It’s May 17, 1987. The day of the third grand prix of the season, in Spa, Belgium. Nigel Mansell is on pole. His great rival Ayrton Senna is on the second row, after qualifying third.
On the first of two starts to the race, Mansell leads ahead of Senna when a tangle at the back of the grid forces a restart.On the second jump, it’s Senna who gets the better of Mansell. The Brit, though, tries to edge back in front on lap one by attacking the Brazilian around the outside, but there is contact and the two spin off the circuit. Both cars are taken back to the garage, and that’s when things get really interesting.
“I went over to him, grabbed him by the overalls and pushed him up against the wall,” Mansell recalled. He wore loose overalls in those days and I pulled the zip up beyond his chin to just below his nose. “Next time you do that,’ I said, ‘You’re going to have to do a much better job.”
Senna had previously been quoted in Tom Rubython’s book, The Life of Senna, as stating: “When a man holds you round the throat, I do not think that he has come to apologise.”
Senna was right.
Speaking at the launch of his own book, Staying on Track, Mansell said this week a rage had come over him like he had never experienced before.
“You can’t control [yourself] really when you see the red mist,” Mansell told Sky Sports.
“Everyone has a chip inside them called self preservation and [it’s activated] when you’re on the edge and you know you could have just lost your life because someone’s been completely brainless, which is a polite way of [putting] it, and basically putting someone in a situation where you either back out or you’re going to get killed.
“We had a situation like that. I went back to the pits and I had a red mist. “I’d never experienced that before in my life, actually. I just saw red like there was no tomorrow.
“I was then like a great big bull in a ring and everything I saw was red. Then I thought, ‘Well I’m going to go and see my friend Ayrton.’
“We had a very good communication (laughs). It was interesting. Very lively, very lively.”
Now while the fact Mansell grabbed Senna by the throat is well known, the claim Senna threw punches in retaliation is not.
“I had four people holding me down and then he stood in front of me and hit me quite a few times,” Mansell explained, describing the punches as “amusing”.
“I didn’t feel a thing, it was lovely.
“The fantastic thing was the FIA didn’t do anything. No one did anything.
“There were two big guys going for the world championship and we were threatening each other’s lives on the track like there was no tomorrow and they thought, ‘Let the drivers sort it out.’
“And sometimes the drivers need to sort it out, you can’t let the officials sort it out for them all the time.”
Mansell recovered to achieve great success in the 1987 season, winning six races, but his world championship run came to a premature end with a practice crash. The Brit suffered a back injury that forced him to miss the last two races of the season, as his Williams teammate Nelson Piquet claimed the title. Senna finished third.