Mark Blundell: Fast talking
PUBLISHED: 15:30 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013
Mark Blundell had a pitstop view as Lewis Hamilton claimed last year's Formula One World Championship as a commentator for ITV. But if things had worked out differently he might have had his own stab at F1 glory, as he explains to Russell Drury
THE Stig's identity was revealed in January. But Royston's ex-Formula One star Mark Blundell will not be donning the white overalls of Top Gear's iconic racing driver any time soon. 'I'm a little bit big to be the Stig these days,' he laughs. 'And it's a pointless job because nobody knows who you are!' At least that was the case.
It's not that Mark would not be suited to such a role. I sit in front of his desk in his smart and tidy Royston office. Mark is opposite me, sitting relaxed and casually dressed in a navy hooded top. A couple of gleaming trophies stand to my right, to my left are three of his bright yellow crash helmets. Yellow is of course the helmet colour of choice for another local racing driver, Stevenage's Lewis Hamilton.
Mark was in Brazil last November to see the 23-year-old clinch last year's Formula One World Championship, and he is keen to praise Hamilton's success. 'I think Lewis was fully deserving in taking the championship, although Felipe Massa did an outstanding job. Unfortunately there has to be a winner and a loser, but he can hold his head up high. Overall you have to give Lewis the benefit of being a rookie. It's something you could make a movie out of in years to come because he's the youngest world champion.'
Mark is also quick to jump to Hamilton's defence when I ask if some of the criticism aimed at him in this country has been justified. 'This country is a tough country because we have a tendency to build everybody up, then when they get there we try to knock them off. It's frustrating because 99 per cent of the time you don't understand what's happening behind the scenes. You've still got to take your hat off and say the guy's done a really great job.'
Although Mark started his career on two wheels in motocross, it wasn't long before he realised he was just as good on four wheels. 'My father was a garage owner so I was brought up surrounded by cars and was driving them in a field from the age of eight.' He soon saw a genuine career opportunity and chuckles, 'It was probably a good thing as I wasn't going to be able to do anything else. I wasn't exactly the best pupil at school.'
Mark still fondly remembers his feelings when he lined up for the first time for the Brabham-Yamaha team on the starting grid at the US Grand Prix in Phoenix in 1991.
'From my point of view there was a huge amount of excitement and trepidation, but also a huge amount of relief because I'd actually got where I wanted to go. There's also a lot of nerves that you have to learn to turn into positive energy otherwise it will drain you.'
In his debut season Mark managed a sixth place finish in the Belgian GP, giving the Brabham-Yamaha team their first ever points, an achievement he still cherishes. 'It was a massive thing. For the team and for me as a driver, it was as big as winning a Grand Prix. The actual rewards back for it were small but for a morale boost it was huge.'
Mark picked up 32 points in total during his F1 career, driving for Brabham-Yamaha, Ligier-Renault, Tyrell-Yamaha and McLaren-Mercedes. Had circumstances been different he might have challenged for the championship himself with McLaren, but he only spent a year with them before moving on.
An opportunity he rejected a few years earlier is something he admits might also have led to glory. 'If I had stayed at Williams in my first winter as a test driver in 1989 instead of joining Brabham, the chances are I would have been fighting for a world championship like Damon Hill because Damon took over my role.' But Mark is not one to dwell on regrets too much, saying, 'It's no use crying over spilt milk. It's history now and time's gone by. But if I could re-live it maybe my decision making process would have been different.'
Although a career in motor racing has a very alluring image, Mark knows the strain it can put on family life. He met his wife, Deborah, in The Banyers hotel in Royston, and has two sons, Mark, 21, and Callum, 15. 'It's not easy, especially for me as I was already a father at 21. There's a huge amount of pressure as you spend a long time on the road. It sounds very glamorous but the novelty wears off very quickly. I am fortunate to have a very supporting wife.'
'If I had stayed at Williams in my first winter as a test driver in 1989 instead of joining Brabham, the chances are I would have been fighting for a world championship like Damon Hill'
As well as the long periods away from home, there are the dangers that come with driving at speeds in excess of 200mph. In 1999, while testing for the PacWest team in America for the CART Champcar series, Mark suffered an horrendous crash that resulted in a broken neck, an incident that is still a painful memory. 'They are the low points, pulling yourself back out of that and putting your family through all that stress and strain while you're sitting there in bits.'
However, Mark accepts that the risks come with the job and they are something he has learned to deal with throughout his career, losing friends in tragic circumstances along the way. 'It's not an easy thing to go to another racing driver's funeral. The only thing you can say is that 99 per cent of the time the guys have got killed doing what they loved.'
In recent years Mark has spent less time on the track, but racing is still clearly his passion. He runs his own company, 2MB Sports Management Ltd, helping young racing drivers find their way in a tough industry, and Mark believes there are some to look out for. 'We've got three young guys with the potential to go all the way to the top.' However, he warns that their destiny is in their own hands adding: 'It's a long hard path and as much as we can help them, we can only do so much. We can't drive the car for them on a Sunday afternoon - that's down to them.'
Although his own Formula One days are over, Mark is not quite ready to hang up his crash helmet altogether. 'I get asked every year to drive stuff at Goodwood, but at 42 I might still think I'm young enough to go and drive something competitive.'
As he says this his sharp stare and confident smile expose a determined attitude that I sense he will never lose. If Mark can instil some of this into his young protgs, the future of British racing can definitely deliver something special.