Motor Racing: The Monday Interview - Mark Blundell - Home boy Blundell making good within American walls

Former Formula One driver Mark Blundell talks to Derick Allsop about how he has adjusted to the pace of life on the oval circuits of the CART championship series
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The Independent Online
AS TROPHIES go, it is different. Some would say bizarre. Even macabre. It is the compressed monocoque of the racing car Mark Blundell sat in when he hit a wall at 198mph. Now it sits in his garage, a grizzly reminder of the perils of his trade.

"It's two inches narrower than it should be, and that was from the secondary impact. You can imagine the effect the first impact had. If it had been a Formula One car I wouldn't be here."

He delivers this verdict in the matter-of-fact way drivers do, presumably to retain their sanity. "It's just there as a reality check," he resumes. "I may use it for a garden display."

Two years on from that crash at the Rio Oval, Blundell has discovered other consolations in the CART's hideously renamed Champ Car (nee Indy Car) series. Such as a comfortable lifestyle for himself, his wife and two sons in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the uncomplicated pleasure of racing.

A promising career in Formula One never quite blossomed for the Barnet- born Blundell, so he sought fresh opportunity and motivation on the other side of the Atlantic. An unspectacular first season convinced his employers, and eventually him, that he had to commit himself to the cause and he moved house. After an indifferent start to last season he began to make an impression, and by the end of the campaign had three wins and much acclaim to his credit.

He opened the new championship with an unimpressive 12th place at Miami last week, but then that, and the stirring battle at the front, he suggests, provide further proof of the democracy and unpredictability of his adopted racing environment. The contrast with the McLaren-dominated Australian Grand Prix seven days earlier supports his case.

"The way the race in Melbourne was eventually decided was diabolical," the 31-year-old Blundell says, stopping off in the old country en route to his next engagement in Japan. "That sort of stuff stinks. Whatever they agreed about the first corner, the circumstances changed and David Coulthard shouldn't have given the race to [Mika] Hakkinen. He can't be sure of getting those points back and it could cost him the championship.

"Formula One seems to have forgotten it's supposed to be racing. People switch on their television to see a show and they can easily switch over to another show. In CART they get a show. They get real racing, it's open, very competitive and very exciting.

"There is a tendency for people in Formula One to look down at CART and I can understand that. I must admit I always considered it second division, second rate. When Nigel Mansell won the title in his first season over there, people said that proved the point.

"But now I know different. After all, Jacques Villeneuve won the Formula One championship in only his second season after going the other way. CART is very tough and has a lot of drivers who would win races in Formula One, if they got the chance. The trouble is, so few drivers do get a genuine chance of winning in Formula One.

"Last season in CART we had eight or nine different winners and this season it could be more. Every time I pull out of the pit lane I feel I have a genuine chance. When I was at McLaren they weren't the top team and I couldn't even be confident of scoring points. That makes it very difficult to keep your chin up."

Blundell's chastening experience at McLaren disillusioned him, and, despite subsequent offers from midfield Formula One teams, he has resisted the prospect of returning to grand prix racing. It is generally understood he too had to give way to Hakkinen, in Portugal in 1995, although his compliance with team orders was less overt than Coulthard's gesture. He was, however, working on a race-by-race contract and pragmatism determined the course of his actions.

"I'm not proud of certain things I was involved in and I wouldn't do it again," he says. "But then there are a lot of things about Formula One I wasn't comfortable with. There are a lot of politics in Formula One and a lot of people are happy to get into that. It's not my style. In Formula One you're always wondering where the carving knife is - whether or not it's in your back.

"Formula One talks about going back to the States, but the vast majority of American fans couldn't care less. They've never even heard of it. I raced in the last grand prix in the States, at Phoenix in 1991. The crowd was 12,000. They get more for ostrich races over there. CART has also had a floatation - and that's something Formula One hasn't managed to pull off yet."

The Blundells have settled Stateside. They have found a comforting embrace in their neighbourhood and at the race track.

"Of course there are things I miss about England. I'm still a home boy at heart. I love my family and friends over here. But we're enjoying our new life to the full. The climate is good and the outdoor life is great. There are 140 golf courses in the area and more water craft per household than anywhere in the US. The tax rates are lower than in California and real estate is sensibly priced. I've not made enough money yet to retire, but I'm earning more than I did in Formula One and we're comfortable.

"Quite a few of the drivers live in the area and there's a good camaraderie between us. A few of us are getting together to hire a jet to travel to races. It's generally more relaxed and friendlier than in Formula One. You can take your kids to the races, which you can't really do in Formula One. There's no fuss or nagging for a pass.

"A lot of the drivers have their own motorhomes, so they stay on site and that helps them socialise and have better relations than in Formula One. If there's a dispute between drivers they sort it out. Bobby Rahal is quitting at the end of the year and we're having a lot of fun with him at each race. Last week he was presented with a rocking chair."

Lest he should appear to have been brainwashed by the American dreamers, Blundell acknowledges that nothing compares with the exhilaration of riding a Formula One thoroughbred. "I do miss the buzz of driving a Formula One car. These CART cars are faster, no question, but they are not as nimble or responsive as Formula One cars. There is also a greater depth to Formula One in the sense that it has the history, the tradition.

"The safety measures at some of the CART tracks also leave a lot to be desired. While the cars are strong and I'm grateful for that after Rio, I cringe at the lack of run-off area on certain circuits. I bitch about it in good old Formula One tradition, and some of the guys wonder what I'm going on about, but others know I'm right.

"I defy any driver, even the best and most experienced in CART, to say he is really comfortable on ovals. Even Emerson Fittipaldi admitted to me he never did. How can you be at over 200mph - well over at some places - and inches from a concrete wall? I was close to hitting the wall again last week and it doesn't bear thinking about.

"They show us videos of crash situations to put over points about the effects of impact on belts and so on. It's horrific, like my shunt in Rio, and you could do without having to watch it all over again, even though you know the reason is constructive and in our interests."

CART's excursion to Japan this coming weekend is part of the organisers' mission to promote the championship as a world series. Not that Americans usually concern themselves with such detail to assume global significance. Blundell and friends will, however, be competing in Brazil, Australia and Canada as well as most corners of the US this year.

"It's a tough schedule. People talk about the travelling in Formula One, but most of the grands prix are in Europe. Races in America can be 3,000 miles apart and you need stamina and consistency."

Blundell's Reynard-Mercedes, run by the PacWest Racing team, is one of the most fancied cars this year, although the 1997 model, which he used at Homestead's 1.5-mile oval last week, was patently outclassed. The new car, he is confident, will put him back in contention.

"I started out this season believing I had a genuine chance of the championship and, although the first race was a disappointment, I still believe I have a chance. Michael Andretti won that race as he did last year, then tailed off.

"That's CART. You have to pick up the points as often as possible. I picked up a point and I'm sure the wins will come. If the championship comes it will give me as much satisfaction as winning the Formula One title. I would never have thought so a few years ago, but now I really do."

And yet, given the opportunity, with the right equipment, would he not return to Formula One?

"You never say never, but I certainly wouldn't come back just to make up the numbers. Not at this stage of my career. At the moment it's not an option, anyway. I am contracted to PacWest until the end of next year and CART drivers do tend to have longevity.

"To be honest, I'll probably want to get out after another four or five years. I think I'll have had enough of those walls by then."