It’s been a busy few weeks for F1 with back-to-back Grands Prix, the news of Jenson Button and Felipe Massa’s departure, plus the developing story of F1’s new owners.
Badger’s Rob Watts spoke to former McLaren F1 driver and Le Mans 24hr winner, Mark Blundell, to get his viewpoint on some of the main talking points up and down the pit lane.
Rob Watts: So Mark, we’re about to head to Singapore for round fifteen of the championship. What are your thoughts on the season so far?
Mark Blundell: I think the season, in general, has been Formula One typified. We’ve had excitement on the circuit, we’ve had excitement off the circuit and that always seems to be the case. My issue is that there often seems to be more drama off-track than on it, and for that, I can’t wait to get back to a situation where we can see some more wheel-to-wheel racing up and down the grid, as opposed to just one or two cars having a battle.
For me, being the pinnacle of motorsport – which it is – should be pure entertainment, whereas we have a similar situation to what we’ve had in the last few years where it’s been very processional. I can’t see it generating new viewers – in fact, some viewers are probably dropping away and that’s not good in a commercial sense, as the sport is a bit bare in terms of sponsors on cars.
RW: How do you see the title race shaping up as it’s the closest we’ve seen Lewis and Nico in recent years?
MB: I’m hoping it’s going to go down to the wire; it’s good for the sport. If we can get a situation that puts people on the edge of their seats then that’s great. It would just be nice to have a few more cars at the same level of performance as Mercedes, F1 tends to work in cycles, usually every three years someone makes a move forward. My big issue is that the sport needs to be unpredictable, and at the moment, F1 is predictable.
RW: Next week’s Singapore Grand Prix marks a year since Ferrari last won a race. How do you rate their season, and what exactly is the problem there?
MB: You have to understand the dynamics at Ferrari. There’s a huge amount of pressure and expectation there from everyone, and it’s a difficult task to live up to. They went through a range of different management in quick succession, and it takes time for someone to bed in and get some continuity and stability in place. They’ve got drivers that they know can get the job done, so they’re trying to position themselves to fight for Grand Prix wins and the championship, but it will take time. We’re seeing that with other teams.
They’re no different from a Red Bull or someone along those lines, and Red Bull have made a huge improvement over the course of the season if you look back from the beginning of it.
RW: With new regulations coming in for next season, there is the chance that we could see a change in the pecking order. What impact do you think that will have, and will it make the cars more of a challenge to drive?
MB: There has to be a ‘get back to basics’ approach, because if you’re in a situation where you’ve got technology that can basically take the role of human input we’re becoming a bit too dependent on it. You hear some grumbles from a lot of the guys up and down the pit lane, that there isn’t that level of input required of their skill-set.
I think they do need to address the regulations of the cars; they need to be more of a handful and we need to see those guys at their best, and when they’re at their best, it will also weed out some of the chaff that can’t cope. When you put things into perspective, motorsport is dangerous – it always has been, so we’ve got to balance that out as well.
Racing drivers are born to race, and that’s what they do best. If we take that away from them, it takes away some of the courageousness, the skill, the ability and we know what the outcome will be.
RW: One of the main talking points this season has been the emergence of Max Verstappen, but in recent races, he’s courted controversy with some of his on-track moves. What’s your viewpoint on that?
MB: I have a huge amount of respect for him, and for what he’s achieved – I think he’s an immense talent, but at the end of the day he’ll have to serve his apprenticeship. The learning process might be on the circuit, or it might be off it, but we’ll see how he copes with that.
We’ve seen many guys come into the sport and set the world alight, and we’ve seen situations where things have been misunderstood or miscalculated, but at the same time they’ve got to suck it up and get on with it because there is a new boy on the block and he happens to be good! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had four or five Verstappens on the grid?
If you ask me whether I think some things he’s done are marginal, I’d say yes, probably, but you have to take on board the facts; he is a young guy competing in a field of very established talent and the world is different to what it was fifteen or twenty years ago. I don’t think he’s changing – the F1 world is going to have to adapt.
RW: With Felipe Massa and Jenson Button not racing next year, how do you feel about this ‘changing of the guard’ of sorts with new guys such as Vandoorne and Ocon coming in?
MB: It’s always sad to see great drivers leaving the sport; guys that you’ve seen from youngsters who’ve come in and perform – Jenson Button and guys like that, it’s sad to see that they’re not going to be on the grid next season.
Life is different for people at different stages and Jenson’s had a huge career. I’m sure he’s at that stage where you have to balance whether your desire, your responsibilities and your commitment levels are still there. When you roll out on the grid and you know that you haven’t got a fighting chance to win a Grand Prix, and you’ve got young guys snapping at your heels, inevitably something’s going to have to give.
That’s not to say that he can’t get the job done; he can and that’s been proven time and time again, but it’s not about that – it’s about his situation and desire, and that’s really where it ends.
RW: Your old team, McLaren, are going through a rebuilding period, much like when you drove for them back in the mid-nineties. How do you rate their chances of climbing up the grid next season?
MB: If there’s any team down the Formula One pit lane who’ve got the capability of rebuilding, it’s McLaren, especially with a partner like Honda. At the same time, it takes a huge amount of time, commitment, workload, and people who need to be at the top of their game. When you get these winning formulas, you have to look at the people behind it. There’s usually a few key people at the top of their game, and that’ something we’ve seen with Red Bull, with Ferrari, and we’re now seeing that with Mercedes.
McLaren have to go out there and get an established guy in the design room or on the engineering side – find the next Adrian Newey. That’s the thing that F1 is made up of; brain power from groups of people who can design the best and engineer the best.
RW: One of the surprises of the season have been Haas, who came in and scored points straight away. As someone who drove in the US after leaving Formula One, how impressed have you been by them?
MB: It’s great that there’s a North American team and I think that they’ve also done an incredible job. For them to come in and deliver the results that they have has been impressive, but they’re going through some pain and learning now. It’s one thing to come in and deliver, it’s another thing to stay there and progress.
That’s the bigger learning curve on their side; they’ve turned up with something that was pretty decent but nothing waits around in F1, it’s continuous, and the levels of development are probably beyond what they’ve encountered other formulas where they’ve been successful.
RW: Without doubt, the biggest news story of this past week has been Formula One’s sale to the American based Liberty Media Group. How do you see Bernie’s role changing now with new owners on board?
MB: First and foremost, Bernie hasn’t owned F1 for quite a while. What we do have is a very influential and visionary guy who’s put Formula One where it is today. We have to take our hat off to him because he’s done an incredible job, but we’ve also got a world that is changing and there are not many sports any more that are led and taken forward by individuals as such.
Sport today is more about corporate governance with decisions taken by committee; a lot more so than what it was fifteen-twenty years ago. If there is going to be a change of ownership and who leads F1, it’s going to be interesting as Bernie’s are difficult shoes to fill.
RW: Finally, what changes do you think Formula One’s new owners need to make in order to safeguard the future of our sport?
MB: Sport has to be unpredictable. F1 is a sport. I know it’s a sport/business, but it’s still a sport and it has to be unpredictable. You can’t watch a Premier League football match and know the outcome – it would fall down in a heartbeat. Like any other sport; you watch two boxers in the ring and if it’s a foregone conclusion no one’s going to watch it. That is the issue F1 has got.
We’re not in an era anymore of having just four channels on TV, we’ve got 500 channels plus a lot more options and choice today. If you’re going to attract people, whether you’re going to attract them through the gates or sitting on their sofas watching on TV – you better get some good entertainment on there to keep them glued to it, because at the moment that’s what it lacks.
Many thanks to Mark for his time.