As his maiden campaign in the British Touring Car Championship continues and fresh off a successful race weekend at Croft, we caught up with former Formula One star and Car Gods 54 sponsored driver Mark Blundell to discuss his reasons for getting back behind the wheel.
“I’ve always been a big supporter of the old saying that you should never go back. Yet here I am, 53 years of age and ignoring pretty much every piece of advice I have ever given. What started out as a pretty innocent little idea, suddenly began to gather a great deal of momentum and well...here we are, nearly half way through the season and after a thirteen year hiatus from full time competition - I’m a racing driver again!”
With three podium finishes in Formula One, victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and numerous wins in IndyCar under his belt there wasn’t much left for Mark Blundell to prove in an elite motorsport career that is now spanning into its fourth decade. Yet what is most refreshing about Blundell’s return to elite competition in the British Touring Car Championship this year, is that its not fuelled by any craving for success or a desire to be back in the spotlight. Instead, and rather simply, it is a story of a fan who has grown up with a love of racing, wanting to experience that thrill again.
“Speed has always been a fascination of mine. I actually started on two wheels doing motocross as a teenager but I soon realised that I actually liked my limbs unbroken and decided it would be safer to cut across to four wheels. Although with some of the accidents I’ve had in cars over the years I am not sure I was quite right there!”
“My dad was a used car dealer meaning I was always surrounded by them as a boy. So it is no surprise that they became a real passion for me growing up. I remember watching an awful lot of racing throughout my childhood and it’s cliched but I did just watch these guys on TV and want to be like them I suppose. I know that is the case for many young sports fans growing up and I suppose I was just one of the lucky ones who actually got to do it.”
Luck though was not the key driver behind Mark’s ascent to the top table of motorsport. Progressing through the junior ranks at a rapid pace, Mark entered the world of Formula One in the 1990s in what became famously known as a golden era for British talent within the sport.
“There was a great deal of competition growing up and coming through the UK circuit. You only have to look at the names of those who made it to the top to see the level of talent that was there. I don’t want to sound like that guy who always says ‘it was better in my day’ but you had the likes of Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert, Martin Brundle, Eddie Irvine, David Coulthard and the list goes on. It was a really dominant era for UK drivers and it was fantastic to be a part of that.”
You could argue that Blundell more than played his part. So why with 61 Grand Prix appearances stored in the bank, alongside many other achievements, has the British driver returned to the grid in 2019?
“Being a racing driver is in my makeup and no matter what you do, you cannot replace that feeling. Everything is incredibly different this year from the machinery to the driving style, but above all else, I’m still getting out of the car on a Sunday afternoon knowing the team and I have given it all and you can’t say fairer than that!”
Not content with getting back on the grid serenely, the Trade Price Cars Racing driver has opted for possibly the most competitive racing series out there – the British Touring Car Championship. The Championship produced seventeen different race winners in 2018 and the margins are now finer than ever. To add to that, this year’s participation marks Blundell’s first ever touring car competition and his first ever competitive experience of front-wheel drive – to say the 53-year-old has stepped into the lion’s den would be an understatement.
“It’s fair to say I’ve taken a fairly big jump and the results at the start of the season would prove that. For nearly thirty years I have had the rear wheels powering everything I have been driving and now that is completely flipped. I’ve always been veering away from other cars or curbs in the single seater world to avoid damage, now I am attacking those curbs like no tomorrow and you’ve got to get your elbows out at all times on the track!”
“I went into the series knowing that I was starting from ground zero and that I had a lot to learn. You’ll always get the doomsayers doubting you and questioning why you would risk what you’ve already achieved? But in my opinion, I’m not risking anything. What is done, is done and it is all stored away in the loft. Nothing I do this year will change that. What I do get though is the chance to embrace a completely new challenge and to prove to myself as much as anyone that there is some life in the old dog yet!”
From speaking with Mark, you get the sense that it really is that boyish love of racing that has come to the fore again. Although it has been a thirteen year break for full-time competitive action, his racing return has been nagging away at him for a while and it was the coming together of a number of factors this year that convinced him that the time was right in 2019.
“I’ve always had a massive amount of respect for the British Touring Car Championship and Alan Gow (BTCC CEO) has been nagging me for a few years to come and give it a go. It was one of those where if I kept delaying it and putting it off, I was going to be too old to do it and I’d have felt I had missed out if so.”
“Sadly my dad passed away two years ago and he was, of course, a huge influence on everything I achieved and always pushed me to do what I wanted and more. I’d like to think he’ll be looking down at me and cheering me on across a Sunday afternoon like he always used to.”
With family playing a hugely important role, Mark’s return this season sees the addition of two new big supporters behind his cause – his granddaughters. There can’t be too many grandad racing drivers up and down the grids across the world but it’s a title that Blundell relishes.
“Up until now my granddaughters have only ever seen pictures and videos of me racing. They know what grandad used to do so it was a great occasion on the season-opener to have all my family there and prove to the girls that grandad has still got it! We are going to make progress throughout the year but whatever happens, I’ll be driving around with a grin on my face and there is a lot to be said about that.”