tools he needs and he can beat anyone, even multiple World Champions.
Unfortunately for Fernando, Renault failed to provide the tools for the following season to enable Alonso to add to his maiden victory. Podiums were rare, and victories were nigh-on impossible, given the dominance of Ferrari at this time. Despite this, Alonso finished the 2004 season fourth in Driver’s Championship, beaten only by the two Ferrari drivers and Jenson Button. Biding their time, Renault and Alonso would not have to wait long for their chance.
2005 saw a change in tyre regulations, whereby each driver would only have one set of tyres for both qualifying and the race for each race weekend. This played beautifully into the hands of the Renault design department, whose cars were naturally gentle on their tyres, meaning that their drivers could push their cars for longer without increasing the tyre’s wear rate. For Fernando, this would have been music to his ears, a driver who thrives being able to push the limits of his car and himself and succeeding in the process.
A string of victories in the early half of the season cemented his position as title favourite. Again though, it was the manner of his victories which stood out to many within the paddock. The 2005 San Marino Grand Prix was a case in point; after inheriting the lead through Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren suffering driveshaft failure, Alonso was displaying yet another commanding performance. Michael Schumacher, relentless in his pursuit, hunted down the Spaniard lap after lap. Exhibiting incredible calmness for his youth, Fernando absorbed all the pressure the Ferrari driver could throw at him. Refusing to buckle, Alonso claimed victory by a mere two-tenths of a second, once again proving that Alonso could go toe-to-toe with the best and beat them. Defeating Ferrari on home soil provided the icing on Alonso and Renault’s cake.
Despite a resurgent Kimi Raikkonen in the latter half of the season, McLaren’s woeful reliability failed to capitilise on an incredibly quick car. Alonso’s consistency and ability to extract the maximum from his Renault gave him a deserving maiden title. Another record was set, becoming the youngest ever World Champion. It seemed nothing could go wrong for the Spaniard or the Enstone based outfit. Indeed, for the next twelve months you could say nothing did. 2006 saw Alonso crowned champion again, making him the youngest double World Champion – another record under his belt. Schumacher and Ferrari took the title to the wire, but just like Kimi Raikkonen the year before, reliability curtailed Michael’s charge, this time at the penultimate round at Suzuka. However, all was not well at Renault – their star charger was gaining loftier ambitions and a new challenge was calling…
2007 saw Fernando jump from the blue and yellow of Renault for the silver and red of McLaren. Lured by the promise of unrivaled Number One status within the team by Ron Dennis, Alonso initially signed a two year contract to be paired with a certain Lewis Hamilton…the bitter feud which resulted is the stuff of recent F1 folklore, Fernando even going as far as accusing his own team of sabotage in an apparent effort to promote Hamilton.
Four wins and joint runner-up in the Driver’s Championship did nothing to sooth the tensions. If anything, the fact that Alonso lost a potential third title by one point to Ferrari’s Raikkonen would have largely enflamed the situation. It was clear the relationship could not survive – McLaren and Alonso parted company after just one season.
After his success with Renault and warring feud with McLaren, it would seem crazy for Alonso to return to either team. Instead, Fernando returned to both! The success which almost came effortlessly for the Spaniard in his first tenures with both Renault and McLaren however were not so forthcoming during his second stints – two wins with Renault in 2008 (including the controversial Singapore Grand Prix, where Renault were found guilty of deliberately cheating) was the only further success he achieved with his former teams. Four lacklustre seasons with McLaren have taken their toll on Alonso’s enthusiasm for the sport he once loved and conquered, announcing a ‘break’ (read retirement) from F1 at the end of the 2018 season. It’s a sad conclusion for a driver once considered one the best of his generation.