Feature F1 Unlocked
LIGHTS TO FLAG: Mark Blundell on Williams, McLaren, racing in America, and swapping the cockpit for a TV studio
Mark Blundell spent four years racing in Formula 1 in the early 1990s but never truly landed the machinery that his talent merited. He entered 63 Grands Prix for Brabham, Ligier, Tyrrell and McLaren and netted three podium finishes, and 32 points. In our latest Lights to Flag feature, the amiable Blundell reflects on his Formula 1 career, as well as spells in the US-based CART Championship, and on picking up the mic as a pundit in the 2000s.
From dream to reality
Blundell’s journey to Formula 1 didn’t start on four wheels, but rather two, having had his interest in motorsport piqued by a trip to an event with a family friend.
“I saw racing cars going around in circles and was thinking one day maybe that would be a dream come true,” he says. “But, you know, that was exactly that at that point in time: a dream.
“I actually started on two wheels in motocross, so that was where the competitiveness came from in me, and I had the possibility of going further up the ladder to get into a professional level. But the opportunity arose that I could jump into a Formula Ford 1600 and go and do some laps, and I actually did my first laps around a race school environment in Cadwell Park.
“And from that it was sort of said, like, ‘okay, you've actually got something here’. We kind of went from that point onwards and saying, ‘okay, there's some potential to go forward’, but not with any understanding or with any target of ever getting to the heady heights of Formula 1.
“It was very much a case of starting out on a journey of ‘let's go racing on a Sunday afternoon’ – nothing to do with thinking about racing at a Silverstone Grand Prix.”
Blundell started racing in 1984 at Formula Ford level before jumping into Formula 3000 where “the penny dropped” about a professional career as, “I was kind of making a bit of a name for myself.”
He was picked up by Nissan for the World Sportscar championship in 1989 and in 1990 claimed a memorable pole position at Le Mans – an astonishing six seconds clear of the pack – by which time he was also testing extensively for Williams.
“That's where I kind of got in the shop window really to let people see what I could do in a Formula 1 car,” Blundell says. “It was a fantastic time. I think I was like the start of the new generation of test drivers. We were given a quite an important role back then. You got to understand a little bit of the makings of what was going on internally inside the Grand Prix team, and you learned a huge amount and you got to show your wares.
“I think that was really a stepping stone for me into Grand Prix itself, working with some great people back then, people like Paddy Lowe, Patrick Head, obviously Frank [Williams] was leading the team, but there were some really instrumental people in the world of Formula 1.”
Stepping onto the grid
For 1991 Blundell landed a full-time Formula 1 race seat with Brabham, but that wasn’t the original plan as he entered the year.
“I'd actually signed a Heads of [Terms] agreement to go and race for Tom Walkinshaw in World Sportscars with the Jaguars,” Blundell says. “It was only that when the contract came back from TWR, there were some bonuses missing out of it that we had agreed verbally and they weren't in the contract! So I kind of at that point thought, ‘hmm, all right.’ And in the interim, I was approached by Brabham.”
But the year with Brabham proved a challenge as the struggling team lacked performance and reliability, with Blundell finishing only five races. He scored a point for sixth in Belgium – the first in Formula 1 for a Yamaha-powered car – but that was the high point of the campaign.
“In hindsight maybe it wasn't really the right thing to do because I was still sitting with a Williams contract in my hand, which was a multi-year contract, and I was doing a really good job for them,” says Blundell of his testing deal, which he dovetailed with his races for Brabham.
“And they were actually even trying to get me in a car for a Grand Prix that was looking to be held at Donington, which was going to be a non-points scoring Grand Prix. They wanted to run me in an active car.
“As a young person, with nobody around me with the credentials to guide me at that point because, you know, we didn't have a sort of manager who had the level of experience to say, ‘look, stay put,’ which would have been probably the ideal situation of staying put at Williams. I jumped at the opportunity of going to Brabham and, yeah, it was quite tough.
“Tough in many ways. Tough from a point of view of the performance wasn’t all that great, which was seconded when I went back to Williams when they asked me to go back and test for them, which was quite unusual, to be a Grand Prix driver and racing for one and testing for another.”
Brabham’s plight was such that “on two occasions I sat outside the office at Brabham waiting for my salary to be paid because the cheques had been bounced on me. So, yeah, a bit of a baptism of fire.”
McLaren and Le Mans
Blundell says he realised that “I was only as good as the car that I’m driving” and having initially left Williams to chase a race seat elsewhere he was approached by McLaren for 1992 to be test driver to Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger, an opportunity he accepted.
“I could have stayed at Williams, maybe, and be sitting here as a World Champion like my buddy Damon Hill, but you know that's the way the cookie crumbles,” he says. “So I didn't do that. I did call Damon to tell him that I was leaving Williams and to get his backside down there to fill in the space I was leaving! But, you know, there you go.”
New Williams tester Hill landed a part-season with Brabham – before its collapse – and stepped up to Williams in 1993, winning the 1996 title.
His good mate Blundell spent 1992 as McLaren’s tester and also memorably went on to triumph at Le Mans with Peugeot – “a nice season in many ways because I had a 100 per cent record!” – before returning to the Formula 1 grid in 1993, with Ligier.
He claimed a first career podium at the opening round in South Africa, before taking home another trophy in Germany, and a switch to Tyrrell for 1994 yielded another rostrum finish, in Spain. But Tyrrell, as with Brabham three years prior, were struggling financially and there was no chance of Blundell staying for 1995.
“Again, McLaren came and knocked on the door and said, like, you know, come back to us and work with us because we could use your contribution,” Blundell says.
Blundell signed up as a test driver for Mika Hakkinen and Nigel Mansell, who had been lured to McLaren after making a comeback in 1994 with Williams.
Mansell infamously missed the opening two events – amid reports that he did not fit in the car – and Blundell took the spot. Mansell returned but after just two rounds quit McLaren, opening a vacancy for the remainder of the season.
“I didn't really know in the background that there were already some troubles going on with Nigel,” says Blundell on when he signed his test deal. “And at that point, you know, it became very evident when I'd signed a deal to go and do the test work that maybe I should have had a bit more foresight that, you know, my race contract should have been in place!
“It was unfortunate for Nigel, but beneficial for me and I took it with both hands and made the most of it.”
Blundell was fortunate to land a McLaren seat but unfortunate to do so during a fallow period for the team. Ron Dennis was still laying the groundwork for the team that would peak again with titles in the late 1990s, with 1995 the first year of the McLaren-Mercedes partnership, while the MP4-10 proved solid but unspectacular.
“The car wasn't good,” Blundell says. “I think by anyone's standards. Inside McLaren, they would say that, you know, it was not one of the best cars they’d ever produced. It was the first year of Mercedes-Benz engines. And a lot of the time my power plant was down on what Mika had because Mika was designated the number one driver at that point.”
Blundell still fared well against the “hugely talented and immensely fast” Hakkinen, scoring 13 points to the Finn’s 17, claiming a best finish of fourth.
A CART move – and a huge accident
McLaren’s recruitment of David Coulthard for 1996 meant Blundell was scouting for a new seat and he’d been planning a switch to Sauber. But Red Bull had ramped up its involvement with the Swiss team and “part of the remit was that Dietrich Mateschitz wanted to have the second seat – which was still open – for a driver that had won a Grand Prix, and the only person on the market still available [with a win] was Johnny Herbert, so Johnny ended up getting the seat.”
That left Blundell “quite disheartened” with Formula 1 but salvation came from a former employer.
“Mercedes-Benz had been very grateful for the work I did with them at McLaren and offered me an engine lease deal to take to America, and that's what I did. I took the engine deal with me and took it to Pac-West Racing. We weren't able to use it for the first season because of contracts, so they had to deal with Ford Cosworth. But then the following season, the Mercedes was brought in and, we then went off and went racing – and winning.”
That Blundell won three races in his sophomore season – the high point of his CART career – was a remarkable turnaround after a terrifying start to his time in America. In only his second race, at Rio de Janeiro’s trapezoid speedway, Blundell suffered a brake failure. The resulting accident was ferocious.
“I think it's probably one of the bigger accidents where you're able to actually see somebody get out and, you know, to a degree, walk away! I wouldn't wish that upon anybody. I’m very lucky to be around to talk about it, if I'm being brutally honest. I hit the concrete wall at 198 mph, and it was 122g.
“That was after me trying to hit my team mate – and I consciously tried to do that, because I knew that if I hit concrete, the chances of me surviving were really slim. When you watch it, you probably have to watch it again because you think it's sped up – but that’s a real-time impact.”
Blundell wound up starting 71 CART races before leaving the series after 2000.
“It was a fantastic few seasons, with some great racing and, you know, going on the ovals as well was a different discipline and not everybody's cup of tea. But we had some success on those as well. So some good times overall.”
Picking up the mic
For a generation of Formula 1 fans in the UK Blundell is remembered as one of the main pundits of ITV’s coverage, having joined in the early 2000s, through to the conclusion of its rights deal in 2008.
“It wasn't planned,” says Blundell. “You know, I'm not the most eloquent guy in the world. Vocabulary wise, you know, it's not that big either! Some of that would be down to my youth because I really wasn't at school that often – not that I'd advocate that to anybody...
“My good friend Martin Brundle wasn't able to do one of the Grands Prix, and I was in the States at the time. It was Montreal, and I got called up to say, 'would you like to fill in and actually do some commentary?’, at that point. That's really how the whole thing started. And I did a couple of commentaries with Murray Walker.
“And then when I got to a stage of, ‘okay, there's an opportunity here now as a full-time pundit with ITV’, I made the call to say, ‘yeah, I think I'm going to go and do that’. I never really said I was hanging up my helmet and gloves, but the door opened and I walked through it and seven years later was still doing it.”
Blundell carved a name for being straight-talking, while also making the occasional slip-up, which earned him an endearing reputation.
“We had some giggles during that time,” Blundell says. “I think there was DI Blundell, or Inspector Blundell, there was a bit of a spoof that was out there, or Blundell-isms or something like that! But for me it was always about trying to explain things like you would in the back of a London cab, you know? I wanted things in layman's terms because I think that's a simple thing to do. I'll leave the technical stuff for the guys that know what they're talking about!
“Live TV is quite enjoyable when things are going right, when they're going wrong or when you've said something and you can't retrieve it, you know, you have to pay the price! I think also because it was alongside Martin – we go back a long way, we were team mates in F1 on two occasions, we’ve known each other a very long time. We bounced off of each other well, we're quite different in many ways, but we had a huge amount of fun doing it.”
Blundell and Brundle set up a driver management business – 2MB – which morphed into MBP once Brundle’s TV career accelerated, with Blundell’s company now having branched out into several industries.
“Now we have an agency that is 10 years down the line,” says Blundell. “We're really diverse, so still a lot of motorsport, but several areas of it that are outside of that and, you know, dealing with some of the world's biggest corporations. We punch above our weight, but we're all still enjoying it and, you know, I keep getting up every morning with a bit of fight in there and a desire to win.”
Blundell raced for four iconic teams – and tested for one other – but the race opportunities all came when those teams weren’t at their peak, and while a chance to race for Williams during its golden years never arose, Blundell is keen to stress his contentment.
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“I think for me, career-wise, I don't really have regrets,” he says. “There's no point, you know? At the point in time when you're moving forward and you're trying to make the best decisions, you know, they are what they are. It’s no good looking back and crying over spilt milk.
“Everywhere I went in F1, I was there on merit and I was paid as a professional driver. And to be fair, I've done that throughout my career from a very early stage. I'm quite proud of that.”