Back in 2015, 1992 Formula 1 World Champion Nigel Mansell published his most recent autobiography entitled Staying on Track. With a title as thrilling as the man himself, this author finally got around after some years to review it, and share some nuggets of wisdom from the book.
To start with, Staying on Track marks the third Formula 1 autobiography this author has read; the other two being Aussie Grit by Mark Webber and Life to the Limit by Jenson Button. Those books were far removed in quality and subject from one another: Webber’s book was severely lacking in any real details of his F1 career, and he clearly held back in his opinions of contemporary topics. Button on the other hand was more than candid, handing out story after story about any and every topic, especially when it related to the controversial moments in his career.
Mansell’s book falls somewhere in the middle of those two. It highlights many anecdotes and subjects, and Nigel doesn’t hold back with what he thinks of these events. However, it is also the case that he very rarely has strong opinions on any subject, and with a highly forgiving attitude, has obviously mentally moved on from a lot of the subjects he brings up. It succeeds where it gives real insight into the Williams and Lotus garages – the real anecdotes positive and negative that bring colour to Mansell’s career. It fails in its breadth of scope, with many chapters lacking in purpose or drive (pun intended).
The Narrative and the Stories
Where it differs and perhaps fails in comparison to other autobiographies is in the structure. Staying on Track is split into three parts: Nigel’s career up until 1995; his opinions about the current state of F1 (in 2015); and his later life and retirement. This handling of each set of subjects separately actually stalls the pace somewhat. The stories and narrative of his career are fascinating, but the devotion of the final act to his golf and cycling interests were unnecessary and dull.
So the interest fluctuates and is entirely dependent on the subject at hand. For example, Mansell brings up a whole list of deeply personal and troubling topics such as the severe bullying he received as a child, and likewise explains the many medical issues he suffers as payment for the grief he gave his body throughout his racing career. This is fantastically insightful, and actually quite surprising that he would talk so candidly, especially about his multitude of medical issues. This is where the book really shines.
Of course, where these anecdotes work the most are in the first part of the book, as they have the easiest and most interesting narrative to follow. His professional and personal life are well interlinked, and it is the latter that are the primary focus and purpose of this book. Nigel wants the reader to get a personal understanding of what he went through. He talks of his poverty, health issues, his family, and speaks frankly regarding key relationships of his career.
He has a thousand kind words to say about the majority of people he met over the years. Very few, namely Nelson Piquet, get a bad rap, and Nigel is full of praise for his contemporaries, making a clear point as to the serious danger he and his comrades found themselves in every other weekend that overrode any personal differences. This author’s favourite anecdotes often include Murray Walker, who conducted hour-long interviews with the microphone off, or who repeatedly got Nigel’s surname wrong on various occasions (serial killers clearly on his mind, in one interview in the Nevada Desert Murray had to do various reshoots so that he wasn’t calling the driver Nigel Manson).
Surprising to Note
Nigel’s opinions are largely positive, but often about unexpected subjects. For example, his love for American racing is quite surprising in the context that he almost died a few races into his IndyCar career. He seems genuinely regretful that his career there ended as it did: he wanted to defend his F1 title in 1993, and likewise he wanted to continue his new life in America before getting the taste again in 1994. He seemed to love the anonymity for his family in the States. Stories like this stand out and provide worthwhile context for the reader.
Weak points of the book are the style of ghost-writing. Americanisms are often used which take the reader out of immersion – “Friggin’” being an unconscionable word to include in a Nigel Mansell autobiography. This is a shame, as much of the rest of the prose is written in a “Mansell style”, if that doesn’t sound like a cure for insomnia.
Positive points are when he goes all-in on the day-to-day running of Formula 1 cars and teams. Colin Chapman especially is the central role model for the young Mansell, and it is these chapters where Nigel describes the nurturing atmosphere of Lotus, and the unbelievable innovation that occurred during those years, that make the book worth a read-through. These subjects were something entirely new for the reader, whose personal knowledge of the world champion was mostly limited to the early 90s and late 80s.
On Contemporary F1
This author would be remiss without mentioning the second part of the book, dedicated to Mansell’s thoughts on current-day F1, and his predictions for the future. Incorrect precognition notwithstanding, it is interesting how on the money Nigel is regarding the necessary improvements to the sport. While he naturally emphasises the safety measures required, he doesn’t shy away from lamenting the unfairness of DRS, or the hideous financial barriers to entry, or how the sport is devalued with fewer teams and fewer drivers. However, he does this all with a typical Mansellian haw-haw-haw that shows he can’t or won’t do anything in his power as an FIA steward to instigate these changes, so it is with a bittersweetness that the author reads these ideas in retrospect.
That bittersweetness is exemplified by one of Mansell’s closing statements for that chapter, which is that, with his living situation, he would not have been able to fund himself for Formula 1 had he been born 30 years later.
Staying on Track gets three stars out of five. There’s enough in the way of anecdotes to keep a reader interested, and the descriptions of the pioneering technology of the early- to mid-80s is very well explained. There’s too much in the way of useless subjects such as golf and charity events that take up more than one chapter each. These are obviously the last subjects that Nigel wants to bring up, as it is very clear that this will be his last autobiography. The personal shines through, when it is allowed to, and when it is channelled correctly.
And (mostly) not a cure for insomnia!