Putting it on the line
When ‘old muckers’ Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell teamed up for the Daytona 24 Hours it was a chance to prove they still have what it takes – and perhaps humble a few of their younger rivals
By Damien Smith
There's no point saying they had nothing to prove. They knew as soon as they signed up that we'd all be asking the question because, hell, they wanted to know themselves. Could they still do it after all these years? Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell were two of Britain's finest pros for two decades, but now these old friends were trying to turn back the clock, diving head-first after years away into a deeply competitive world-class motor race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
They could hurt themselves. Worse than that, they could make fools of themselves.
They didn't, of course. They're a class act, these two. For Brundle in particular the risk of humiliation must have played on his mind. He's the bloke off the telly, 51 years old, the man we trust to pass judgement on today's Grand Prix stars every other weekend. For Blundell, too, a respectable comeback was imperative, but perhaps for different reasons. At 44, Mark still has time for a final chapter to his racing career.
Blundell relit the fire at the Spa 24 Hours last year when Zak Brown — one of motor racing's most influential deal-makers whose rising ambition has led to talk of him being the 'new Bernie' — coaxed him into joining his United Autosports team of Audi R8 GT3s. It went well, with a third in class result. Brundle took note.
Brown, an enthusiast as well as an arch salesman, pitched the pair for a prototype campaign at Daytona in partnership with GrandAm regular Michael Shank Racing, knowing full well the interest it would generate, but also because he was as intrigued as anyone. Brundle won this race in a TWR Jaguar V12, but that was 23 years ago. His last 'proper' race was Le Mans with Bentley 10 years ago. Blundell never made it to Daytona 'back then', but like his old mucker conquered Le Mans in between F1 campaigns. Apart from Spa, his last big race was Le Mans 2003. How would it be all these years on?
Motor Sport sat down with the friends, ex-F1 team-mates and former business partners at Daytona between practice sessions. Their big smiles told half the story — and those grins were still there on Sunday afternoon...
So how did this come about?
BRUNDLE: Weren't you going to do this one anyway, Mark?
BLUNDELL: Yeah. It came about from me doing Spa with Zak Brown. Martin asked 'how did you get on?' Then the Daytona 24 was another opportunity and Zak asked if Martin would be interested. We realised it would be great for us to drive in the same car, which we've never, ever done. We've always been against each other.
Martin, you're a busy man. You didn't need convincing?
BRUNDLE: No, I really didn't. I'm surprised in a way because it's one of those things where yo say 'yeah, I'll do that, it sounds like really good fun'. Then you think 'what have I let myself in for?' Two trips to Daytona in January with all the other things that are going on. That was before I knew I'd got this new BBC gig as well [as lead F1 commentator]. But we'll all be dead soon. You've got to do these things, haven't you? I was a bit concerned I wouldn't have enough pace or fitness. I'm 51 and out of the loop. But you don't forget how to do it. I pulled the lid on and instantly felt 30 years old. Genuinely. I was quite tentative when I got in the car. I was thinking what if these cars are difficult to drive, can I still do this, how many laps in the car can I do before I've had it, will my neck go...?
BLUNDELL: But that's part of the fun. We've already done it, now we're coming back and asking ourselves can we still do it? The answer is, yeah, we can and we're not too bad at it.
United Autosports co-owner Richard Dean said he wondered whether having done F1 and Group C you'd be dismissive of the car. But he said there's been none of that...
BRUNDLE: You'd be a prima donna here for about one second before you'd get slashed down. Why would you be like that? You've got a certain amount of grip, a certain amount of power; maximise it, get the four drivers as comfortable as you can. Me and Mark, we're on the same pace basically day and night. He's a bit quicker than me in the bus stop, I'm quicker than him in the slow corners. We mix and match...
BLUNDELL: ... as we always have!
BRUNDLE: Exactly, there's never been anything between us. I think the team thought we'd treat it as a bit of jolly, but the cars are too fast to do that. The average speed is 127-128mph. We're doing 195mph on the banking, there are 50 cars on the track. This is not playing around. BLUNDELL: And we're against Indycar champions, we're against multiple NASCAR champions. There are good names in that field.
So what's it like for you two finally being on the same side?
BLUNDELL: It's no different; we're still competitive. It's always going to be a case of 'what's he doing?' But for once we're contributing to the same end, and that's the nice thing. We get up in the morning and drive to the track, we do it and then we leave together, that's been the same for a gazillion years! That's no different, it's just that we're sharing the same cockpit.
So is there needle?
BRUNDLE: Aw, is needle the right word? There's definitely a... Like when he did a 1min 40.9sec in the test, I thought 'right I've got to do a 40.9'. And I went into the first corner and locked a wheel...
BLUNDELL: We always pushed each other.
BRUNDLE: It's not quite as edgy as at Ligier. I remember him doing a time at MagnyCours back then that put him on the second row of the grid — right, I've got to get out there. And I went for a banzai lap. There was definitely an edge. But no bad feeling in it.
BLUNDELL: We're probably unusual in that respect. There are not many guys who are that close. If you look at some data you'll see a laptime that's the same basically, but done in a different way. And that's always been the same.
When did you become mates?
BLUNDELL: Montreal pitwall, 1990.
BRUNDLE: Yeah, I went over and said 'we've got similar names, haven't we?' Then we were team-mates at Brabham the following year. We hadn't met before that, had we?
BLUNDELL: I started motor racing when Martin started F1 — 1984.
BRUNDLE: Alright, alright!
BLUNDELL: All I'm saying is that for me as a kid coming through he was a big name. So to be sitting in a GP team next to him was a big thing. I was a kid in a sweet shop. Like this weekend.
Do drivers get on these days like you guys?
BRUNDLE: I think we were different, even then. When we were Ligier team-mates we had every breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Shared a rental car, shared a private jet. We became comfortable, like an old couple. One would get the rental car while the other got the bags.
BLUNDELL: We had a routine.
BRUNDLE: Exactly. That means you focus on other things. I think there are friendships, yeah. And they're quite unusual sometimes. Like Kimi [Raikkonen] and Adrian Sutil, they were muckers. It's not a nationality thing, but when I got to F1 there were 13 Italian drivers. They stuck together; the Brazilians have always given each other a leg up, they've always thrown the rope down to the next one. But when one thing happens on the race track... It is very difficult to maintain a friendship, as it were.
BLUNDELL: We've had problems. He ran me off the road in Estoril and we had to share the plane together going back that night. It was one of those situations where we had the newspapers up — not really reading them, we just couldn't look at each other. We got to the end of the flight and got off, and mumbled 'speak to you tomorrow, then'!
BRUNDLE: Who else in F1 has that sort of friendship today?
Alonso and Kubica?
BRUNDLE: Yeah, but as soon as there was talk of Kubica going to Ferrari, Alonso started slagging him off. I think it's so competitive up there. I mean, we'd have been tested if we'd been in a front-running car. We were always in adversity trying to make the best of it, so two heads were better than one. A Br abhamYamaha V12 and a Ligier, they weren't the best.
You're so close to the modern racing world. Do you look at it and think you'd like to have raced in this era of F1?
BRUNDLE: I wouldn't limp so much if I raced in this era. Having driven these F1 cars for the telly, they are so fantastically good I would've loved to drive in this era, yes.
BLUNDELL: You're made that way, with the outlook of getting in something that's the pinnacle of technology, so your desire is always going to be there. I don't have a huge desire to drive old racing cars. Goodwood doesn't get me going yet. But maybe in five years time it might. At the minute I'm still drawn by the technology.
BRUNDLE: Every minute of your waking hours as a racing driver is about trying to make your car faster. You're always looking for perfection. And all of a sudden you jump into a modern car and it goes exactly where you want, you can't lock up the brakes, you can't miss a gear, you hit the throttle and the thing just takes off. It's fantastic. The only way you can tell it's changed gear is that the engine note has changed, it's so smooth. It's that perfection you were always seeking. Now, I'm sure if you're driving and you're half a second off the pace it's crap, and I don't know if I would have liked hours of briefings with headphones on talking to people back at the factory like they do. A lot of people have rose-tinted glasses about how good it used to be, but I remember a lot of long and boring afternoons in the turbo era, thinking if I just get this to the finish I'll probably get some points. Now it's totally different because of the reliability.
BLUNDELL: They're bullet-proof, aren't they?
BRUNDLE: And with no testing. Incredible.
Martin is a regular at Goodwood and loves it. Why don't you fancy it, Mark?
BLUNDELL: Maybe it's an age thing. In my head I haven't really come to terms... I never said that I retired.
BRUNDLE: How old are you?
BRUNDLE: Only two years older than Michael.
BLUNDELL: I suppose I've got different responsibilities, and businesses, but...
BRUNDLE: You don't forget how to do it though. BLUNDELL: It's like riding a bike. BRUNDLE: It came back to me about three corners in. The nerves fell away and I thought 'yes, I can still do this'. It's a great feeling, I have to say. This is racing at a professional level, but there's not the pressure. It's a dream ticket. We've got to do well: there are sponsors, it's a big programme, we have a lot of media attention, I'm standing up on TV giving it 'Alonso shouldn't have done this, Hamilton should have done that'. So it's important for me to put in a decent performance, even though I'm over 50.
BLUNDELL: But it's not going to change our career paths, that's the difference. When we were there before it was career-changing stuff. Every weekend you raced the car, it could change the direction of everything. Now, we've done it.
BRUNDLE: It's probably not as much 'fun' as I thought it would be.
BLUNDELL: No, it's intense and it's serious. But for us it's still not... Tuesday morning we'll be rolling back into the office.
So would you do more?
BRUNDLE: Yeah, I'd do something again. I want to do Le Mans with [son] Alex. If I had a dream ticket it would be with 'Billy boy' [Mark], Alex and me.
BLUNDELL: Might get DC in as a fourth driver!
BRUNDLE: You're not allowed four drivers at Le Mans! DC would be here if he could. He wants to go and do exactly what we were just talking about: have something semi-professional without the pressure that's fun.
Jackie Stewart stopped at the end of 1973 and never looked back. But most drivers can't switch it off like that...
BRUNDLE: I can't. Jody Scheckter did. Damon [Hill] did, didn't he? I saw Damon going round the Ascari track and he was just plodding round. Those three guys all won a World Championship, or more. If you've fully satiated your ambitions and become World Champion I think it's easier. If you leave your career with a bit of frustration, that drives you. Then there's someone like Mario [Andretti] he just wanted to drive, drive, drive. I love driving racing cars, it's brilliant.
BLUNDELL: There's just nothing to replace it, that's the problem.
BRUNDLE: Live TV does a little bit, doesn't it?
BLUNDELL: It's still nothing in comparison.
BRUNDLE: I've had a few of my old F1 muckers saying 'what on earth do you think you're doing? Just stop it. What's the matter with you?' They should be here now seeing the smiles on our faces.
Martin, you've said Daytona was one of the hardest races you did.
BRUNDLE: Physically, the hardest I ever did. The Jaguars were heavy, and I think it was particularly humid when we raced here with three drivers. [Raul] Boesel flaked out during the night, so me and 'Super John' [Nielsen] did most of it. I was finished at the end of it. Tom [Walkinshaw] actually took me out of it at the end and I collapsed. We had a stand-up row in the pits • because he put Jan [Lammers] in for the last stint. I was so out of it, I only realised once I'd strapped him in and told him what the car was doing, stood back and shut the door: 'That's Jan Lammers!' The shouting match with Tom was one of the few times we had cross words in 18 years of working together. In the end it was more or less, 'it's my car, son. I'll do what I like'. I said 'well, you're wrong'. Turned around and walked off, then collapsed. They laid me up against a set of tyres. The first bloke past: Tom Walkinshaw.
He must have been an intimidating guy to have a stand-up row with.
BRUNDLE: So am I! I'm meek and mild, but when I go off I overdo it.
That old Brundle fire still burns. As usual, his 'old mucker' matched him. The pair were simply brilliant at Daytona. Brundle qualified a respectable ninth in the rapid-fire 15-minute session, then made a cautious but sensible start in the race. The pair, joined by team boss Zak Brown and respected gentleman driver Mark Patterson, kept their Riley-Ford in contention through the night, despite the inevitable bumps and scrapes of this bruising enduro.
By Sunday morning, the 'Brundell brothers' were sitting comfortably in third place, with only the Chip Ganassi 'super-team' duo ahead of them. Expectations had been smashed, the years steam-rollered back. But with 65 minutes left, Brundle slipped to fourth and a fairytale podium was gone. Still, it took nothing away from an incredible comeback performance. Martin can look Alonso and Hamilton plum in the eye this year, while Mark has earned the right to an unexpected Indian Summer. Point taken, boys.