Blundell hell-bent on conquering the bends

Derick Allsop talks to the British driver aiming to revive his fortunes in IndyCars
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The Independent Online
Come the afternoon of Sunday week, Mark Blundell will climb into the cockpit of his Reynard-Ford, focus on the first corner of a one-and- a-half-mile oval racetrack in Miami, and endeavour to leave the frustrations of Formula One in his tyre smoke.

A new career in IndyCars begins for Blundell, an opportunity to rekindle the spirit and, although he is reluctant to say it, a chance to prove a point. What he does say is pointed enough: "Your loss; my gain".

Blundell's story reflects the experiences of many British drivers: acknowledged talent unfulfilled in the heady, mega-buck atmosphere of grand prix racing. When he joined a top team, McLaren, they were unable to keep pace with the very best. Right jump; wrong time. He lost the contest for the Sauber- Ford vacancy to Johnny Herbert and was left with no viable option in Formula One.

Nigel Mansell also encountered setbacks until he joined Williams in their ascendancy. He, too, left for North America, but with a Formula One Championship in the locker and a competitive drive guaranteed, Mansell made the most if it - winning the IndyCar series in his rookie season.

Blundell, who ironically picked up the pieces of his compatriot's McLaren misadventure last year, insists no one should expect him to emulate Mansell in his first season in IndyCars. "I won't make the same impact as the other British guy," he said in London yesterday. "I've still not done a lot of testing, so I'm certainly on a learning curve."

Alan Mertens, the team's English technical director, stressed Mansell also had the benefit of a car ready-made for winning races and challenging for the title. It all sounds hauntingly familiar for Blundell, but he and Mertens confidently predict they will get their act together by mid- season, and both believe a victory is within their compass.

At the age of 29, Blundell is 10 years younger than Mansell was when the former champion moved west, and does not rule out the possibility of returning. However, he is intent on convincing himself IndyCars is where he belongs. "I am going to miss Formula One in general. But when I get in the car in Miami it's over, end of it all," he said.

Blundell, who made his Formula One debut in 1991 with Brabham, and also drove for Ligier and Tyrrell, admits he has developed a healthy respect for IndyCars, and especially the high speed, banked ovals. "I used to watch on TV and think it was easy, but my first oval test was at Phoenix, where Nigel [Mansell] had his big shunt, and when I got there I thought there was no way I was going round. After my first run I got down to a 25-second lap, but was still five seconds off the pace.

"I went to bed wondering how on earth I could bring it down, but you realise you have to do it bit by bit and eventually I was within four- tenths of a second of the target. The speed is the most daunting part: approaching a corner at 210mph and telling yourself you're not going to back off. It requires a totally different discipline."

Blundell's regret is that the Indianapolis 500 does not figure on this year's IndyCar agenda, a consequence of some unfathomable domestic squabble. "It's a pity, because I won Le Mans, been in the points at Monaco and I'd love to compete in the third of the Big Three," he said.

Consolation, he feels, will come in the form of close racing elsewhere. "You don't get such big differences between the cars as you get in Formula One, with far more drivers having the chance to win, and I think it's a bigger test of a driver's ability in IndyCars."