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Friday favourite: The future TV pundits who ganged up on their F1 team boss

A Zakspeed wasn’t exactly the Formula 1 car to have in 1987, but Christian Danner and Martin Brundle got on with the job at hand – both on and off the track. Danner explains what made the Sky Sports F1 stalwart his favourite team-mate

Christian Danner, Martin Brundle, 
Austrian GP

It speaks volumes for the premium Christian Danner puts on honesty that the drivers he immediately considers for his favourite team-mate both were willing to go beyond the racing norm of looking after number one.

Just as Alfa Romeo colleague Giancarlo Fisichella didn’t shy away from revealing to Danner the differences between the engines in their 155 V6 GTIs, which explained his deficit at the 1996 Silverstone International Touring Car Championship round, so Danner settles on Martin Brundle after pairing up at Zakspeed during the 1987 Formula 1 season.

“He was quick, he was straight, he was uncomplicated, and he was honest which is a very uncommon attitude as far as team-mates are concerned,” relates the inaugural Formula 3000 champion of 1985.

Brundle had joined the ambitious German outfit after three years at Tyrrell, having emerged as a regular points scorer with Renault turbo power in 1986. Befitting his experience, the Briton had negotiated number one status.

Danner, known to Zakspeed after making two appearances during a busy 1985 in which he raced sportscars and touring cars in addition to his main F3000 programme, signed a contract guaranteeing equal status. But at a small team that Danner’s engineer Chris Murphy estimates was operating on half of the leading teams’ budgets, this was always going to be difficult to realise.

“That of course in reality doesn’t work out in a small team because there is always a lack of parts, development parts in particular,” affirms Danner, who had scored the only point for an Arrows driver in 1986 up against the highly-rated Thierry Boutsen. This led to a frank conversation with Brundle over a beer about which of the pair would end up with a new rear suspension.

“I said, ‘well, if you have it, I have it because I’m on even status’, then Martin said, ‘I’m number one, I get everything’ and we were kind of laughing about it,” the 65-year-old remembers. “Usually people can take whatever they can get and screw the team-mate, but he wasn’t like that at all. We then decided to give Erich Zakowski a hard time, insisting on our rights which was he wanted the rear suspension because he’s number one and I wanted the rear suspension because I’m at equal terms!

Brundle and Danner made for the ideal pairing at minnows Zakspeed

Brundle and Danner made for the ideal pairing at minnows Zakspeed

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“We both knew there is only one such thing around. However, we agreed who is going to have which part before we gave Erich a hard time, so there was never a problem between him and I. We basically united against the team principal, which was very funny.”

That Brundle was the number one was rammed home at Estoril, where both cars were irretrievably damaged in an opening-lap pileup triggered by Nelson Piquet and Michele Alboreto. The spare was given to Brundle, while Danner was rendered a spectator. It made little difference though, as gearbox failure soon put Brundle out.

It was a fitting microcosm for their year, as the duo spent much of their season behind the barriers due to repeated reliability problems with the 871 chassis, powered by a four-cylinder engine designed in-house by future Toyota F1 man Norbert Kreyer. Murphy recalls that the 1.5-litre turbo had more power than Zakspeed’s 1,000 horsepower dyno could measure, so “we didn’t know exactly what we had”. What they did often have was smoke trailing from behind the red and white machines.

“I had so many P7s or P8 or P9 in that year, or things like that. Whenever you finish and you finish in the top 10, nowadays you’re an absolute hero. In these days you were a plonker!” Christian Danner

Zakspeed made more of its car than any other constructor barring Ferrari, including its own gearbox and radiators, but lacked the funds to properly finetune its bulky package that had been partially constructed by woodworkers from the factory next door - following a Murphy-led crash course in carbon fibre. It was 10th of 15 full-time entrants on the basis of supertimes, 6.688% slower than the pace-setting Williams-Honda FW11B, and never higher on the grid than the 13th achieved by Brundle in Mexico.

The relentless reliability woes were discouraging, but both drivers plugged away even for limited reward. Only once all season would both cars see the finish, at Imola, where Brundle scored what would turn out to be the only points of Zakspeed’s F1 tenure with fifth. Still running a 1986 chassis, Danner was just outside the points in seventh. It was one of six occasions that year he finished inside the top 10, but none counted for points.

“I had so many P7s or P8 or P9 in that year, or things like that,” laments Danner. “Whenever you finish and you finish in the top 10, nowadays you’re an absolute hero. In these days you were a plonker!”

Brundle had the speed over Danner throughout their time as team-mates

Brundle had the speed over Danner throughout their time as team-mates

Photo by: LAT Photographic

Brundle had the better of Danner in qualifying 13-3, although on six occasions Brundle was only one place higher. It’s to the lofty German’s credit that he makes no mention of his height being a contributing factor. Much like Alex Wurz in the 1990s and Justin Wilson in the 2000s, Danner was at the taller end of the spectrum at north of six foot and for reasons of physics ceded lap time to Brundle’s 5’7 frame.

“Martin was quick, there was no doubt about it,” says Danner, harshly banned from the Monaco weekend after a practice clash with Alboreto in which most observers attributed at least equal blame. “You had to give what you had to come to the same level and that always helps because any team-mate who is slow is no help. You need someone to push you. I always got on with the fastest people the best.”

Both Brundle and Danner made the wise decision to depart Zakspeed at season’s end. New arrivals Bernd Schneider and Piercarlo Ghinzani failed to qualify more races than they started in 1988. But Danner wasn’t on the F1 grid that year after two drives fell through.

First Gerard Larrousse u-turned on hiring him, instead picking Yannick Dalmas to drive his Lola, while a contract with Ligier was torn up when Michel Tetu stated that Danner wouldn't fit his JS31 design. Stefan Johansson got the drive instead, but it was no great loss to Danner.

“It had a substantial problem called lack of structural integrity which was the reason the car was a heap of shit,” he chuckles. “Stefan is still angry with me that I’m so tall, he didn’t like it at all! However, in that Lola I would have been hot because that was a very good car, a very simple car. That car would have suited me extremely well.”

He spent a year in the DTM before returning to F1 with Rial in 1989, remarkably finishing fourth at Phoenix on a rare occasion he made the grid in an ARC2 chassis that was delaminating. Famously irascible team boss Gunther Schmidt refused to heed Danner’s feedback and a series of seven consecutive DNQs proved the end of his F1 driving career – although Schmidt apologised years later and even offered to sponsor Danner’s Project Indy Reynard at Miami in 1995 by way of recompense!

The pair's paths crossed again as TV pundits in F1

The pair's paths crossed again as TV pundits in F1

Photo by: James Moy

While Brundle went on to score nine F1 podiums driving for Benetton, Ligier and McLaren, Danner has no regrets that his career didn’t follow the same path.

“All my retrospect is positive,” he says. “Yes, there was quite a lot of occasions where it should have been more successful, but I’m not bitter. I’m alive in the first place and I’m healthy. It was a wonderful time and I’m in one piece, so no reason to complain.”

“When I did all the races, I did exactly the same job as he did. We did run into each other, it was easy to communicate and very funny to just have a laugh. Formula 1 is an environment which gives you plenty of opportunity to pull someone’s leg” Christian Danner

But 1987 wasn’t to be the only time Danner and Brundle came into close contact. In their respective roles as expert pundits for television networks – Danner for RTL, Brundle for ITV, BBC and Sky – they were regularly rubbing shoulders for several years afterwards.

“When I did all the races, I did exactly the same job as he did,” he says. “We did run into each other, it was easy to communicate and very funny to just have a laugh. Formula 1 is an environment which gives you plenty of opportunity to pull someone’s leg. It’s a pleasure to have a chat with the insiders and Martin is clearly one of them.”

Brundle and Danner have remained good friends long after their time as team-mates

Brundle and Danner have remained good friends long after their time as team-mates

Photo by: James Moy

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