After scoring podiums with Ligier and Tyrrell, Mark Blundell got his big F1 chance with McLaren – or so it seemed. He told RaceFans about his Formula 1 career in cars.
1990 Williams-Renault FW13
The famed Williams-Renault FW14B which dominated the 1992 world championship was the product of years of development work, particularly on its sophisticated, computer-controlled active suspension. Blundell, who joined Williams on a three-year testing contract in 1989, reckons he put more miles on the system than any other driver.Karun Chandhok revealed in a previous edition of My F1 Cars, at one stage featured a printer stowed in a sidepod for data-collection.
The system opened up a dizzying array of possibilities for enhancing the car’s performance on the track, many of which Blundell was the first driver to experience.
“I remember we had a switch on the steering wheel which basically lifted the front end of the car up hydraulically so that we could get more air underneath it going down the straights and improve our terminal speed,” he said.
“The big problem is when you switched it back off again to recover so that you had a nose down and some downforce been developed for when you went into turn one at 150 miles an hour if it hadn’t quite worked, you were in trouble.”
Active suspension meant the car’s set-up no longer needed to be a compromise of its requirements for an entire lap, but could be individually tuned to each corner. It produced a leap forward in performance and pushed the physical demands on the drivers to new extremes.
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“It was getting to the stage where the human input was becoming beyond the physicality of a driver,” said Blundell. “The last corner at Estoril, for example, we got to a point there when you turned into the corner in fifth gear and there was zero roll in the car. The active ride had taken over and taken all the roll out, so you’d enhance your aerodynamics, your platform was more stable.
“The biggest issue as a driver was you couldn’t keep your right foot stuck into the throttle pedal. The G [force] was just basically pulling your head off and your foot away from the throttle.”
But while Blundell was getting no shortage of mileage, he was missing the opportunity to race. When the struggling Brabham team came calling with a chance for Blundell to make his F1 debut, he couldn’t turn it down.
1991 Brabham-Yamaha BT59Y
Having used Judd power the previous year, Brabham landed an engine deal with Yamaha for 1991, but their new chassis wasn’t ready for the first race. Blundell and team mate Martin Brundle therefore had to make do with a modified BT59 chassis for the first two races.
The first F1 car Blundell raced was therefore a heavy and compromised design. “It was not a great car,” he recalls.
“We didn’t have a six-speed gearbox. I think we were down to even four gears because they couldn’t fit two gears in. There was some horrendous mess-up. We had Yamaha engines that were new to the paddock and a lot of development side being undertaken from there.”
Despite gearbox problems Blundell narrowly qualified for his grand prix debut at Phoenix, then spun off before half-distance. The BT59Y was shelved after a final appearance in Brazil, where Blundell’s engine failed.
1991 Brabham-Yamaha BT60Y
The Sergio Rinland-designed BT60Y should have been a significant step forward for the team. But to Blundell’s dismay, the team made a major error in constructing the design after taking his and Brundle’s measurements for the cockpit. Once the cars were built, neither driver could get out of the cockpit quickly enough to pass the FIA’s cockpit extraction test time.
“The monocoque was made and, lo and behold, we went for our seat fit, there’d been a discrepancy in the dimensions laid out for the buck, and the carbon monocoque no longer gave us the capability of raising our knees to get our fire exit done cleanly in the duration allowed,” Blundell explained.
“So you couldn’t actually get your legs out and get your knees clear of the bulkhead because the bulkhead was made in a wrong position.”
The solution to the problem had dire consequences for the car’s handling.
“The team ground away, with an angle grinder, the carbon bulkhead, so we could get our legs out. And of course that took away some rigidity and strength from the monocoque from day one.”
The new car at least gave the drivers the opportunity to qualify in the middle of the field, though in Canada an engine failure prevented Blundell from making the cut. Life got harder at mid-season when the team were relegated to the ranks of pre-qualifiers.
Blundell grabbed his first point with sixth at Spa, but in Japan an oil leak meant he failed to progress beyond qualifying at Yamaha’s home race. It proved a cruelly-timed failure, as Brundle took fifth in the race, the team’s only other points finish of the year.
Joining Brabham ultimately proved an error, Blundell admitted. “In hindsight, it was a bad decision because I should never have walked away from Williams. They did try and educate me, ‘saying you’re better off to stay here’.”
The team was in an increasingly precarious financial situation. “On two occasions during the year in 1991 I sat in the Brabham factory waiting for my cheque to be reissued because my salary cheque bounced,” said Blundell. He didn’t return in 1992, and the team collapsed before the end of that season. But he did get a chance to test for Williams again.
1991 Williams-Renault FW14/FW14B
“The reason why the Brabham penny dropped to me very early on is because Williams invited me to go back and test for them during the ’91 season,” Blundell explained.
“That was something that didn’t get done back then, even, and certainly wouldn’t today. When you roll around in an FW14 and you go 2.2 seconds a lap faster on race tyres than what you did on Pirelli qualifying tyres in your Brabham, you realise that you’ve made a fundamental error of judgement.”
During 1991 Williams was in the process of blending its aerodynamically effect FW14 chassis and superb Renault V10 engine with the active suspension technology Blundell had done so much to refine. The awesome FW14B was the end product.
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“Definitely for me the best grand prix car I’ve ever driven would be that Williams FW14B,” said Blundell.
“My biggest recollection of driving the FW14 was at Imola. They’d just brought in the blown underwing [using] the gasses from the exhaust and developing the rear end to sit down and squat and get it to sort of basically suck down [with] a huge amount of traction. That was the most impressive thing.
“I’d never been in a car where literally you touched the throttle pedal, the rear sat down and it was like a rocket, just propelled out the corner. That was something that stuck in my mind. That was a great car.”
1992 McLaren-Honda MP4-7
“When I got to the end of the Brabham year, I felt that I would rather be in an environment where I could learn more at the highest performance levels from drivers and technical aspect with a team than being in a race car with a team like Brabham that was not going anywhere,” said Blundell. “So McLaren took me in.”
This gave him the opportunity to works alongside Ayrton Senna, who had just won his third world championship, and Gerhard Berger. Blundell described it as “a huge year – I learned a great deal.”
He discovered his approach at the wheel had much in common with the world champion’s. “My style of driving was very similar to the way that Senna drove,” Blundell remembered.
“We had very similar inputs in application of throttle. I would have maybe two or three stabs on the throttle pedal. I didn’t like a loose car, I liked a car to be balanced on the exit and have understeer and trim it out on the throttle pedal.
“But to do that, I got on the throttle early and then built it up in stages. So I put some throttle in, get the platform stable and have another stab, get it stable and then I’d rotate the car on the throttle to get the exit. So if you looked at ’92 myself and Senna’s set-up was almost identical. Senna’s set up and Berger’s set up were poles apart.”
McLaren had dominated the previous four seasons but were left reeling by Williams’ stunning start to 1992 with the FW14B. Fortunately, they hired the driver who helped to develop it. But as well as the electronics – “ABS, semi-automatic, active ride…” – teams were making strides making with fuel technology, pouring exotic concoctions into their cars which unlocked new levels of performance.
“I was the official test and reserve driver so I went to all the grands prix in that capacity. There were so many different things that we were doing back then.
“I remember fuel testing back then. Fuel then was delivered in a dense form. There was a lot of complaints from the mechanics having to handle the fuel in this in this format and some skin problems and some breathing issues. It was powerful stuff.
“We would sit at Silverstone, for example, one garage but two grand prix cars side by side and we’d go out and do 10 laps at a time and basically be testing fuel batches. I can remember having four or five tenths of a second differential in lap time purely based on different fuels that we were using in terms of the performance edge.”
1993 Ligier-Renault JS39
After a year on the sidelines, Blundell landed a chance to return to F1. He was reunited with 1991 team mate Brundle, but this time in a much more competitive car.
“Ligier offered me a drive. They’d seen the performance over the course of the year in ’92.” The French team was poised to benefit from a tie-up with Williams.
“I looked at the technical package, the alliance with Williams the Renault engine – we had a Renault, gearbox and rear end suspension from Williams that was bolted on the back. And the car was pretty good.”
It was good enough to take his first podium finish on his return to F1, surviving a late thunderstorm at Kyalami to claim third behind Alain Prost’s Williams and Senna’s McLaren.
“We had a couple of podiums with that car, first podium for Ligier in a very long time,” he recalls. “Superb to work with the likes of Gerard Ducarouge and people like that. We had a lot of fun.”
Although the team was in better shape than Brabham, it made little progress with its car over the course of the year. “Technically, there was very small development because again budget-wise it wasn’t really at the levels of the big guys.”
Ligier was based at Magny-Cours, home of the French Grand Prix at the time. As a result the team tended to go well there – they locked out the second row of the grid in qualifying – but less so elsewhere.
“We would do a lot of work at Magny-Cours and try and do as much as we could. But Magny-Cours wasn’t a great circuit to test on. You had a window in the morning and a window in the afternoon when temperatures and circuit conditions were at their best. Outside of that, you pretty much were better off to sit in a garage and have some lunch because you couldn’t learn that much.”
During 1993 it became clear the sport’s governing body intended to outlaw the expensive ‘driver aids’ Blundell and others had helped to develop. This promised to help the smaller teams compete, and for 1994 Blundell found himself back at one of them.
1994 Tyrrell-Yamaha 022
Tyrrell had won world championships in the seventies but two decades later were dwarfed by their F1 rivals. Blundell gave them a last hurrah, however, scoring their final podium finish – and the first for Yamaha – in the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix.
He followed Michael Schumacher home, unaware the Benetton driver was struggling with a car stuck in fifth gear. “We weren’t really aware that that issue was as apparent as we now know,” Blundell admitted. “Pretty much because of the pace – he was running still some sensational lap times.”
Blundell was also partnered with a new team mate, Ukyo Katayama, who had a key advantage over him. “[He’s] a great guy, but the guy weighed about 58 kilos and I was something like 74 kilos with kit and helmet. That amount of weight differential is huge in a grand prix car.
“So you’re almost giving up two tenths of a second just for nothing. And trying to make the differential at times was quite difficult. When you looked at speed traces and you saw the guy came off the corner actually a little bit slower than what you were mid-corner, but because of the difference in weight, you ended up being three or four [kph] down at the end of the straight it was quite frustrating.”
A greater concern was the problems the team’s limited resources were causing on-track. “With Tyrrell you could see the writing on the wall, it was already going to run out of money from the first quarter of the grand prix season.
“When you’re going around in a race car and you know that your carbon brake discs, have been already skimmed off twice and they’re at the end of their life, and you’re at Monza and you get on the brakes and the brake disc explodes because it’s so thin because it’s basically worn out, because there’s not enough budget for new brakes, you know things are going in the wrong direction. And nothing really can support that other than pounds, shillings and pence.”
“It was wonderful to work with Ken Tyrrell,” he added, “fantastic to work with Harvey Postlethwaite. Mike Gascoyne was there then as well as like an understudy to Harvey.
“It was a fantastic season in many ways but it was also a dreadful season in many ways as well because we were so hampered with lack of budget.”
1995 McLaren-Mercedes MP4-10
McLaren announced Mika Hakkinen and Nigel Mansell as its driver line-up for 1995. But team principal Ron Dennis had lured Blundell back as a test driver. And when Mansell found he did not fit well in the new MP4/10, Blundell seized his chance.
“Ron had said to me look, you’re wasting your time where you are, come back and join us. And I did in a test and reserve role again, not knowing at that stage that I was going to be a grand prix driver for McLaren.”
Blundell suspects the McLaren management had concerns over Mansell’s desire to drive a car which was both uncomfortable and uncompetitive. “I think Ron probably had an understanding, and Martin Whitmarsh, that there was already some trouble in the camp there and they needed to put somebody in to fill the gap.
“And having known me from the ’92 season, they needed capabilities near where I was at. I was a good fit and with no dramas and no politics and no baggage.”
Mansell ruled himself out of the start of the season and Blundell took his place, scoring a point in the season-opener at Interlagos. Mansell then returned for two races, said goodbye to F1, and Blundell was back in the snug cockpit in Monaco, where he took fifth.
“Nigel, for whatever reasons – I don’t know the full reasons behind all of that and do not wish to, to be honest – but there was discussions over him not fitting in the cockpit. All I do know is that me and Nigel are pretty thick-set, wide-shouldered guys and maybe we’ve got a differential in our hip size, but I got myself in it.
“But put it this way, I was at a different stage of my career to Nigel and I could have been six foot eight and I’ve have made sure I fit inside that cockpit of a grand prix car. So it was going to be fitting me whatever, I didn’t really care whether I was uncomfortable or not.”
Blundell finally had his chance in a top team, but they had not produced a top car. “I think, by their own admission, it was probably the worst car they’ve ever made.
“I honestly felt that they got it wrong in several areas there which was a crying shame because it was the first year of Mercedes-Benz back in the F1 paddock, a great relationship that generated some huge success for them later on.
“When you drive a grand prix car for the first time, you pretty much know within 10 laps if it’s was a good one or a bad one. And unfortunately, if it’s a bad one, there’s not a great deal that you can do to kind of improve it as much as you keep coming out with changes.”
Nonetheless he acquitted himself well, scoring 13 points to team mate Hakkinen’s 17, both drivers missing two races over the course of the year.
However Blundell couldn’t persuade Dennis to commit to him for the full season, and at the end of the year David Coulthard took his place for 1996.
“I knew quite early on that there wasn’t going to be a seat available there for the year after because there was already a deal done with DC,” said Blundell. “So, yes, it was tough in many ways. But I’m also grateful in many ways that I got to at least race for somebody like McLaren, who are still a top organisation.”
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