Scalextric Meets Mark Blundell
To celebrate the release of the McLaren F1 GTR in Scalextric form, we here at Test Track Pit Stop wanted to speak to someone who had first hand knowledge of these amazing cars. Who had driven one in anger, preferably at the Le Mans 24 hours, and could tell us exactly what the car was like to drive? Well we couldn’t think of many better candidates than Mr Mark Blundell, who recently sat down with us to discuss his time at the 1995 24-hour race driving the McLaren F1 GTR, as well as some stories about F1 and his time with Scalextric. So, without further ado, here is what happened when Scalextric sat down with the 1992 Le Mans 24 Hour winner Mark Blundell.
Starting away from real cars Mark, what are your thoughts on Scalextric, fond memories of the brand growing up?
“I’ve had Scalextric since I was a kid, my background has always been with some form of four wheeled vehicles. My father was in the second-hand car business, I was always surrounded by cars so there was an alliance there of cars, watching him do his trade and then having a Scalextric circuit with model cars for me to play with. I think that is probably half the blame of me getting into the sport that I did! And it is one of those brands that’s global, you know, everyone knows Scalextric!”
Have you ever had a Scalextric car with your name on it before this Gulf McLaren?
“I think over the years there have been a couple of cars that have been done, I think the McLaren Formula One car I drove was produced and as you go through your career there are a few things, I was on an arcade game in America and some old computer games. It is actually nicer as you get older and look back at it. At the time you don’t take as much notice as maybe you should but now it is nice to see and to show the grandchildren.”
The beauty of Scalextric is that you can race those grandchildren on a pretty equal footing, compared (dare I say it) to the computer games where they may have an advantage!
“Yeah! And I think that is probably something you know, at Christmas we had the Scalextric set up and had some of the cars running around. I’ve got two granddaughters and they were racing me, it was quite funny for them to race their grandad who they have seen these photographs of and actually there was some correlation for them to actually be doing something on the Scalextric track.”
So, the car we have here in front of us is your Gulf liveried McLaren from the 1995 Le Mans 24 hours. A race you finished fourth, but looking at the race reports, it was a race that you could have possible done even better in?
“Well, it was one of those ones that got away in our minds. It was an interesting race that one. The owner of the car was Ray Bellm, a great guy, and he asked myself and Maurizio Sandro Sala (the Brazilian driver) if we would race with him and we had some outside McLaren support due to his relationship with Ron Dennis at the time. The great thing was that it was in Gulf colours so a great iconic car, in an iconic scheme and we were hugely competitive. Against the other McLarens we were right at the front at the start, until sadly Ray went off on 2 occasions and we ended up last before fighting through the night to come from last up to fourth. The pace was there, the raw pace. But by that time after being at the back and fighting your way through and spending time in the pits you know…”
The C3969 McLaren F1 GTR in the livery Mark Blundell raced in
There was some awful weather too right?
“Yeah although probably in some ways that played into our hands as between myself and Maurizio, as Ray took a bit of a back seat after his issues on track, the experience kicked in from our side. And we had good pace.”
What was the car like to drive at Le Mans, was it an enjoyable race car?
“Well it was never designed to be a race car so in many respects it wasn’t the best-balanced car in the world. The saving grace of the car was the BMW V12 engine. It was incredibly impressive in that you could be in 6th gear at 2000RPM and the thing would just pull like a train. And in the wet that is great as you can run a higher gear and it cuts out some of that traction issue. But in terms of balance, overall it was always a bit top heavy, so the centre of gravity wasn’t ideal. And aerodynamically it wasn’t quite there, but it did the job! I have to say turning up and winning on the debut is some feat!”
Did the central driving position make getting in and out at the driver changes more difficult?
“It was a little bit more tedious than what it should be, just because of the location obviously and you have that space either side. But in some ways, it was quite nice to drive it because it was more relevant to the single seater cars I was used to. It was a great car. My only complaint is that I had an opportunity to buy one when they first came out but I couldn’t afford it. I wish I had gone and borrowed the money!”
The year after James Weaver raced the car at Brands Hatch
Of course, you had some success at Le Mans, you won the race in 1992 with Peugeot and you had an amazing lap to put the Nissan on pole - how do those group C cars compare to this McLaren?
“Different beasts altogether. The group C cars back then were up to 1100BHP in qualifying trim, 5 speed box and just a ferocious car with no power steering and it was one of those cars with every input came a direct output, often a sideways one! So, you were catching something that was both quite heavy and had an amazing amount of downforce and power to go with it. So, as a race car it was fundamentally a race car, unlike the GTR which was a road car made into a race car. But group C as it developed into the LMP era, the cars got more and more refined and the Peugeot was essentially a single seater car.”
“The Nissan was to a degree more agricultural, but we were the first people to use carbon brakes at Le Mans in ‘89 so there was some cutting-edge stuff they brought to the table. It had the making of a good car, we never quite got the most out of it, Lola produced the chassis and they were synonymous with sportscar racing, Nissan were always a bit nervous about the engine being durable enough but then there were other things, the gearbox was always a weak point. The carbon brakes were an error as they didn’t last very long in ‘89!”
Mark in the Nissan in 1990
Something we have asked a few drivers that have raced there is, did you actually enjoy the 24 hour experience of Le Mans?
“I think it is a case that when you go to Le Mans and you know you’ve got a chance of success, like anything, when you have that chance you are driven on more. In 1995 in particular when you are dead last, and you know that you’ve got the capability to fight back then you still have that enjoyment. But if your car performance is mediocre, it is quite tough to swallow that 4AM graveyard shift! Especially when it is foggy and cold, wet and the closing speeds and different abilities of drivers are such that Le Mans becomes one of the most dangerous motor races as there is a lot of unpredictability. But that is also one of the thrills!”
You mentioned about going to Le Mans and not being at the front, when you went to F1 was that a similar level of re-adjustment? As these days in F1, although there is a big gap at the front, there are no really small teams, but you went to Ligier, Brabham, teams like that. Was it tough to go from winning in sportscars and F3000 to essentially mid-pack at best?
“I mean F1 was for me more difficult than for some others because I was already a test driver. One of the first generations of test drivers for Williams, testing GP winning cars. So I knew what a great F1 car felt like. Off the back of that testing I got my drive with Brabham. When I was then asked to go back and test for Williams, while I was with Brabham, something that’s unheard of these days, I stepped into an FW14 Williams and I went around Imola 2.3 seconds faster on race tyres then I did on qualifying tyres with the Brabham! It opened my eyes up to the difference! I may have made an error of judgement here! And the error was going to Brabham, I should have stayed at Williams testing because the chances are, I would have ended up in the seat that Damon Hill ended up in.”
“It’s quite ironic in a way that when you test a car that’s got that level of performance then you get into something that hasn’t you’ve really got to generate a lot of self will to go down the pit lane and know that you’ve essentially got no hope of doing anything with it. When we did score our first world championship point at Brabham at Spa that was an incredible feeling! In 1991 when I went to Brabham, we had to do pre-qualifying there was that many teams around, that many privateer teams who on the right day could make an impact and maybe pick up a point or two.”
Mark follows Alain Prost's Williams in the Ligier
Testing tyres at Brands Hatch
With the demise of those small teams does that now make it much harder for younger talent to break into the top level? With you managing young talent at MB Partners, does this cause problems?
“There are less and less opportunities and that’s the problem. With less teams on the grid, they aren’t prepared to take a risk on a new driver. And with no testing, that’s simulator based, there’s less relevance to what they will do inside a grand prix car for two hours in those conditions. So the opportunity has been hugely minimised. Saying that for 2019 we have seen more changes in the driver’s market then we have seen for the last ten years! Especially in terms of the UK as we have a lot of talented youngsters coming in. But it is about the manufacturer link, if you can get the link and you can prove yourself in other formulas coming through then you’ve got half a chance. But outside of that it is a tough environment.”
Is that why so many of the top UK drivers are now looking to the USA for racing?
“There are only, what, 20 opportunities in F1, and with some of the drivers being around in it for so long, there just aren’t many opportunities in Europe. America offers IndyCar and NASCAR and a host of others. There really aren’t many places for true professional drivers to earn a wage these days. There’s only a small group of guys earning from racing.”
Going back a bit it wasn’t always small teams for you in F1, you did drive for McLaren, partnering Mika Hakkinen, was that a great experience partnering a future F1 world champion?
“Well he was bloody good! But at the level you are at there I wouldn’t expect any different. McLaren already knew me as I was a test driver in 1992, so I took the seat that Mansell departed in 1995. But at the same time again there I was in a situation where I didn’t have equal kit to Mika, so his status was that he got engine developments in front of me. While Mika out-qualified Senna at Estoril, I later did the same to Mika at Estoril too! So there are all these little references but at that point you can’t shout about it as it’s all behind closed doors. But I know what I did, what I achieved and I’m quite happy with how I got on!”
“Then I took the Mercedes support over to the USA, support I received from how I performed with McLaren. We were a little unfortunate with reliability, we should have achieved a podium in Australia. But I went to the USA after becoming a bit disillusioned with F1 but as soon as we finished the Cosworth contract with PacWest racing, they then took on Mercedes engines because of the relationship that I had. But IndyCar was a whole new ball game, oval racing and left foot braking was a whole new experience for me. So, while Mika in F1 left foot braked I didn’t. And after I out-qualified him in Portugal, he changed his car back to right foot brake as well!”
Today with MB Partners you manage some great British talent, such as Gary Paffett, DTM champion and now racing in Formula E, do you see that avenue as the future, with fans really taking to it?
“I think the fans are growing, as is the manufacture involvement with ten manufacturers involved. So yeah Formula E has been around for 5 seasons now, it’s growing, it’s different with a different audience in some ways to F1 but it will mature and develop at its own rate. The whole grid are professional drivers, unlike F1 where so many bring money to get their seat.”
Finally if there is a young boy or girl racing your Gulf McLaren at home, any advice for them on how to be a racing driver?
“Keep playing Scalextric! It’s a more efficient way to enjoy yourself! In all seriousness it’s a tough one, regretfully it must be fiscally supported because ‘no money no honey’! And you will have to endure a huge number of knocks and ‘no’s on the way. But if you have desire and commitment, and drive, then go for it!”
On behalf of the Scalextric team I would like to offer a huge thank you to Mark for sitting down and talking with us. It’s always a real treat to speak to drivers who so often have unbelievable insight into the cars we’ve modelled, being able to bring them to life in such an interesting way.
Speaking of which, Mark kindly signed a couple of Gulf GTRs for us to give away. For your chance to win, simply head on over to our Competitions page and answer the question there. We’ll be selecting two winners from the correct answers who will each win a signed McLaren F1 GTR (C3969). The competition closes on the 10th February – good luck!
As always, we'd also like to thank Gary Hawkins for the fantastic photographs.
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