'My greatest lap': Blundell recalls his banzai 1990 Le Mans pole

Le Mans News

Mark Blundell's astounding 1990 Le Mans lap is often held up as the greatest ever round the legendary circuit – he remembers it to Motor Sport

7 Mark Blundell Nissan Le Mans 1990

Blundell went into his Le Mans qualifying effort having never run a lap in anger in the R90CK


There are several flying laps which stand out in the annals of racing history.

Ayrton Senna’s ‘88 scream round Monaco is cited more often than not as the ultimate, many American petrolheads look back fondly on Juan Pablo Montoya literally sparking his way to a CART pole at Belle Isle in 1999 as he scraped down the barriers while Arie Luyendyk posted an incredible 237.498mph Indianapolis 500 average speed qualifying lap in 1996 – the fastest the Brickyard has ever seen.

For many though, there’s a lap which surpasses all of these: Mark Blundell’s banzai 1990 Le Mans effort which claimed pole at the La Sarthe classic.

With his malfunctioning Nissan R90CK over-boosting, the up-and-coming Englishman – who had never run a lap in anger at La Sarthe in the car – hung on for dear life to a 1100bhp turbo beast trying to throw him off at every corner, whilst his beleaguered Japanese engineers begged him in vain on the radio to slow down, so fearful were they of the engine exploding and causing boardroom strife.

Mark Blundell Nissan Le Mans 1989

A young Blundell, seen here with friend and team-mate Julian Bailey at Dijon ’89, looked to make his name with Nissan

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Claiming pole by a staggering six seconds – still a Le Mans record – Blundell still remembers the incredible achievement as “the greatest lap of my career”.

R90CK/01, the very same chassis which the Brit set his 1990 pole with, is up for auction at this summer’s Le Mans with RM Sotheby’s, with a recently rebuilt engine, transmission, turbos and clutch. Acknowledging the sale of an incredibly significant car in his career, 1992 champion recalled the astounding lap and strained journey which led to it to Motor Sport.

Blundell joined the team for its 1989 World Sports Car effort with team-mate Julian Bailey, driving an R89CK. It was one of several racing projects from the Japanese manufacturer, whose focus was spread thinly at home, in Europe and the US.

“Fundamentally, there was a good car there but there were some inherent issues,” he says.

5 Mark Blundell Nissan Le Mans 1990

R90CK, going up for auction at RM Sotheby’s this summer, was a good car but not without its flaws

RM Sotheby's

“It was not the best car in terms of balance. Aerodynamically we had quite a big porpoising problem. We had to cut out big vents in the front wheel arches to try and get the airflow out and stop it.”

The characteristics which make the onboard footage of Blundell’s famous lap so frantic were immediately apparent when he first drove the car.

“In terms of extracting performance it was physical, a handful,” he says. “You have to remember there was no power steering – and we still had a manual gearbox.

“Driving that car was not an easy achievement – it was physical before even the actual ability side of it came in.”

From the archive

His and team-mate Bailey’s ’89 La Sarthe jaunt was over before it had really began – “the shortest Le Mans ever” – after brake failure meant the latter spectacularly rear-ended another competitor in race-ending fashion on lap five.

Things had got better in the ’89 season with a pair of podiums at Donington and Spa, with more following in 1990 but even these relatively successful weekends weren’t without their hiccups.

“Back then things were a lot more raw and agricultural,” he remembers. “So there was a lot more actual testing on track to find out what’s going on as opposed to using data.”

Never did this become more apparent than at Dijon in 1990.

4 Mark Blundell Nissan Le Mans 1990

A turbo monster with no power steering, Blundell says the R90CK was extremely physical

RM SOtheyby's

“The car managed to get an airlock inside the cockpit and punch the windscreen through from inside out,” says Blundell.

“I remember the screen popping out and going up probably 50 feet in the air, into the crowd! It wasn’t ideal.”

Come Le Mans ‘90, reliability issues with the R90CK still hadn’t been overcome, further exacerbated by a car more geared towards one-lap pace rather than endurance events.

6 Mark Blundell Nissan Le Mans 1990

Podiums showed promise – when Nissan wasn’t breaking down


“We were going to Le Mans on the pretence of having a qualifying car as such, which was basically because we had a qualifying engine,” he says.

“So we knew that we were taking something there that had a huge amount of increase in performance compared to what we had previously, but no understanding of what it was going to be like until we got there, because we hadn’t tried or tested it [in this spec].”

Blundell had flipped a coin with Bailey over who would do the qualifying run and who would take the race start – that was if it could even manage a lap.

“The problem was that every time we got out on the circuit, literally every time, the thing would over-boost.

“Immediately the Nissan engineers would be on the radio asking us to abort the lap because, culturally, they didn’t want to have egg on their face. They didn’t want to have something that was out on circuit and blew up and made a mess – that wasn’t what Nissan was there for.”

Whilst Blundell sympathised, he began to become frustrated as the time marched on towards qualifying.

“We didn’t get to understand anything from the car,” he says. “We had no data, no reference of even doing one lap at speed. We had no understanding of tyres in terms of compound and pressures. We were completely naive to the fact of what was available.”

The Nissan man knew that the perfect time to do a blitzing Le Mans lap would be the twilight hour of the qualifying session, with just enough heat on the circuit and in the tyres but without the stresses of running the car in midday temperatures.

3 Mark Blundell Nissan Le Mans 1990

Blundell decided to disobey his team – and made Le Mans history

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When the moment of truth came, Blundell make an executive decision.

“Going down the pitlane, getting halfway round and being asked to get into abort the lap didn’t sit well,” he says. “That would have been the end of it, we’d be last.

“I took the decision to disobey team orders”

“I took the decision, rightly or wrongly, to disconnect my radio and have no input from the team – basically disobey team orders.”

Blundell put his foot down for his first and only flying lap in the R90CK of Le Mans 1990. The turbo-wastegate once again stuck shut, meaning the engine was delivering 1,100bhp.

“The whole lap is a completely reactive,” he says. “From getting on 100% throttle and approaching the first corner under the brakes, it’s the first time ever that car had done any anything in anger [at Le Mans].

From the archive

“We were using the hard tyre because we didn’t even know if the soft compound would last a lap.”

The onboard footage shows Blundell wrestling with the R90CK at every corner, the car threatening to throw him off before then complying.

Such is the noise and oscillations that the camera begins to break up as Blundell fires the car down the Mulsanne – no wonder then that he hit nearly 240mph on straight, in spite of this being the first year chicanes were installed.

The end result was simply stunning: the Nissan was six seconds faster than his nearest challenger of the No16 Brun Motor Sport Porsche 962.

With no radio communication available, was the team pleased when he pulled in?

“Mixed reviews,” he says laughing. “The European side were elated and I think sort of mind-blown that we’d turned up and done what we’d done.

“Many of the Japanese were, I would say, probably simmering with displeasure that I’d disobeyed team orders and put them through the stress of thinking that this is all gonna go terribly wrong.

“In the same way, there were some wry smiles – we were the first Japanese manufacturer to get pole position at Le Mans.”

2 Mark Blundell Nissan Le Mans 1990

Car lasted 146 laps, but Blundell is still immensely proud of records

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Come race-day, Bailey led off before the car lunched its gearbox on lap 146, something you sense from Blundell almost felt like an inevitably.

To a daring driver who would claim Le Mans victory for Peugeot two years later, and win some of IndyCar’s fastest ever races, it doesn’t necessarily matter. It was a moment for the history books which still stands – no one has ever taken Le Mans pole by a greater margin, and his 238mph post-chicane top speed has never been bettered.

“For me, probably the best lap I have ever done in a race car,” he says. “Purely from the point of view that it was completely reactive. There was nothing other than the gut that was driving it”.