A chat with Mark Blundell is always a pleasant and worthwhile experience. The former Ligier, Brabham, Tyrrell, and McLaren F1 driver enjoyed a rich and varied career. One indeed that continues in 2013, as he has just signed up to race in the British GT Championship with the United Autosports team.
Sniffer Media caught up with Blundell recently, mulling over many subjects, including the element of trust between drivers on the track. Over almost three decades Blundell raced the very best of his contemporaries, but he also had to deal with the opposite end of his contemporary’s skill spectrum. Never one to give more than an inch on the track, Blundell was certainly capable of giving as good as, if not a little more, than he got. However, as he explained there was a huge difference to hard yet fair racing and the altogether more erratic and dangerous.
It barely seems credible that it’s almost 25 years since Johnny Herbert suffered those wretched foot injuries after being helped in to the bridge parapet at Pilgrims Drop, Brands Hatch by Gregor Foitek. While Herbert went on to a fine and merited F1 career, Foitek all but disappeared after a handful of convulsive appearances in the Monteverdi and Brabham F1 teams.
A curious character was Foitek: all tousled, wild locks and intense stares. Gregor was by all accounts the victim of the ultimate pushy father. ‘Papa’ Foitek was an overbearing presence who held the purse strings and aggressively pushed his son above and beyond whatever talent he had. Always on the edge, young Gregor was all reflex, all reaction. Whatever thought process and racing intellect he possessed was shrouded in an eddy of adrenalin. The boundary rope was frayed for Gregor and at Brands Hatch he went well and truly over it.
“Something that gave me a bit of uneasiness about Foitek from the start was just the way he looked in the cockpit,” remembers Blundell who finished 3rd at Brands Hatch that August afternoon. He did it complete with Herbert’s front wing endplate wedged in his nosecone, a legacy of the shunt.
“It sounds simple but if a driver doesn’t look right and comfortable in the car then there is something wrong. If you are not completely at ease in the cockpit and able to function properly, then nine times out of ten, there are going to be issues when you are racing against them on the track. If you look at Foitek and his seating position within the car he just never looked ‘at one’ with it. He looked ungainly and awkward and I’m pretty sure that was borne out through his driving.”
Even in the Blundell household, the racing driver instinct comes in useful on occasions when weighing up drivers, even if they are on the M11!
“When I’m on the motorway, my kids are amazed that I can predict what a lot of the drivers are going to do. I can see who is going to pull out on me before they physically make the manoeuvre. Call it driver’s intuition or whatever but there is almost a subconscious process people go through before they make an action when they are driving. Obviously as a racing driver everything is speeded up massively compared to a motorway. So you pick these things up very easily and it all comes from racing experience and whether or not you can trust the person that you are about to encounter and overtake. Body language is a big part of sport, but with motorsport I think it is a real give away and very crucial to study.”
How anyone was not killed in that Brands Hatch F3000 accident is extraordinary. Foitek himself was lucky to emerge with his tousled-head intact after an extraordinarily and violent barrel-roll along the Armco barrier for some fifty metres. For Blundell now, looking back at those not so fortunate during his career brings in to sharp focus the need to trust his fellow racers.
“If I went and added up, it would be at least 10-12 people that I knew, raced against and was friends with,” he recalls. “It first happened at a meeting I was at in 1987 when Peter Rogers was killed in his Formula Ford at Donington. I remember the feeling of shock very clearly. Then over the years there was obviously Ayrton in 1994 and then in CART we lost Rodriguez, Krosnoff and Greg Moore. You are kind of conditioned to it in a way but occasionally you will sit and think about those guys.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Blundell enjoyed some fierce competition in CART, Group C and F1. One famous example is a titanic battle between his Ligier-Renault and Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari in the closing stages of the 1993 German Grand Prix. On the ‘proper’ Hockenheim-Ring, Mark and Gerhard duked it out at 200mph and beyond in a seminal display of aggressive yet controlled racing.
“Gerhard was always a tough guy,” remembers Blundell fondly. “We were battling at, and over, 200mph. Most people don’t remember just how narrow it was out the back at Hockenheim but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre at those sorts of speeds. We had a great scrap but the key part of it was that there was respect between us, even if some of the moves were quite marginal. I remember in parc ferme afterwards we were both wide-eyed and said to each other that we’d enjoyed it. At no stage did I think during that battle that ‘this guy was out of control’. Conversely when you raced with someone like Foitek you just had a feeling that you didn’t know if they were completely trustworthy in their actions.”
What was it that Mario Andretti said at Indy in 1982, when Kevin Cogan wiped him out before the first turn. ‘This is what happens when you have children trying to do men’s jobs!’
To watch Mark’s battle with Gerhard Berger at Hockenheim in 1993 click here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPqgoXWiy3Y