Shed above water

Mark Blundell 1985 SPA F3000

He was just 21. He was running his own team. He had an old car. He was bucking the F3 trend. And, he tells Adam Cooper, it so nearly paid off

The 2001 season was a frustrating one for Mark Blundell. After losing his Champcar drive, his racing activity was confined to a single outing for MG at Le Mans. In wet conditions, he was one of the heroes of the endurance classic, reminding everyone of the ability that once made him one of Britain's brightest prospects.

Blundell made his name in Formula Ford 1600 in 1985, alongside the likes of Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine. He starred in FF2000 the following year, but then made the bold decision to skip the natural progression of Formula Three and go straight into F3000 with his family-run team.

"We'd been really successful in FF2000, but we couldn't put enough money together to spend on a top-line F3 team," he recalls. "We struggled to see the value of it in any case it was going to be based in the UK and we thought we'd gain a lot more if we started driving in an international series. And if you can drive a racing car, there's no difference whether it's got 200 or 500bhp.

"These days people go from Formula Renault to F1 and nobody bats an eyelid. Back then it was a huge step we were seen to be taking, because it was avoiding the accepted process. But I have never done anything on a normal basis while working my way up the motorsport ladder..."

What was even more impressive was the fact that, although just turning 21, he was effectively running his own team.

"Basically, Fleetray Racing was me. It was a little limited company that was setup. I had a great deal of help from my father, mostly in an advisory role, and I had a lot of help financially from various people. We had a little premises and a handful of people I mean a handful and we went racing.

"It was very much done to a budget. We were like the Minardi of F3000, running on a shoestring and doing a very good job. I was a young guy, and I was already running a race team, so there was a lot of pressure on me to perform. And we didn't have the latest kit.

"We got a year-old car from Lola, an ex-works car. It was a bit beaten, battered and bruised, and getting the old silver paint job off it was too much work. Our nickname for it was The Shed'. We also had the older mechanical injection engines, when everyone else had gone across to electronic management systems. So we really were behind the eight-ball in terms of performance."

However, as early as the second race, at Vallelunga, the novice impressed with a sixth place.

"Everyone opened their eyes and said, 'Who's this spotty little git?' But Spa was the race that put us on the map. I really got on well with Spa. It's a great drivers' circuit, and it just suited me down to the ground."

Despite being troubled with an oil leak and a puncture, Mark qualified fifth for the Belgian Grand Prix support event. "If we hadn't had those problems, I'm sure we would have been higher up the grid. It was still a bit of a gut-wrencher for some of the big teams."

The start was aborted when the heavens opened on the warm-up lap, which at least gave everyone the chance to switch to wets. The opening laps were quite an experience for the rookie.

"The conditions were horrendous, with very, very bad visibility. It was a big deal because it was the first time I'd been in a big, powerful car in the wet with a whole lot of traffic around me— all of a sudden it becomes a bit of handful. It was driving by the seat of your pants, which is driving in its purest form, I suppose."

Mark was soon up to fourth, and he then began chasing Stefano Modena and Andy Wallace.

"I was tussling with those guys all the way round the lap, and I committed myself coming through Blanchimont I'd gone on the old 'Even if you can't see, you can still hear their engine' theory I just lined myself up to go underneath Modena into the Bus Stop, and that's precisely what I did.

I got a faceful of spray, but I jinked left, and when he got off the gas, I stayed on a little bit longer, which is what you do when you're young. It paid off double, because we'd driven Wallace hard into the chicane, and he got into a bit of a fumble and ran off the road."

Incredibly Mark was now second, with only the veteran Brazilian Roberto Moreno ahead.

"I had oodles of commitment, and I think that was making up for some of the performance lacking from the car. The visibility got better. I came up underneath Moreno at the chicane, and kind of waved goodbye. The Shed' had taken the lead, and it was a great feeling!"

A few laps later, though, Mark lost the lead to Frenchman Michel Trolle after he got caught out behind a backmarker. Then, as the track dried, people started diving into the pits for slicks. It soon became apparent that those still on wets were losing time — but the two leaders stayed out.

A huge crash at Eau Rouge brought out yellow flags, but the race carried on. Trolle finally gave up the struggle with his deteriorating wet tyres and came into the pits, leaving Mark out in the lead on his own. There was a sound reason for Blundell's reluctance to stop; he knew that a tyre change in the ill-equipped Fleetray pit would not be the work of a moment.

"Everyone else had lined up their air guns and so forth. And we'd lined up our torque wrenches. So it was going to be a little bit on the slow side, to say the least"

Mark did not know that extra help was at hand. Sympathetic crewmen from two other teams had headed down to Fleetray armed with pukka tyre-changing equipment But with no radio, Mark never got the message.

Then it became academic. The mess at Eau Rouge was taking a long time to clear, and the red flag was flown. Mark was leading on the road, but the results were taken from a lap earlier, i.e. before Trolle had made his stop.

"The fact that they took it from the lap before meant I ended up second. But that's been the story of my life! If I'd just had that result it would have had a huge impact, and maybe made a big difference in my career.

"Still, I can remember being up the podium, this round-faced kid with no badges on his overalls. It was like, 'What am! doing up here?' But I'd raced the pants off the car, and The Shed' had served me well. From that point on it was, 'You know you can do it. The future looks good'." II