'Brilliant' Martin Brundle could have been an F1 team boss — he's got a tough side


Martin Brundle turned 65 last weekend. Matt Bishop, who has known him for three decades, says the Sky commentator is one of UK motor sport's most important figures, who's not afraid to speak his mind

Martin Brundle on the grid at the 2023 US Grand Prix

Kym Illman/Getty Images

Martin Brundle turned 65 on Saturday, but he appears to be showing no signs of retiring, I am pleased to say. A Norfolk lad born and bred, he began his racing career 52 years ago, as a 13-year-old grass track racer in Pott Row, a village near his native King’s Lynn. Since then he has won races in almost every series in which he has competed – of which there have been many – with the exception of Formula 1, in which he stood on nine podiums but never from the central plinth. His two F1 second places came in 1992 at Monza and in 1994 at Monaco, beaten by respectively Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, so I think we can forgive him for that.

You want to know which pukka racing series he has won races in, don’t you? OK, here goes: the British Saloon Car Championship, the European Touring Car Championship, British Formula 3, European Formula 3, the World Sports Car Championship, and the IMSA GT Championship. If I have missed any, I apologise. His day of days was undoubtedly June 17, 1990, when he, John Nielsen, and Price Cobb won the Le Mans 24 Hours outright for Jaguar, two years after he had become World Sports Car Champion for the same marque.

1990 Le Mans winning Jaguar and inset image of three winning drivers on the podium

Jaguar XJR-12s at Le Mans in 1990 with, inset victorious team of Price Cobb, Martin Brundle and John Nielsen

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I have known him for more than half my life, and I first spent a deal of quality time with him almost exactly 30 years ago, at Silverstone, where I was the magazine journalist whom McLaren and Marlboro had selected to write a big feature on their three-car challenge, which was an annual thing back then. In 1994 the three cars were that season’s F1 McLaren (the 750bhp 500kg Peugeot-engined MP4/9), a Peugeot hot hatch (the 151bhp 1145kg 306 S16), and a Porsche 911 (the 272bhp 1365kg 993 Carrera 2, selected for its being a significantly faster-than-the-Peugeot car made by a company not involved in F1 and therefore not likely to upset Ron Dennis’s brand police), driven by Mika Hakkinen, Philippe Alliot, and Martin Brundle. As the unofficial and de facto number-one, Hakkinen was allocated the McLaren; as the Peugeot-appointed stooge (aka test driver), Alliot got the 306 S16, which meant that Hakkinen’s race driver team-mate Brundle was given the Porsche. A petrolhead through and through, then as now, he was happy with that. He had had a few 911s of his own and he was keen to try out a brand-new one.

A one-lap handicap ‘race’ was arranged, which meant that the Peugeot set off first, followed by the Porsche, followed after a very long interregnum by the McLaren, which nonetheless won. As a graphic illustration of just how fast F1 cars are, even back then, it was compelling. However, the discrepancy was hardly surprising, for in terms of power-to-weight ratio the three cars ranked as follows. Peugeot: 132bhp per tonne; Porsche: 199bhp per tonne; McLaren: 1500bhp per tonne. And let’s not forget that neither road car was capable of generating a lateral g-force of more than about 0.8-0.9g, whereas the McLaren could corner at 4.0g or more.

It was a fun day, made more enjoyable for me because Martin allowed me to sit alongside him in the 911 for a decent number of extra laps, during which he drove it on the ragged edge, deliberately provoking long and bravura powerslides for the sheer hell of it. We have got on well ever since.

He raced in F1 for two more years, for Ligier for some of 1995 and for Jordan for all of 1996. He did not know it at the time, but the grands prix he missed in 1995 – to allow Aguri Suzuki a few outings at the behest of the team’s Japanese engine supplier Mugen – were among the most important of his career. Why so? Because the BBC invited him to co-commentate on those races alongside Murray Walker, and he was instantly brilliant. When his Jordan contract was not renewed for 1997, he stepped straight into a full-time role as Walker’s right-hand man in the commentary box, now for ITV rather than the Beeb, and, despite the UK’s F1 TV coverage flitting back to the BBC in 2009, and on to Sky in 2012, he has always been hired or rehired and he has never therefore looked back.

“I have spilt blood, broken bones, tasted the champagne glories, and plumbed the depths of misery”

In addition he has managed top-class racing drivers, including David Coulthard in his F1 prime. He is a fluent and entertaining public speaker. His regular newspaper and online columns were and are good – sometimes extremely good. He was and is unflinching whenever he felt or feels criticism was or is required, but never gratuitously so. In September 2007 he wrote in The Sunday Times that the FIA’s treatment of McLaren (ie, Max Mosley’s treatment of Ron Dennis) “had the feel of a witch hunt”, which it did because it was. Mosley sued for libel. Brundle did not capitulate, but instead responded robustly, in the same newspaper, as follows.

“The timing of the writ is significant, in my view, given the FIA’s decision to find Renault guilty of having significant McLaren designs and information within their systems, but not administering any penalty. It is a warning sign to other journalists and publications to choose their words carefully over that decision. I am tired of what I perceive as the ‘spin’ and tactics of the FIA press office, as are many other journalists. I expect my accreditation pass for next year will be hindered in some way to make my coverage of F1 more difficult and to punish me. Or they will write to ITV again to say that my commentary is not up to standard despite my unprecedented six Royal Television Society awards for sports broadcasting. So be it. As a former F1 driver, I have earned the right to have an opinion about the sport, and I probably know as much about it as anybody else. I have attended approaching 400 grands prix, 158 as a driver. I have spilt blood, broken bones, shed tears, generated tanker loads of sweat, tasted the champagne glories, and plumbed the depths of misery. I have never been more passionate about F1 and I will always share my opinions in an honest and open way, knowing that readers will make up their own minds.”

Nigel Mansell on Australian GP podium with Martin Brundle and Gerhard Berger in 1994

Alongside Gerhard Berger and Nigel Mansell in Adelaide, '94

Martin Brundle with Murray Walker in F1 paddock

All-star commentating duo of Walker and Brundle

As he moved from driving for F1 teams to broadcasting and writing about them, I moved from writing about them to working for them. Ironically, two of his last three teams, McLaren and Jordan, were those for which I ended up working – although Jordan was called Aston Martin by the time I arrived at ‘Team Silverstone’. Over the years he and I have dined together often during grand prix weekends, and in London from time to time, too. We have always had good conversations – often, as the wine flowed, swapping confidences. I grew not only to respect and admire him but also to like and trust him.

The first Korean Grand Prix took place in late October 2010, the 17th round of an already gruelling 19-round F1 season. No-one misses F1’s Korean experiment, for the circuit was built near Mokpo, a humid and unwelcoming industrial port city almost 200 miles from Seoul’s Incheon Airport, and race attendances were correspondingly small. Moreover, many of Mokpo’s hotels cater to itinerant workers who toil in the shipping industry, almost all of them male, and as a result they offer room hire by the hour, to facilitate such lonely men spending time with ladies of the night – and sometimes the day. We F1 folk all had to stay in such hotels, in some of which had been installed vending machines containing sex toys where in similar machines in less risqué hotels you might expect to be able to buy soft drinks or confectionery. A few of the rooms even contained such amenities.

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So it was that by the Saturday evening I had decided to offer a few friendly media types an evening meal in McLaren’s paddock hospitality unit, since we had all grown sick and tired of our seedy hotels. The wine flowed, and, after a while, the subject of sexuality came up. Martin turned to me and said: “I’ve never said this before, but I owe you a debt of gratitude. Before I got to know you, I’d never really met any gay guys. I didn’t have a problem with them – absolutely not – but I just didn’t know any. I didn’t know any lesbians either. I’d always been around racing people, and car people, and I’d always lived in Norfolk, and the people I met were therefore pretty conventional from that point of view, if I can put it that way. But getting to know you has taught me a lot, and the key lesson I’ve learned is that in this weird and wonderful life we’re all much more similar than we are different, and we all want to love and be loved. Thank you.” It was a magnanimous remark, and a perceptive one too, and I thanked him for it, as I thank him again for it now, 14 years later.

But Brundle is tough as well as empathetic. A fellow journalist once told me that he and Martin had overheard a paddock insider – I have never been told who – homophobically abusing me behind my back. “If you don’t shut up right now, I’ll punch you in the face,” my colleague informed me that Martin had growled at said insider. The guy did indeed shut up, and no punch was required.

Martin Brundle underneath door of F1 safety car at 2010 Korean Grand Prix

Safety car provides shelter in Korea, 2010

Getty Images

Brundle would have made a good F1 team principal, but the right opportunity never knocked and, now that he is 65, I guess it never will now. He is as smart as paint – both strategic and canny – and he is practical and steadfast, too. Although he never won an F1 grand prix, which deprivation still sometimes troubles him in his more reflective moments, he has done just about everything else that a British racing driver could hope to have done, and he was, is, and continues to be one of the most important players in the UK motor sport scene of the past half-century. He is as big a star now behind the mic as ever he was behind the wheel, in the same way as in his heyday Murray Walker was more famous in the UK than were all but a handful of top-drawer F1 aces.

Talking of half-centuries, it so happens that Motor Sport, the magazine on whose website you are reading these words, can well and truly beat that today. Yes – today! — for today is the exact date on which our sport’s most august publication’s centenary is being celebrated. The 100th anniversary issue will go on sale in all good newsagents tomorrow, and it is sure to become a collectors’ item. For any company to last 100 years is admirable; for a racing magazine to do so, and to continue to thrive both on paper and online, is formidably impressive. I am very proud to write a weekly column for Motor Sport, for I have been reading it not for 100 years, obviously, but for more than half of that.

In 1977, at 14, I entered a tricky and multi-faceted quiz competition organised by another racing magazine, for which the first prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to that year’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza. No, I did not win the first prize, but I won one of the runners’-up prizes, a Tamiya scale model of a Tyrrell P34 (the six-wheeler). I do not have it any longer, more’s the pity, and I have no idea what happened to it. Anyway, one of the questions was: “Name the only woman who has ever achieved a point-scoring position in the F1 world championship.” I was pretty sure that the answer was Lella Lombardi, for her sixth place in the accident-truncated 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, but I wanted to be sure, so I wrote to Denis Jenkinson at Motor Sport’s Bonhill Street offices to ask him. Jenks – or DSJ as we readers knew him – very kindly wrote back, and, although I have lost his letter, I remember it for a disconcerting sentence it contained: “As far as I recall, a female driver’s only claim to faim [sic] in the F1 world championship was Lella Lombardi’s sixth place at Montjuic in 1975.” Yes, ‘faim’! Even I, a 14-year-old schoolboy, knew how to spell ‘fame’, but I had discovered that the great DSJ did not!

Yet he was a wonderful journalist. So let’s all raise a glass to 76 years of Denis Jenkinson (1920-1996), to 65 years of Martin Brundle (born in 1959 and still going strong), and to 100 years of Motor Sport (founded in 1924 and also still going strong).