Lunch with... Martin Brundle

The racer turned commentator and driver manager looks back on an eventful and turbulent career with Simon Taylor
Photographer: James Mitchell

He raced in 158 grands prix over 12 seasons, and his rides included McLaren, Benetton and Williams. He scored points from his first F1 race to his last, and stood on the podium nine times, from Monaco to Monza, Spa to Silverstone. And he was World Sports Car Champion, at a time when that series had proper manufacturer involvement and top-quality drivers. Then he added Le Mans to his string of endurance victories. By any measure, this man has to be seen as a memorable British racer.

Yet, thanks to the power of television, Martin Brundle is more famous now than he ever was as a driver. And it’s precisely because of that racing career – half a life spent pushing himself from a teenage grass-track racer to a man who, on his day, beat Senna and Schumacher – that he is a TV personality of such wit and authority. “I’m very lucky,” he says. “I’ve been in the gravel traps, and I’ve been on the podium. So I know how it all feels. I’ve got this database which automatically comes my way.”

Martin’s a country boy, son of a Kings Lynn motor trader and for many years a motor trader himself. Norfolk may not be convenient for Heathrow, but he still lives in a quiet village close to where he was born. Even when his race earnings were at their highest, he was never tempted to chase the tax avoidance lifestyle in Monaco. So his chosen lunch venue is the coastal village of Blakeney, on a February day when flurries of snow are blowing off the grey North Sea. Inside the Blakeney Hotel we are warmed by home-made soup and honest cod fillet in beer batter.

“My first commentary was actually back in 1989. James Hunt, who was doing BBC TV with Murray Walker in those days, went on the missing list at Spa after a heavy night and didn’t turn up at the race. So Murray was on his own. I’d retired my Brabham, and a BBC chap dragged me up to the commentary box and gave me a microphone. Then during 1995 I had a split drive, sharing the Ligier with Aguri Suzuki, and when he was driving I used to sit in with Murray and Jonathan Palmer, just for something to do really.

“I’d grown up selling cars, so a bit of patter wasn’t beyond me. But it never occurred to me that commentating was what I would do. I never thought about not racing. For 1997 I thought I’d be driving for Jordan again, and it was a bit of a shock when Eddie announced Fisichella and Ralf. So that year I did some work for Tom Walkinshaw at Arrows, drove the Nissan at Le Mans for Tom, and signed for ITV, who were taking over F1 coverage from the BBC that year.

“I can still remember the first link I did with Murray, in Melbourne. It’s like taking up soccer and being given Pelé as your first instructor. I had a genuine respect for Murray, and he rewarded me with perhaps more access to the microphone than he might have done with James. Murray always stood up, James sat down, and they were made to share a microphone so they couldn’t interrupt each other. From the start I decided: if Murray stands up, I’ll stand up, look him in the eye. So we had an immediate rapport.

“It was really easy to work with Murray, because he could talk all day. Something would happen and I’d think, ‘That’s interesting, why is that happening?’ And I could stand back, buy myself some thinking time, get my book of regulations open, knowing that Murray would just carry on talking. He was so into it that if I’d left the commentary box and gone home he wouldn’t have noticed.

“It’s different with James Allen, because he wants more interaction. While I’m trying to work out what’s going on, I still have to be aware that James may lob me something. James is more journalistically minded than Murray: Murray was very much about entertainment. But all I’m doing is reading the race, telling it the way I see it.

“I’ve never had to put so little work into anything I’ve done. I had to apply myself so much harder to my driving career. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t just turn up and do it. I read my stuff, I do my homework. But I don’t prepare anything, I don’t have any notes. It’s got to be off the top of my head or from the bottom of my heart, one of the two. Usually, whatever happens on the track, it’s happened to me or I’ve seen it happen to others in a race I’ve been in. Or I get a gut feeling about something. I refuse to analyse anything I do on telly. As long as people aren’t telling me I’m no good, I just want to go on doing what I do naturally.”

Far from people telling him he’s no good, Martin has been showered with plaudits, and has three times won the Royal Television Society’s Sports Pundit award. He clearly understands the basic truth about television: the audience is large, most of it is uncommitted, all of it knows where the off switch is. So, first and foremost, television has to entertain.

“If we’ve got, say, six million people watching a show, 50,000 of them might read one of the specialist magazines. But that leaves you with 5.95 million who don’t. They’re prepared to give up some of their Sunday afternoon to listen to what you’ve got to say, but they have other things they can do with their time. You can’t talk down to people, but you can’t talk over their heads. It’s a complex sport which needs simplifying. You’ve got to be informative but not too technical, although occasionally I’ll throw something in for the real petrolhead viewers, because they love that stuff.

“The grid walks weren’t my idea. At Silverstone they asked me to walk down the grid and talk about what was going on, and it’s just grown from there. It’s taken on a life of its own, which scares me a bit. The guys in the truck love it, because it’s just five minutes of live TV which they don’t have to direct or edit or anything. It’s just ‘Cue Martin’ and off we go. It makes me a bit nervous, but the adrenalin’s good for me.

“I don’t really understand how telly works. If you talk to me about the co-producer or the editor, or what goes on in the truck, I don’t know about all that. The whole thing mystifies me. I’ve hardly ever watched myself. After Monza one year I drove back to Monaco with David Coulthard in his Mercedes E55, in convoy with Jenson Button in his new Porsche Carrera GT. We charged back, got back to Monte Carlo harbour, and went onto DC’s boat. His crew had prepared a meal, and all DC and Jenson wanted to do was watch the grand prix. I had to sit there while two F1 drivers watched me commentate on their race. It was my ultimate nightmare.”

Martin never had the funds as a child to go karting, but he scraped together an old wreck of a Ford Anglia in his pre-teen years and did banger racing on a local grass track. When he was 17 he saw an ad selling off the BTCC Toyota team – two Celicas and a transporter – and persuaded his father to HP the lot through the garage business. “We put the transporter on the books as a breakdown truck, and the two racers as demonstrators. Dad rallied one, and I raced the other – got my six signatures, and did a BTCC season for £3000. A local building firm helped me do some FF2000, and then I wrote to Tom Walkinshaw. ‘Dear Mr Walkinshaw, I’m going to be a top driver. Please let me race one of your BMWs.’ It scares me to think what might have happened if I hadn’t written that letter.”

Walkinshaw was running the BMW County Championship, with identical 323i saloons and drivers like Derek Bell, Andy Rouse, Barrie Williams and Nigel Mansell. Martin drove the Norfolk car six times, winning twice and always finishing in the top three except once when he was slowed by a puncture. The Norfolk car won the championship. In 1981 Tom set up a two-car BTCC team for Audi, with Stirling Moss making a comeback to drive one car, and he offered the other to Martin.

“I was so stupid that year. All I wanted to do was blow Stirling’s doors off. I should have embraced the privilege of being his team-mate, stolen every bit of knowledge and experience I could from him. I thought it didn’t apply because we were from different eras. I was 21, he was 51, he didn’t know slicks or front-wheel drive – but I remember one time at Brands when it rained and there was no grip. He was simply mighty, in a class of his own. I’m immensely lucky to count Stirling and Susie as good friends now, but I still give myself a hard time over that year. It was just the arrogance of youth.”

Then BP took him into F3 with a Dave Price-run car. “I smashed the car up at Mallory, and then I smashed it up again at Dijon, on the way to Monaco. Pricey is no shrinking violet when it comes to telling his drivers off, and at Monaco he made me drive the van. My self-confidence was at an all-time low. In a hotel room outside Dijon I told my wife Liz I was giving up, but she talked me into carrying on. The next race was Oulton Park, and I just relaxed, felt I had nothing to lose. So I put it on pole and won by half a lap. I was on pole for every race for the rest of the season, and then I got the top Grovewood Award, which was £5000.

“For 1983 Pricey had nothing for me, so he sent me to see an Irishman called Eddie Jordan who was based at Silverstone. I gave Eddie my five grand, I gave him an old Citroën off Dad’s forecourt, and a friend gave him a Toyota truck which I personally sprayed, and we had an F3 team. There was some Racing for Britain money as well, but basically we were potless. Eddie hustled brilliantly, always pulling strokes. Every time I went to Silverstone I had to call in on the Allied Irish Bank in Northampton to pop in some cash we’d scraped together, or tell them there’d be some cash next time I called.

“On the way back from the Austrian GP support race, which we won, the transporter went off the side of a mountain. My mechanic Rob Bowden was killed, and the cars and equipment were all wrecked. It was a very cruel time. But with the help of a lot of people – Ron Tauranac, Tim Clowes and many others – the team was at the next round two weeks later, with everything immaculately turned out.

“Ayrton Senna won the first nine rounds of the championship, with me usually second. The mid-season race at Silverstone was a Euro round as well so, if we were prepared to forego British Championship points, we could opt for the Yokohama tyres instead of the regulation Avons. Ayrton, with a big points lead by then, went for the Yokohamas because he wanted to win the race outright, while I was after the points and stuck to the Avons. Then in the final minutes of practice I changed my mind, came in for a set of Yokohamas, and took pole away from Ayrton by 0.09sec. In the race I led from the start, and won it. Ayrton crashed.

“That was the turning point. Psychologically two things had happened: I knew I could beat Ayrton, and he knew I could beat him. Next round at Cadwell Ayrton crashed in practice, and I won. Then at Snetterton he tried to come inside me at the Esses, hit me and went off. I won. At Oulton he tried to come round the outside at Druids and hit the barriers. I won. I beat him at Donington and again at Silverstone. So we came to the final round at Thruxton with me one point ahead. But I’d done the Euro F3 round at Donington the week before, and my engine was a bit tired – there was a story that Ayrton had driven to Italy and back to pick up a new Novamotor – and he ran away, with me only third. That was it.

“Afterwards, I never talked to Ayrton about that season. Actually, my F1 career started better than his. We both had our first GP in his home race, Brazil, and I finished fifth in the Tyrrell and he retired the Toleman from nowhere. He was bent out of shape about that. But we moved on, we never reminisced about F3 days. And of course he went on to become a legend. It was a privilege to have raced against him. I remember being in the lift with him in the hotel the night before he died, and we didn’t have a lot to say to each other. We were on normal speaking terms, but we weren’t mates.

“Ken Tyrrell had announced that whichever British driver finished highest in the F3 championship would get a Tyrrell F1 test drive. Well, I had the test – I had a McLaren test, too – but by December I’d heard nothing. So I went down to see Ken. I was just desperate for that drive, so I said to Ken, ‘I’ve got £125,000 worth of sponsorship I can bring with me.’ Of course I didn’t. I didn’t have a bean. He said, ‘That’s interesting, that might come in useful. I’ll let you know.’

“In February he called me and said, ‘I’m going to take you on. I’ll pay you £30,000, but you pay all your expenses. I know you haven’t got the £125,000, so let’s forget about that.’ He knew all along I was flying a kite. Sassy old boy.”

Martin’s first GP season was blighted by the water tank affair. The Tyrrells were almost the only non-turbocharged cars in F1, some 150bhp down on the competition, and they had to be ballasted up to the weight limit. They also carried water tanks to supply a curious system which sprayed water over the intake trumpets “to cool the fuel injection process”. It ultimately emerged that, when these tanks were refilled during late-race pitstops, the water contained lead pellets to raise the car’s weight for post-race scrutineering. Of course Martin didn’t know what was going on. “Talk about green. I remember at Imola I was going pretty well, and they called me in with 10 laps to go to top up the water injection. I thought, ‘Can’t they get a bigger tank?’ Then as I left the pits the car felt like I was towing a caravan….

“The Tyrrell was very small, very nimble. When I look at it today it frightens me. The whole of your upper body, your shoulders and arms, were out of the car. At Monaco I was on a qually lap going down to Tabac – in those days it was nearly flat through the seafront chicane, so you approached Tabac at 160mph – and the brake pedal went soft. As I rammed it to the floor the balance bar caught the throttle and opened it. It was a very big accident, tore off two wheels, the car went down the track on its side. People watching there say they can still hear the thud as I went in, and my helmet hit the Armco very hard. Somehow I got out of the car. I wasn’t really with it at all, but by instinct I found my way behind the swimming pool back up to the pits, and I clambered into the spare car. I was 22nd fastest at that point, for 20 places on the grid. Ken plugged his radio into my helmet and said, ‘You’ve got eight minutes left, you have to go for it.’ I said, ‘No problem, Ken. Which circuit am I at?’ I’d asked that because I couldn’t remember whether I had to turn left or right at the end of the pit lane. Ken just leaned into the cockpit and switched it off.”

High point of that first F1 year was tortuous, bumpy Detroit, where the little Tyrrell was at its best. Martin finished a brilliant second, just 0.8sec behind Nelson Piquet’s winning Brabham-BMW. Twelve days later in Dallas it all went wrong.

“The Dallas track was a joke, a car park lined with concrete walls, but I was riding high after my second place. Then as I turned into the chicane I had a left rear puncture. I slapped the right front on the wall at the apex, went straight into the second wall, and when I hit the third wall my feet were sticking out of what was left of the front of the car. In hospital there was no blood supply to my foot and they thought I was getting gangrene, so they were going to cut my foot off. Prof Watkins got me out of there and flew me home, got me into a Harley Street clinic and they saved my foot.

“Two weeks later I’m lying there late one night and the phone goes. It’s the newspapers wanting a comment from me about Tyrrell being thrown out of the World Championship because of the water tank saga, and all my points being taken away. My 1984 history was wiped out. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to Ken to let me know.

“But what a top bloke Ken was. I still miss him. Very tough: negotiating with Ken was always pretty much ‘take it or leave it’. He always paid every bill, to exactly the correct amount, on the day it was due: never a day before, never a day after. For 1985 Lotus made me an offer, and I really wanted to go. Ken had given me my chance, but he hadn’t got a turbo engine, or a sponsor – the car just had Tyrrell written down the side. Ken had an option on me which he had to exercise by November 30, and he wouldn’t let me know what he wanted to do. I said to him, ‘Think how that makes me feel. I don’t know whether you want me or you don’t want me, and if you don’t it leaves me high and dry.’ He just said, ‘I’ve got an option, thank you very much, and that’s how it works.’ So I go off to Barbados on holiday. I’m sitting on the beach, and a bell boy comes to find me. Hands me a phone message from Ken – he’s exercising his option. It was November 30.

“I couldn’t get out of Tyrrell until 1986, and then I didn’t have anywhere to go except the dreaded Zakspeed. Tom Walkinshaw said, ‘Don’t do that, it’ll finish you off. Come and do sports car racing with me and Jaguar.’ Well, I did the Zakspeed year, and it was a waste, and then I took Tom’s advice and walked out of F1 for 1988. We won five of the 10 World Sports Car rounds, and the championship. I did IMSA too, crossed the Atlantic 14 times that season, and won the Daytona 24 Hours. To keep my nose in F1 I had a Williams test contract, and I did Spa when Nigel had chickenpox.

“I’d done sports car racing while I was at Tyrrell when I was available, and so had my team-mate Stefan Bellof. Stefan was brilliant. He was never going to have the application of a Michael Schumacher, but he had all of the speed. But he was too brave. The last grand prix we did together was at Zandvoort. We qualified next to each other as usual, and from the start he pulled one audacious move after another. After 10 laps he was four places in front of me. I was saying to myself, ‘Come on, Martin, come on’. Then he was two places behind me, after another audacious move that hadn’t come off.

“The following weekend we were at Spa for the 1000 Kms, me in the 6-litre XJR-6 and Stefan in a Brun Porsche 956. Ken hated us doing sports car racing, tried to persuade us not to do it, but it was good kudos and good money. Around half distance, while my co-driver Mike Thackwell was in our car and I was watching from the pits, Stefan tried to pass Ickx going up to Eau Rouge. Both cars went into the barriers and went on fire. I ran down there, and Stefan was lying in the car with his eyes open. His eyes were full of fire extinguisher dust. It was horrible. As soon as the race finished I called Ken to tell him Stefan was dead. I said, ‘Ken, it’s Martin.’ Ken just said: ‘I know. Call me tomorrow’ and hung up.

“In 1989 I went to see Bernie Ecclestone about driving for Brabham, and he was sitting in his office with a man in a suit. Bernie said, ‘Brundle, this is Mr Luhti. He’s just bought Brabham, and he wants you to drive for him. He’s in the top end of the finance world and he just wants to keep a low profile, so don’t talk about him to anyone.’ We had to pre-qualify that year – pre-qualifying was the most miserable experience of my entire career – and Joachim Luhti turned up for the first race at Rio with a knotted handkerchief on his head and a hooker on each arm. I said to myself, ‘So this is the man we mustn’t talk about. Low profile, right’. He ended up in prison not long after. But that season wasn’t all bad. We qualified fourth at Monaco, and we were third at two-thirds distance when the battery went flat.”

Martin went back to sports car racing in 1990, and won Le Mans for Jaguar. “It was good then. You had Porsche, Mercedes, Toyota, and a lot of guys came through like Schumacher, Wendlinger, Irvine. I always felt supremely confident in a sports car, like I could do anything in it. The little Ross Brawn Jaguar, the purple 1991 car, was incredible. You don’t hang around in sports cars. Obviously in a 24-hour race there’s an element of pacing yourself, but the other races are pure sprints, flat out all the way.

“In 1991 I was back with Brabham, the Yamaha-powered car, and I was doing sports cars for Tom in the Jag. It was Warwick and Fabi for the championship, and I’d help out by driving both cars. At Monza I finished first with Derek and second with Teo. Then at Silverstone my throttle cable broke after two laps, and it took ages to fix. So, rather than compromise Derek’s or Teo’s points position, they left me in the car to do the whole race, single-handed, flat out. I took five laps out of the Mercs, three laps out of the Peugeots and two laps out of my team-mates, and put it on the podium, got third place. At the end I was so knackered I just sat in the car and I couldn’t stop crying. Tom and Ross were just getting involved with the Benetton F1 team then, and that drive led directly to my Benetton seat alongside Schumacher in 1992.

“My first four races at Benetton were a disaster. I felt under pressure – it was just like the start of my F3 season against Senna. Then I bounced back. From Imola on I scored points in 11 out of the next 12 races, with five podiums. The one I retired in was the one I should have won – Canada. Schuey always out-qualified me, but sometimes I out-raced him, and that was one of the days. He tried to block me, run me off the road, but I passed him anyway. A few laps later my diff broke.

“I beat Michael at Silverstone, and finished 2.5sec behind him at Hockenheim. At Spa I passed him for third behind the Williams pair, but I made my switch from wets to dries a lap too late – if I’d got that right I think that’s another race I could have won. At Monza Senna, Schuey and I were all on the podium, with me ahead of Schuey, but by then I knew they’d signed Patrese and I was out of Benetton. Flavio [Briatore] tells me about once a year what a mistake he made replacing me with Patrese. He always rationalises it by saying he hadn’t realised how good Michael was…

“Michael and I were good friends when we were team-mates, but by the end of his career we were bad friends. He misinterpreted something I’d said, which was translated into German and taken out of context. Shame he never wanted to sit down and talk that through. I’m in awe of his driving ability, obviously. He’s the most complete racing driver of all time. But with Michael there are too many things I know about – some things that not many people know – which just left a nasty taste in my mouth. I’ve been on the receiving end: you’d be half-way past him and he’d run you off the road. He did it to me twice at Benetton. We saw it with Hill, we saw it with Villeneuve, we saw it with brother Ralf against the pit wall. He seemed to think it was acceptable.

“So it was Ligier for 1993 – my career was off the rails by then. That was another of my F1 bosses who ended up in prison, Cyril de Rouvre, who owned Ligier at the time. He was a lovely man, too. In 1994 I was with McLaren, with their disastrous Peugeot engine. But I still got a couple of podiums with it – we were second at Monaco, no oil left, no water left. And third in Adelaide, on the podium with Nigel [Mansell] and Gerhard [Berger], combined ages 113 years! Back to Ligier for another season, and then the Jordan year, which should have been better than it was. I was just hanging on for grim death, really. I did Le Mans four times between 1997 and 2001, for Nissan, Toyota and Bentley. I loved those programmes, and I always ended up in a part-driver, part-managerial role. That’s how Tom liked to use me.

“In 1996 I did the RAC Rally in a Ford Escort Cosworth, and again in 2000 in a works Toyota. I just loved it. I crashed both times, which was inevitable. For me the top rally men are the most skilful drivers in the world. I went testing with Sainz in a Welsh forest, covering the same ground over and over, and by the end of the day I was half a second a mile off their times. I was pretty pleased with that. Then in the event proper we got to the first stage in Wales on a wet, foggy morning, and I was 15 seconds a mile slower! Those guys can go flat out on a completely strange piece of road. Carlos said when Luis Moya gives him his pace notes he just paints a picture in his mind of the way the road is going to go. In the Escort I was with Roger Freeman, who subsequently died with Mark Lovell on a rally in the USA. Roger was an incredible character, made me laugh for five days. After the first 500 metres in our recce car – which I crashed, by the way – he said, ‘Well?’ I said, ‘Well, what?’ ‘What do you want me to write down?’ ‘You mean you want me to tell you what to write?’ I didn’t have a clue what it was all about.”

Today, TV is only one segment of Martin’s hectic life. He has a sports management company with Mark Blundell, 2MB Sports Management, which looks after Gary Paffett, F3 star Mark Conway, karter Will Stevens and Martin’s son Alex, who at 16 is doing Formula Palmer Audi. And Martin continues to be David Coulthard’s personal manager, as he has been for almost a decade.

“I started with DC almost by default. At Hockenheim in 1997 there was a lot going on at McLaren, people were trying to get him to sign a contract, he was being pulled from pillar to post, and there were various other issues going on in his life. He looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Hockenheim was a scary old place back then, and when I talked to him just before the race he wasn’t in the right mind-set to go out there. So I said to him, ‘You do that and I’ll do this, and on Monday we’ll compare notes.’ I was just trying to help the kid out, because he was in a state of absolute turmoil. Since then, down to his driving skills, he’s had a long and secure career, but I’ve pulled a couple of strokes too, to keep him in a McLaren and then to get him settled at Red Bull. That Red Bull deal was a gamble, but it’s paid off. Having been involved with DC, I now understand why I under-performed on my potential in my own F1 career. You need people to remove anything that takes your focus off the driving. Because they’re rich, drivers end up with too much clutter in their lives – houses, planes, boats, cars. Occasionally you should say, ‘I wanted that, and now I’ve got it, but do I actually need it? Is it more of a burden than a pleasure?’

“Some managers do everything, from booking the flights to getting the flowers. David’s own office does all that: I just do the commercial side. I never talk to him about the car or the set-up, but if I’m out on the circuit on Saturday morning and I see Alonso using a particular piece of kerb, or Kimi [Räikkönen] using a different line, I might trade that with DC. I learn a lot from DC about what’s going on in the paddock, what’s said in the drivers’ meetings. But I have to be very careful about conflict of interest. I often know some mind-blowing stuff which I can’t use on TV. F1 is a very small world, and if you betray people’s trust you’ll get nailed.”

At each grand prix weekend from Bahrain to Brazil, along the multi-lingual yammering row of commentary cabins, there are other ex-F1 drivers plying the commentary trade. But Martin’s sharp, laid-back reading of each race is unique, fuelled by his first-hand experience of the ups and downs of an F1 driver’s career, and his totally clear understanding of how today’s commercial paddock really works. He’s a great commentator because he’s been a great racer. But of course, he’d still rather be out there racing…