Features - Interview
MARCH 1, 1993
BY JOE SAWARD
Mark Blundell is back in Formula 1 this year after a year testing with the McLaren team. With Ligier he reckons he can make an impact.
Mark Blundell still drops his Hs like modern BBC presenters have to do. He's gotta a lotta street credibility with the lingo, but nowadays he has also acquired a veneer of professionalism, which in the old days was not really what Mark was famous for. He was quick and competitive and the rest didn't really matter. But a year at McLaren under the guidance of sharp image-maker Ron Dennis has added another string to Blundell's bow.
"Ron always wanted to give me as much help as possible," he explains. "He gave me a lot. From Day One was always of the opinion that if something came along which was a worthwhile project he would release me to do it. I wanted to go to Ligier and he was good enough to let me.
"I learned a lot at McLaren on the driving side of things. I went to a few races as well and was lucky enough to listen in on debriefs with Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger and see how they operate. That meant I could draw from their experience. They have been racing at F1 level a lot longer than me and they know some of the pitfalls. There are technical problems they might have been through with other cars so I could pick their brains. I learned a lot from them. On the technical side McLaren has some very good engineers so I learned from them and I also learned a lot about how to manouevre in and around a top team. It was all good experience. You cannot walk down the road and buy experience with
semi-automatic gearboxes and active suspensions."
Does Mark think he's a good test driver?
"That's difficult for me to say, isn't it?" he says. "I tested at Williams for two years and I had the opportunity to continue. Even when I was at Brabham in 1991 Williams called me back a couple of times to test the FW14. After the year racing for Brabham I went to McLaren and took over testing duties there. This game is expensive and a test driver has to be able to say: "That floor is no good, don't waste thousands of pounds running it at the next test. Don't bother Senna with it". If you can be very precise and minimize the time it takes to get to the right level, it is better for everyone. Senna and Berger were
looking to me to do a lot of the donkey work, but a lot of that benefited them, so they had to make sure that the test driver wasn't a dummy."
But even doing a good job as a tester is frustrating, isn't it.
"I am not a test driver,' says Mark firmly. 'When I test I don't consider myself to be a test driver. I think of myself as a race driver."
In 1993 that will certainly be the case, Mark will drive for Ligier. How did that come about?
"I visited Ligier in September," he explains. "We sat down and got 99% of the way to doing a deal there and then. After that the McLaren-Renault situation came about and Ligier went quiet for a couple of months. As soon as everything quietened down after that and the sale they were back on to me and we concluded the deal.
"I'm fortunate to get back into F1," he adds. "Fortunate because there are a lot of guys out there who are very talented; fortunate because there are also a lot of guys out there who have money behind them - which I don't. I'm lucky to
walk into a team and be paid as a professional driver."
Having tested for Williams and McLaren, however, Mark is probably one of the most experienced drivers with modern F1 technology?
Before one can even ask the obvious question, Mark continues.
"It wouldn't be fair to compare the two. You are talking about slightly different generations of gearbox. There is a degree of progress, but the gearbox at Williams has just won the world championship so there is nothing wrong with it, and the one at McLaren has won races so there's not a lot wrong with that one either! They do exactly the same thing but they go about it in a different way."
What about all this technology, is it all getting to be too much?
"It is a lot more high-tech that it used to be and there's a lot more computer work. That takes away a lot of the human side but I still say that the driver's job is as difficult as it ever was. I don't agree with the theory that
all the technology is taking away from the driver. Active suspension is a benefit for the driver in terms of ride-quality, but it is not a benefit in that it makes the car a lot more effective and optimize its performance. It lifts the level and that means a lot more stress on the driver. There are higher cornering speeds. You have to take all this into consideration."
"I like driving. It is what I think I do best and I get a buzz from doing it. I want to go out and win GPs, I don't want to be a Grand Prix driver I want to be a Grand Prix winner. I want to achieve that level. I don't want to be someone who walks down the High Street and is a celebrity. I want to have status as a racing driver.
"My aim is to know that I have been one of the top drivers in the world. That's what I am working at. I think I have the ability to do that and I think that with Ligier I have the package to show it."
At this time of year you hear a lot of drivers saying the same thing. Looking at Ligier's poor record in recent years, why does Mark think 1993 will be any different.
"Because we have a gearbox package which is reliable (the team has bought 1992 Williams units). We don't have any worries about teething problems. We have a known product. We have a Renault engine which has just won the world championship and we know that the performance of that engine is as good as anything else in the pitlane. We have a fantastic fuel supplier in Elf and a very well funded team. We have very good people on the technical side and we
have new ownership. There is a new direction. It's a new era for Ligier and there is a lot of enthusiasm and motivation. We are hungry to win.
"We've also got Martin (Brundle) who is up for his 100th GP in Kyalami on March 14. He brings a lot of experience with him and he's just come out of a front-running team. I've got a lot of experience with active suspension and
gearboxes. I know what a winning car feels like."
So what is a realistic hope?
"We have a package capable of qualifying inside the top 10 and consistently finishing in the top six. I think reliability is going to be a big bonus for any team."
With Ligier does Mark feel he has really arrived in F1?
"I arrived with Brabham," he laughs, "but once you get in, you want to get points. Then you want to win GPs and World Championships. I got into Brabham on merit and I scored one point. That doesn't sound a lot, but it meant a lot to me
and to the team at the time.
"Now I am in a situation where one point should be easy. We should be scoring 10, 15, 20, 30. That is the sort of level we are looking at for this year. If we don't get that I'll be disappointed."
What about winning races?
"To win a GP you need the equipment. It is not out of the question that we have the equipment needed and if we do, obviously I'd like it to be me who wins, but I'm still doing my apprenticeship, but who knows? Damon Hill doesn't have
much F1 racing experience but he's sitting in the best equipment so it's stupid to say he doesn't have the chance to win a GP. I'm really happy that there are five British drivers in F1. I'm even happier because we are all there on merit and ability. The other guys sitting in the UK in the same position as we were a couple of years ago should see that and realise that it can be done. It's not easy but it can be done.
"Nigel Mansell has done a great deal for us bringing a lot of attention to the Brits. Now he's gone to America. Good luck to him. He's taken some of the attention with him, but the F1 season hasn't kicked into life yet and I think when it does a lot of the attention will start to come back to us. There are new Brits and there are opportunities for us to make names for ourselves."
In France Ligier having taken on two British drivers has caused some consternation.
"I don't have a problem with that," smiles Mark. "Why should there be an English team like Williams employing a French driver? I take the view that I am a professional driver. I am there to do a job."
But what about communicating with the team?
"Seventy percent of the team speaks enough English to communicate at the levels we need to. Fortunately all the technical people speak very good English. With Martin in the team we're both talking the same lingo and working in the
same direction. Anyway, nowadays the first language in F1 is technical language.
"I need to learn French. I think as a race we Brits are a bit lazy about languages, but I'll have a go.
"It won't be easy," he adds with a smile, "because I'm a bit of a brick."