Badger’s Rob Watts chats with former F1, Le Mans and IndyCar* driver, Mark Blundell, to learn more about the Indy 500, Alonso’s chances and his thoughts on motorsport holy grail.
Rob Watts: What were your thoughts when you found out Alonso was doing the Indy 500?
Mark Blundell: Honestly, I was surprised. Surprised that he would interrupt his Formula 1 season, surprised that he would choose to debut in the Indy 500 and some of that is down to my understanding of what it’s like to drive on an oval – especially a super speedway. Bearing in mind, the amount of experience and operation laps before the event, in many respects, are very limited.
I say that with the greatest of respect. You’ve just seen the current IndyCar champion just win his first oval race, and he’s been out there for several years. It gives you some indication of how difficult a task it is to just turn up and deliver.
Yes, we did see [Alexander] Rossi do it last year, but if you analyse that race, there were some reasons behind that. Not to take anything away from him, but winning a 500-mile race is a very tough call.
RW: Some would say the decision is reflective of his relationship with Honda, and perhaps it’s McLaren’s attempt to keep him happy so he might re-sign with them. Would you agree?
MB: That’s an interesting question. I’ve not actually seen anything to suggest this was a decision driven by him, or whether it was a decision by McLaren to take the name back to the US.
If you analyse it, it’s quite a big thing for Alonso to do. The upside, it’s achievable, but it would be almost remarkable. The downside, it kind of takes a little bit of the gloss away from where he stands today. It’s quite remarkable to understand a driver of his current level, putting himself in this sort of situation.
I understand from my experience, that oval racing is high risk. Yes, they’ve got the safety barriers now that they didn’t have in my day, but there’s no small accident on an oval. We’ve seen plenty of big name drivers go there and end up having some pretty significant injuries. There’s a lot of questions, and I’m not sure I can quite make sense of it.
RW: How much is this is a decision born out of frustration? Could he now be focusing on his long-term legacy, rather than the potential for any short-term success in F1?
MB: That’s possible. At the end of the day, he and his team of advisers have made moves for what they thought were the right reasons during his career. I’d say, that still today, he is probably the most complete racing driver on the grid and that’s saying a lot.
The other issue is, what other options would be available to him in the future? I’m not sure if this is out of frustration, but putting an Indy 500 programme together take some pretty comprehensive planning and some pretty solid reasoning to do it.
RW: You left F1 to race in the States, but it wasn’t to race in the IndyCar series as we know today, was it?
MB: Yeah, I raced in the CART series. The IRL (Indy Racing League) had been created and split off from CART. The IRL had the jewel in the crown back then – the Indy 500 – and was predominantly oval racing as a series, whereas the CART series was a combination of everything.
I was actually on my way to Sauber to go and drive for them in 1996. I had got agreement from the heads of Sauber over the winter period, but at that time Dietrich Mateschitz was an investor, and part of his reasoning for his investment was that he wanted a Grand Prix winner in one of the seats. The guy who was available who had won a Grand Prix was Johnny (Herbert). I got a little bit disillusioned with Formula 1, so I went to North America to do Indy Car (or the CART series as it was known back then).
I actually went there with a Mercedes Benz engine deal, which was their thank you to me for assisting them at McLaren when I jumped in to replace Mansell.
RW: When you turned up in the States to test the car, how different was it to the F1 car you had vacated just a few months earlier?
MB: They are a different beast. People say to me ‘How will Alonso get on?’ – He’ll get on fine if he can erase the last twenty-five years of his data bank, built upon driving a single seater car in a completely different discipline.
It’s not about what he needs to learn, it’s about him having to unlearn all those second nation inputs he would do without thinking about it. When you get a car that goes sideways, you counteract it with lock; do that on an oval, and you’ll be spat out into the wall. They are simple things, but things that catch you out in the heat of the moment.
RW: Do you think Alonso will need to drive in a way that may go against many of his natural instincts?
MB: 100%. If you speak to any guy who has come across from F1 to IndyCar, they’ll all probably say the same.
Racing on an oval when the car is right is one of the best experiences of your life, but if it’s wrong, it can be one of the worst experiences of your entire career. He’s going to have to learn a completely new set of rules around slipstreaming, and that’s slipstreaming going into a corner at 220mph!
These are all things that come with experience. To try and do this in a couple of weeks is very, very tough.
RW: You raced in the US 500, which was then the CART series’ alternative to the Indy 500. What is it like to run in traffic at over 200mph, and how much of an eye opening will it be for him?
MB: It will be an eye opener because he’s never experienced it in the past, and that’s the point. For anyone like Alonso, myself or Nigel Mansell, we’ve never had those experiences.
When we were running around Fontana in 1997, we were doing 250mph on the straight and around 227mph in the corners – and you’re running three abreast at times!
When you get many cars running around an oval, there becomes a void, literally a vacuum of air. You might come off of turn four and pick up a tow from a guy going into turn one. That’s how extreme it gets.
When you get that kind of turbulence, there’s not a lot of air around there for your car to work efficiently. That’s why you see multi-pack crashes happen because basically there’s no air around for the aerodynamics to be efficient. When you’re doing 200 mph in a corner and the steering goes light, there’s no recovery from that – doesn’t matter who you are. You could be Batman; you’re not going to stop it, you’re off!
RW: How do you think the other drivers are going to look at Alonso. Will they respect him as a two-time world champion, or treat him as a rookie?
MB: Of course he has their respect. I think everyone would be respectful the other way around if the Indy 500 winner turned up at an F1 race. There would be mutual respect. But on an oval, you have to consider Alonso as a rookie.
When I went over there, I was still driving like an F1 driver. I’d overtake somebody and then pull back in quite abruptly. A few guys came down to see me and said: “You can’t do that on an oval because when you do, you take the air away off the front end of us and we’re going to end up in the wall”.
It comes down to experience; there are no second chances. When it happens, the margin of error is minute.
RW: Say Alonso were to win the race, which would be remarkable. Do you think he’ll walk away from F1?
MB: Fernando Alonso is a racer. I am sure he is embracing the experience he is having out there because it is different. It’s more open; there’s more access, more on-track racing.
I’ve always said IndyCar is like running Formula Ford at 200mph plus. It’s action packed, and oval racing is exactly that. It will take him back to his glory days, but let’s see whether he is successful first.
If you go back through the history books to see the drivers who have gone to North America to race on ovals, and you see the success rate, I’m pretty sure you won’t run out of paper because there are only a few names you’ll come up with.
RW: You’re one of only a few drivers in the last couple of decades to have competed in F1, Le Mans and Indy Car (or an equivalent series). Graham Hill is still the only driver to have won in all three. Is it now almost impossible to achieve the coveted ‘triple crown’ in modern motorsport?
MB: I think it’s very, very difficult. I think the evenest playing field is where he is right now – at Indianapolis. As soon as you step outside of that, be it F1 or sports car racing, the performance differentials start to increase. As for the triple crown, it would be wonderful to see, but, my oh my, that’s a difficult one.