Having raced in the top motorsport series in the world, you’d expect Mark Blundell to have a fair few stories to share. Speaking to him after taking an early lunch at work, ‘a few’ doesn’t quite cut it.
Blundell has raced some of the most famous names out there, including the likes of Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. He’s had a run in Formula 1 both as a full-time racer and as a test driver, won Le Mans, competed in IndyCar and now runs a very successful sports management agency.
Blundell’s F1 career saw him as a test driver for Williams, before racing for Brabham, Lieger and McLaren Mercedes. He went on to have three podiums and finished 10th in the standings in 1995. Looking back on it, Blundell is happy that he “achieved his dream”.
“I got there on merit and I’m very happy because I got there,” he says. “I can sit my grandchildren on my knee and tell them the story when I’m old and grey…which I’m not that far off now! There’s a little bit of unfinished business there, but that is the way the cookie crumbles. At the same time, you can also say that there’s not that many people out there who have multiple podiums, so I have to be happy with the fact that I did achieve those three podiums.”
Blundell may have had the chance to stay on as Williams test driver, the first generation of the role of its kind. Now it’s a decision that he sees “no point in regretting” despite thinking about what it could have led to.
“I had a commitment with Williams for three years when I signed with them in 1989,” he says. “I was like the first generation of test driver back then. We set a benchmark with the amount of mileage we were doing and the other development. At the back of my testing, which was going very well, Brabham made an approach to me to become a full-time grand prix driver which was salaried.
“At that stage of my career and being very young, it was an opportunity where I thought ‘right, I’m going to be a grand prix driver’. In hindsight, if I’d had people around me to give me a bit more insight to what it may have been, I probably would have stayed at Williams. They were quite happy to retain me; I still had another year in my contract.”
The rest of the story is “history” for the man that replaced Blundell was someone called Damon Hill, who went on to become world champion. But, Blundell sees the scenario now as just timing.
“I had the full-time seat opportunity and I took it because I thought that would be the best thing,” he says. “Going back to test at Williams when I was a driver at Brabham, which again was highly unusual, gave me the insight into understanding that when you go around a race circuit at 2.2 seconds quicker on race tyres compared to qualifying tyres, then you know that you may have made a bad choice. I can’t regret it now as it’s done and dusted.”
Despite what could have been, there is no denying that Blundell had fun during his time in F1. He was team-mates with Martin Brundle, someone whom he is still friends with now.
“I had the most fun when I was team-mates with Martin Brundle,” Blundell says. “Him and I are very close friends and we shared a lot of time together. We shared strong results together, so even though it was competitive, we were still mates. It’s unusual how well we got on, but we managed to retain the friendship that we had.
Their friendship as team-mates is somewhat an unusual combination to see in F1 but them coming from similar upbringings helped the dynamic.
“I did look up to him,” says Blundell. “He came from a similar area and background to me and once I had caught up in racing terms, it just worked. We were chalk and cheese in many ways and I think that was a great combination.
“We had our ups and downs but 99 percent of the time, we said goodbye at the end of every journey that we shared, even though we wanted to knock each other off the circuit half of the time!”
At the time of him racing, Blundell also feels that driving an F1 car was more physically demanding and he highlights Monaco as being the pinnacle of that.
“Monaco was the most physically demanding race,” he says. “When you’re doing some 1,700 gear changes in a race, you ended up with holes in your gloves, and a seat that was worn out from pressure on the brake pedal. There was no power steering and those things, so it was mentally challenging too. There was no margin for error.
“Races where the climate was hot were tricky also. But, we were still reasonably fit at that stage in our careers so it wasn’t too bad. You paid the price with the physical demands to race in the early days.”
Blundell went on to acknowledge that the sport is dramatically different today, in terms of the requirements from the driver.
“You only have to look at the shape of today’s F1 driver to see things are different,” he says. “They’re more like jockeys today. What they do inside the cockpit of the car is very different to what we did – what they’re controlling, what they’re feeding back. With no power steering we couldn’t have been cornering and trying to change something on the steering wheel at the same time. We didn’t have the strength to do it.”
Blundell then made the switch to race in IndyCar in 1996 after a potential deal with Sauber fell through.
“I had an agreement with Sauber at the end of the 1995 season and was en route to go in that direction,” he says. “Then Dietrich Mateschitz came along and was an investment in Sauber at the time. He wanted a grand prix driver who had won a race. At that point, the only driver available was Johnny Herbert. My deal got squashed and I got disheartened with F1. I wanted to move onto pastures new and that’s what I did.”
After the move, Blundell decided that he preferred racing in America to competing in F1.
“I preferred the racing in IndyCar as there was a lot more racing on track and they were great cars to drive, despite them not having the same technology,” he says. “We had 900 horsepower with no traction control. They were beasts of cars and that was all part of the pleasure.”
Blundell switched between multiple disciplines during his career, something which you see less of today. However, back in the 1990’s, this was considered normal.
“I didn’t find it difficult to switch between the racing series,” Blundell says. “The ovals were a little bit more difficult as I had to learn left foot braking. A sign of a good driver is someone who can switch cars and you’re seeing that at the moment with Fernando Alonso. Back then it did happen all the time yet you don’t see it much now.”
If you discount the racing, then Blundell notes that the paddocks differed immensely.
“IndyCar was a lot more relaxed, although it was still professional,” he says. “I still think in general that US racing sport is more entertaining. There’s a lot to be learnt from NASCAR and IndyCar for F1. There’s a lot to go in to generate things that go back to the fan or spectator, which is missing in F1 to a certain degree. Monaco and Canada were not motor racing. They were a procession of cars.”
He’s adamant that if F1 wait until 2021 to change things, they’ll “lose some die-hard fans”.
“It’s becoming monotonous,” he says. “F1 has this way of picking itself back up and shaking itself down. The theme is quite common now as in what we’re watching isn’t wheel to wheel racing and that is what they have to get back to. They need to do something sooner rather than later.
“I get frustrated watching it now. I’m a bit of a purist and I want to them going wheel to wheel. Sport should never be predictable and F1 is becoming predictable for me. If we’re going to dedicate our viewing time, when there’s so much sport and choice out there, we need to make sure it’s a good thing to watch. It’s the pinnacle of motorsport and it should be there for everyone to view.”
But when looking at the highlight of his own career, Blundell has many to choose from.
“It has to be between getting my first F1 championship point or getting my first podium, racing alongside the men that I raced against,” he concludes. “Racing is all about enjoyment and I’ve had lots of it.”