F2 Graduates: Mark Blundell
The 1980s saw a golden age of motorsport in the UK as Mansellmania gripped the nation a new generation of hungry British drivers were rising through the ranks to challenge the establishment.
They were known as the ‘rat pack’ and it’s members included Derek Warwick, Martin Donnelly, Perry McCarthy, Martin Brundle, Johnny Herbert, Damon Hill and Mark Blundell.
In 1987, Blundell arrived in F3000 fresh from taking the F2000 championship the prior year. He would be taking on some of Europe’s toughest race tracks which included the old Spa Francorchamps, Imola as well as the challenge of the streets of Pau and Birmingham for the very first time.
“It was a little bit of baptism of fire as although I had done domestic racing in Europe in the European Formula Ford championship and I had raced and tested at a couple of tracks I had raced at Spa which for any Grand Prix driver is one of the top three circuits and I don’t think any driver would have it out of the top three as it’s unique so jumping into an F3000 car was enjoyable but daunting at the same time.”
Formula 3000 cars were also very different from the current generation of cars with an h-pattern gearbox and a V8 engine in the back of the chassis a stark contrast to the turbo-powered machines of today.
Blundell talks about the skill it took to drive one of these cars and how human error could impact a driver’s performance.
“Back then that was the norm, the beauty of a paddle-shift gearbox didn’t exist and it was a skillset in its own right at the speed you were shifting as well being gentle on the gearbox so it would last the duration of the race but also you had the added element of human error which could create an overtaking opportunity, a skill which is lost in today’s racing.”
“It was something I quite enjoyed the human element of shifting gears and mapping engines as it’s a skillset in its own right.”
Despite stepping up to a much more powerful car Blundell was unfazed by the challenge ahead of him.
“I didn’t feel any pressure in driving the car because at the end of the day it is what it is it’s a racing car four wheels, steering wheel and three pedals and that’s your day job so I didn’t have any issues there think it was more of a lack of experience in shifting categories as I just come off the back of Formula Ford 2000.”
“In normal circumstances, drivers would be then doing one-two years of Formula 3 and that would be the stepping stone so it was a big step but career-wise it put us in good stead”.
Blundell’s first season of F3000 would be a mixture of highs and lows with the Brit scoring in three races that season but also failed to qualify in Birmingham which started a streak of four pointless race weekends.
But there would be a bright spot for Blundell as he was able to snatch second at Spa in tricky conditions and in a year old car behind Michel Trollé however the race was red-flagged after two-thirds distance due to a violent collision for Luis Perez Sala and Alfonso de Vinuesa handing Trollé the win despite Blundell leading in the latter stages of the race.
“Technically we would have won as the result was taken from the lap before as at that stage we had taken the lead of the race but because of the accident the result was taken and we finished in second but we did have a possibility, but Spa is one of those circuits where one part can be wet and the other can be bone dry so who knows what the outcome would have been.”
“Bearing in mind however we had a year old car running our own team with a mechanically injected engine, not an electronically injected one that was run by many of the big teams at the time and that we didn’t even have wheel guns to change our tyres we had to borrow ours from another team otherwise we would have been in trouble.”
For 1988 Blundell moved to the works Lola team alongside Frenchman Paul Belmondo, however, despite four podium finishes and finishing sixth in the championship Blundell was unable to challenge Brazilian Roberto Moreno for the championship.
“You always need a bit more luck to run your way in motor racing and there were certain things during the season that cost us, crazy things like the team not even investing in first gear for a particular track with my race engineer having to buy a first gear out of his own pocket.”
“I think for me at that point I was still a young guy and the lure of Formula 1 was still floating around and it was another year which saw me jump into a Formula 1 car for testing which was a stepping stone in my career.”
1989 saw Blundell drive for the Middlebridge Racing team however it was a testing season with a DNQ and three DNF’s which saw him slip to eleventh in the championship standings despite a podium at Silverstone.
That same year saw Middlebridge take over the Brabham Formula 1 outfit from Bernie Ecclestone leaving the F3000 team in chaos.
“Middlebridge didn’t have the organisation or the resources to do what they wanted to do, and it cost not just me but Damon Hill as he got the seat for 1990 but these things on paper look fantastic and everyone’s fired up and then sometimes perception is bigger than reality.”
“Although we had some good results at the start of the season we just didn’t develop and the only saving grace was that I was driving for Nissan in World Sportscars and I started my Williams’s testing career so it wasn’t all doom and gloom”.
At the end of 1989, Blundell left F3000 to join Nissan’s sports car team for 1990 which he would combine with his Williams test driving duties.
However, Blundell looks back fondly on his three years in F3000 despite not getting the best equipment.
“The series was fantastic it was a good stepping stone without a doubt it gave the driver a good understanding of what was the next step, they were 450-475 bhp lightweight cars and it produced some great on-track racing and some fantastic drivers who came through the ranks and some good quality racing teams.”
“Lots of people developed from F3000 into the F1 paddock and their great memories of several of the circuits and several races and I miss it, of course, we have F2 now but it’s not as raw or as agricultural as it was back then where you could show your stuff.”
Blundell made his Grand Prix debut in 1991 with Brabham alongside Brundle and would make sixty-one Grand Prix starts which included three trips to the rostrum.
The Brit would win Le Mans in 1992 with Peugeot and Warwick followed by having five years in the CART championship with the PacWest team which netted three race wins.
Today Blundell runs a management company MB Partners whose clients include Jake Hughes, Mike Conway and Gary Paffett.
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*Image Credit: Indira Flack Photography / indiraflack.com