Motor racing: Thrills for a real racer

David Tremayne finds Mark Blundell enjoying life in the fastest of lanes
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The Independent Online
When Mark Blundell lost the Cart PPG IndyCar World Series race at Detroit on 8 June and said afterwards that he thought his PacWest team would very shortly avenge themselves, even he little guessed that he would make good his threat so soon afterwards. In Portland, Oregon, last Sunday Blundell scored Cart's closest ever finish when he edged out Gil De Ferran by 0.027sec in a neck-and-neck sprint to the finish that would have done Michael Johnson proud.

In Detroit, Blundell's Reynard-Mercedes had trickled to a halt one corner from victory after a gamble on fuel failed to pay off. "I thought I was home and dry," he said, after watching his team-mate Mauricio Gugelmin suffer a similar fate earlier in the lap. "But it turned out I was just dry."

Few begrudged Blundell his Portland victory in a race spoiled by a wet track which then dried out, and countless yellow flag periods in which the cars burbled round behind a pace car while accident debris was cleared away. One of several Formula One refugees rebuilding career and dignity with strong performances in the US, the 31-year-old from Royston in Hertfordshire switched last season when his place at McLaren was taken by David Coulthard. The Scot's Formula One debut, ironically enough, had been at Spain in 1994, when Blundell scored the best result of his grand prix career with third place for Tyrrell-Yamaha.

Blundell's dues have been paid as he has adjusted to the adrenalin-pumping mix of road courses, street circuits, mile ovals and two and a half mile superspeedways that make up the IndyCar tracks, in particular finding the latter a huge challenge. In Rio last year he escaped a massive 200mph accident caused by brake failure, which sent his Reynard careering straight into a concrete wall. It was, observers said, an accident nobody could have survived 10 years earlier. As tough as they come, Blundell got himself out of the car before collapsing. Earlier this year he had another big shunt testing at the Homestead track.

"They were both big hits," he says dismissively, the typical racing driver shrugging off horrors best not dwelt upon. "But in this game you have to get used to that. That, and the prolonged speed on the ovals. The first time you do it, it's like the most amazing thing you've ever done, because you're just going and going."

In Canada Blundell stood in for his former team-mate Martin Brundle on ITV duty, and found that Formula One has changed even in the short time he's been away. "It just seems so much less welcoming. There's a distinct feeling that you're either in or you're out. It's a bit insular.

"Fortunately I was in for the weekend. For sure it's just as professional over there, but the atmosphere is more relaxed." Even if the speeds are often higher.

Blundell's come-from-behind win highlighted IndyCar's other great asset: overtaking. "You can do more with the cars," Blundell said. "In F1, if you get too close to the car in front you lose downforce. In IndyCar you can get close enough to try to overtake even on the superspeedways, where you're doing 230mph.

"I'm not saying it's very pleasant doing that, and you'd better know what you're doing, but it can be done. You can't deny that you get great racing; at the end of the day that's what it's all about. The thing I love about it is that you really can race."

Which, of course, is exactly what a large number of the Formula One drivers would love to be doing.