It is fair to say that many thought Mark Blundell had hung up his helmet for good.
Having settled into a solid role as a Formula 1 analyst on ITV (until 2008), as well as starting his own management company, the 44-year-old appeared to be content with life outside the cockpit.
Of course, once a racer…
In what seemed like an age ago, Blundell contested four seasons in Formula 1 with Brabham, Ligier, Tyrrell and McLaren, before moving to the US to compete in the CART Series for PacWest Racing in 1996. He took three victories in the primarily North-American championship, but scaled down his racing commitments from 2001 onward when he became more involved at ITV.
Having originally hung up his helmet after securing a podium at the Sebring 12 Hours in 2003, Blundell started up a management the following year with Martin Brundle. The company, called called 2MB, looks after the affairs of IndyCar pilot Mike Conway and DTM race winner Gary Paffett, although Brundle departed the fold two years ago.
After seven years out of the cockpit, Blundell was convinced to drive for United Autosports at the 24 Hours of Spa, where he along with Zak Brown, Eddie Cheever and Richard Dean claimed 4th in the GT3 category. Although this will be Blundell’s Daytona début, he has experienced success in endurance racing before, having taken victory at the 1992 Le Mans 24 Hour Race.
Blundell will be at the wheel of a Ford-Riley Daytona Prototype (DP) alongside Brundle. Also driving will be Daytona GT and DP veteran, Mark Patterson and United Autosports chairman, Zak Brown. The Rolex 24 Hours represents the beginning of United Autosports second year of racing competition and for their début Daytona run, the Anglo-American squad are teaming up with the experienced Michael Shank Racing.
With less than one week to go before green lights signal the opening practice session, I checked in with Mark to see how things were coming along.
Formula 1 Archive: Daytona is one of those famous circuits that is often mentioned in the same breath as Monaco, Le Mans, Spa-Francorchamps or Indianapolis.
Now that you have had some testing this weekend, what are thoughts of the circuit so far?
Mark Blundell: It’s a great track with immediate appeal when you come into vision with on the street road and you know there is something magic about the track. This is confirmed when you drive it and the huge speed on the banking and the tight complex but high speed bus stop make for some challenges behind the steering wheel.”
F1A: The circuit has recently being completely repaved, leaving all competitors to effectively start from a clean sheet of paper. Does this bring an extra value to testing that you are doing now?
MB: “Well from the driver point of view its new to me so I have no reference but I am happy its smooth because at 200 mph with bumps would get my attention, but yes lots of new data and also because new tire combination with continental so all teams looking to develop as fast as possible ready for the race.”
F1A: You are just one part of a four-driver team. Does such a race require you all to have at least vaguely similar driving styles? With that in mind, how do you approach this race in terms of car set-up – can you optimise or does it involve a series of compromises?
MB: “It helps to have a similar style and also be equal comfort in the cockpit but I think we all tested the car and made changes that everyone was happy with and I believe that all us have enough speed and experience to get to the end of the race and that is the most important factor first to finish, overall the whole race and set up is about compromise but that’s the beauty of sports car racing working with each other.”
F1A: How have you found the Ford-Riley Prototype at this early stage?
MB: “I was surprised as I had a picture in my mind of the car’s performance and this has been expelled, the overall car is well balanced and enough down force to make it a great car to drive and I hope its brings us success.”
F1A: You have enjoyed success at endurance races before, particularly at Le Mans and Sebring. Is there anything that you bring from those previous experiences that can help ensure a good run at Daytona?
MB: “Experience of knowing how to win a 24 hour event and to paces yourself and your team members but overall its all about the team and we all have to contribute as much as we have in experience speed and effort to have a hope of pulling off a result in a race like this..”
F1A: A number of drivers from various other forms of motorsport are also taking part in the race. Does the fact that the race has such a wide variety of talented competition give this race a prestige that other events might not possess?
MB: “It’s great to race against all these guys in one event and yes I think that is some of the appeal and because its a very famous race at the beginning of the international motorsport season there is a lot of focus from all around the world.”
F1A: This will be United Autosport’s first race in the US. Does performing in front of the team’s home crowd bring its own set of pressures?
MB: “No more pressure, as we know the job we have to do, but its great to be part of the Anglo American team that makes up United Autosports and to race with friends as well makes it extra special!”
F1A: After 2003, you withdrew from racing to work in television and later set up your company, only to get back into the drivers seat last year. How did the drive come about? Can you describe the preparation involved to get back into the racing game after such a lengthy absence?
MB: “Well I got the desire and the bug to return to the racing wheel and my buddy Zak mentioned to me about racing in Spa and that was it – I was converted again, and I have put some effort into loose some weight and prepare and I think I will pay off, you know its like riding a bicycle, once you have done once then you never forget.”
F1A: Do you have any plans for further racing this year?
MB: “I hope to do some more racing depends on time taken with my business.”
You can follow the exploits of both Mark Blundell and United Autosports on Twitter. My thanks to Mark for his time and to Martyn Pass at United Autosports for putting this together.
Green flag for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona will fly on Saturday January 29th at 8.30pm GMT (3.30pm EST). A preview post will follow next week.