Interlogos ushered in a fresh Formula One era. A was not the first ‘new dawn’ Martin Bruntle had witnessed. . .
The incessant drum beat from the main grandstand is broken only by a lone trumpeter’s outburst, and the occasional bark of an engine from deep inside a pit garage. Cars are being readied for the qualifying session. There is an air of expectancy. An air of frustration, too, as Martin Brundle paces the floor at Ligier, where Aguri Suzuki will drive the opening races.
Of the 26 drivers who start the first GP of the season, none boasts an F1 career stretching back as far as the Briton’s. A full 11 years have elapsed since he prepared for his first race, in this very country, but the adrenalin still courses his veins every bit as freely as the champagne flows in the hospitality suites.
At Interlagos this weekend Mika Salo, fifth at the wheel of a Tyrrell, steals the show. Back in 1984 Brundle’s exploits in finishing in exactly the same position, for the same team, saw him likewise feted as the ‘young gun’ due to set F1 alight. He endorsed that Rio billing by placing second in Detroit. The world was at his feet until his feet suddenly hit a rather solid piece of the world, at speed, in Dallas.
“I was really on a roll then,” he recalls. “If that run of form was 10 years later, a helicopter would have been sent for me; I’d have been in and out of all sorts of factories, with somebody wanting to slap badges all over me and tie me up for five years. And pay me a few million dollars down the road a bit. Back in those days you didn’t do it quite like that. The emphasis was on the older, more experienced drivers. Now it’s on somebody coming out of primary school!”
Offered without rancour, the observation is based on experience. In recent years Brundle has partnered Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, groomed for stardom by Mercedes and Marlboro respectively.
At Benetton when the team was poised to become such a major force in Formula One, and ensconced at McLaren during its first barren season for 14 years, you could conclude that Brundle has a knack of always being in the right place at the wrong time. But you won’t hear him curse his luck. An astute businessman, he could have turned his back on the sport years ago and still lived comfortably ever after. Whether he would have lived happily is another matter, for racing is in his blood.
Flicking through some documents recently, a picture caught his eye. It captures him hurtling through Casino Square at the wheel of a Tyrrell 012 in 1984. Only one wheel remains on the ground: one has just hit the bump on the exit; the other two are airborne because the car is flexing so badly in the middle.
“That was actually quite a good little car in its day,” he smiles. “The DFY engine revved to some staggering amount like 10,700 rpm which, to put that into perspective, is now more or less the minimum you need on the clock before these new three-litre engines really get off the ground. Then we take them to 15,000 rpm plus..”
Out on the circuit, and deprived of downforce, the drivers struggle to keep the new generation of cars under control in Brazil. Within the sanctuary of the pits, Brundle faces no such battle to control his enthusiasm for the new rules.
“The teams spend tens of millions; the engineers spend thousands of hours; the drivers work with the engineers constantly to get the right balance. We spend so long trying to perfect these cars, and then somebody just draws a line though the regulations.
“I know it’s got to be done, because otherwise we’d be here in Brazil with a turbocharged, ground-effect, fully automatic Formula One car: all you’d have to do is find a driver who could actually still see going round a corner that fast. I’m not criticising, I’m just saying it feels like a kick in the nuts when you’ve worked so hard to get a car right and suddenly you go back to basics.”
He still recalls the day in Paris when the governing body tolled the death knell for turbo engines. But not as vividly as he does
“They were dinosaurs in the beginning, but that era was really quite thrilling. I’m pleased that I was a part of it. I remember the last race in ’86. We had 5.5 bar boost with the Mexico high altitude compressors on, and I think I had 332 kilometres per hour at the end of the Brabham Straight in Adelaide, a street circuit with concrete walls either side! The thing was absolutely awesome. But the car was never really able to put that kind of power, about 1250 horsepower, down until sixth gear.”
A qualifying lap was, he says, the ultimate thrill: “You wanted to keep the intercooler pressure down, so you used to creep round on your out lap, sometimes to the last corner, using no boost, to keep it nice and cool. You’d do everything to keep the qualifiers cool, then come out of the last corner and put your foot down. From the last time you did a lap, just before lunch, you’ve now got something in the order of another three to four hundred horsepower in the same car; probably with even less weight, because you know you’re going to be running just enough fuel to get you back into the pits. The thing took off.
“The horizon just came towards you, that was the impression you got. It wasn’t that you were going towards anything; everything just came towards you. At an enormous rate of knots. You had extra grip from the qualifiers anyway, although invariably they weren’t fully up to temperature for the first three or four corners because you’d crept round out of the pits. During the middle of the lap it would all be awesome, singing and screaming, but then the last two or three corners the tyres would start to go off; they’d roll, you’d be having blisters on them. Now these are tyres that take eight man hours each to produce, and we were trying to get eight kilometres out of them!
“The last corner would normally be a compromise. By now the charge temperature going into the engine was beginning to get so high that you probably only had 1200 horsepower at the end of the lap. Senna was the absolute master of getting all of those variables together on one lap.
“Where I probably remember the turbos most was Monte Carlo, climbing the hill to Casino Square. I was alongside de Cesaris, and I think we had 182 miles per hour at the speed trap just before the Square. It was awesome.
nology “Now, of course, that thing with 1200 horsepower wouldn’t see a ’95 car for dust this with only 700 horsepower. Tyre tech, aerodynamics (dramatically), driveability and driver fitness have all changed so much.”
So have the rules, and the FIA’s struggle to reign-in engineers intent on trampling new technological frontiers has ensured that what goes around not only comes around, but does so with incredible speed: “I remember crossing the finish line at the Nurburgring in ’85, ‘the last race in which Tyrrell qualified a Cosworth prior to the arrival of its second turbo’ and thinking, ‘Well, there’s a piece of history coming to an end: the normally aspirated Formula One engine’s last race.’ How wrong can you be? It was only two years later that we were back into normally aspirated cars.”
He rates the Benetton, in ’92, as the most satisfying car he has driven “It had enough grip that if you got it slightly wrong you could tip-toe round the outside of the corner and still live for another day. That meant you were just committed at all times.” but contends that the subsequent era of ‘driver aids’ did not take the cars too far out of the driver’s hands: “The best drivers still got more out of that system than the worst drivers. All right, I will accept that to be able to change gear quickly, accurately, reliably, at the right time, is a racing driver’s skill. Or was. Under pressure you could miss a gearchange, boil the engine, make or break a race. Automatic gearchanges take away a driver’s skill, but the top drivers can then use whatever’s available to them, thinking as hard as they can about every aspect of what they’re doing, and find another advantage. It doesn’t level the playing field completely and make a back of the grid driver a front of the grid driver. It didn’t happen, did it?”
Although the driver aids era witnessed F 1 scale new technological heights, it was also a period of relative innocence, one when the word ‘danger’ was measured in the expenditure of money rather than life.
“What happened [prior to Imola] is that we took more risks on the track, we were very blasé about it,” he concedes. “On qualifying laps, or during overtaking manoeuvres, you would be in sixth gear corners absolutely on or over the ragged edge. Knowing, or thinking you knew, that almost whatever happened you would climb from the car and your first thought would be to run back to the pits for the spare car, not ‘Where’s the doctor?'”
A leading light in the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, re-formed in the wake of Imola, Brundle’s reaction to last year’s horror is sharpened by the knowledge that back in ’85 the same circuit very nearly claimed his own life. Then, he counted himself exceptionally fortunate to survive a brake failure entering Tosa at 185 mph.
Four drivers who sat with him on the grid for his maiden Grand Prix, Elio de Angelis, Manfred Winkelhock, Stefan Bellof and Ayrton Senna, are no longer with us. Then, as now, drivers risk paying the ultimate price for their sport, but, he says, perceptions of that danger are changing: “Back in those days we didn’t have a camera pointing at every orifice; worldwide TV coverage wasn’t what it is now. Accidents didn’t get played forwards, backwards, slow motion, 25 times. I think people’s awareness of this kind of thing has changed. Certainly sponsorship has changed enormously: sponsors don’t want to be involved in sportsmen getting killed; people don’t want to see people killed in the name of sport any more. Drivers don’t particularly want to get killed: we expect risks, I think we all accept we may die, but we want to be satisfied that the risks are kept to a minimum.
“It’s an ongoing thing. I think more has been done by the FIA, the teams and the drivers in the last 10 months that at any other time.
His own accident, at Dallas, did as much damage to Brundle’s career as it did to his legs: “Suddenly I’d ground to a halt just when I was on the roll. It probably took me until ’89, the year with the Brabham BT58-Judd, to really get going again.”
More than anything, perhaps, it was a sabbatical in sports cars in 1988, when he won the World Championship with Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguars, which served to resurrect the King’s Lynn driver’s career. Two years later, when he won the Le Mans 24 Hours, he again used a sports car campaign as a successful launchpad to shoot back into the F1 firmament. When all around him colleagues were clinging to F1 drives, any drives, was it not an exceptionally bold move to drop out of the category?
“The first year I was going to do it, at the end of ’86, I couldn’t bring myself to take the leap,” he confesses. “I went to Zakspeed. So I didn’t take quite so much convincing at the end of ’87…
“My driving style suits long-distance racing incredibly well I had a confidence. Whenever I got behind the wheel of a TWR Jaguar, I felt completely invincible. That’s a feeling I never really had in Formula One until I passed Schumacher in Canada in ’92 for second place, and I was catching Berger at three quarters of a second a lap. I was seven seconds behind him, 22 laps to go, and I suddenly thought, ‘Hey, you’re going to win your first Grand Prix’. It was really interesting, because at that moment I felt like I grew about three inches and I just tore off down the track. Then the bolt dropped out of the diff, sadly.
“That was a very significant moment for me, mentally. In any area where you are pushing the limits of the human body, such a mental approach is very important. Some people are born with self-confidence. It is often described as arrogance, but it is very critical. It’s like Schumacher: I can’t think of anything you’d like to happen less to you than a steering column failure, and fate says it would have to be at the Brazilian Grand Prix. But he got back in the car and was fastest the next session.”
Brundle counts losing his own Benetton drive, at the end of ’92, as the lowest point of his F1 career. Ironically, with Schumacher now having confirmed himself an exceptional talent, Brundle’s efforts as his teammate bring him more praise three years on than they did at the time. That thought recently prompted the admission that one spectre remains to be exorcised: “It’s just a personal thing, and I don’t say it just to show off, but I’ve got a fantastic trophy cabinet at home. I look at it, and I see all the things I’ve won over the years, but all of that just gets overshadowed by not having won a Grand Prix. I’m constantly fending off the question, ‘Well, you’ve done 131 Grands Prix, Martin, and you haven’t won one.’ The fact of life is that I’ve never quite elevated myself into the megastar status. I’ve always attracted a lot of attention from teams, but never quite convinced them that I’m world champion material.”
He is candid enough to admit that, at 35, the likelihood is that he never will. When he does walk away from F1 and he has no intention of warming the carpet slippers just yet he will do so with myriad memories and trophies alike, and one further legacy: a souvenir, if you like, from Dallas.
“My feet now get very sore, very quickly. I’ve had to clear a bit of a hurdle, because you try to protect anything that you’ve damaged. “Which, of course, is why I go round the world feet-first at 200mph… “