Mark Blundell

Mark Blundell has had his ups (scoring three wins in 1997) and his downs (fracturing his neck during testing in 1999) since he switched to Champ Cars in 1996. But the Hertfordshire man is relishing the prospect of racing on an oval in front of a British crowd. Following the announcement that Rockingham in Northamptonshire will hold a CART race on September 22, 2001, Jake Sargent caught up with Blundell to see how he felt about his season so far, racing in Blighty again and, er, fish and chips

Mark Blundell

Being the only English driver, which Dario never lets me forget, it's huge, there is no other word for it. It's just huge. I'm looking forward to it even now - being able to return home and race in front of a home crowd, family and friends. There is a little bit more pressure on your shoulders because it's your home event, but it's something that everybody relishes. I'm also very proud that we can come over and showcase CART as a series, as it's going to have a tremendous impact and I think the following will double if not triple by the time we leave. We can show people that there's something else out there that's a bit different and is also fantastic racing.

That is the big thing. TV is fantastic, but it still doesn't show exactly what's going on at an oval track, in terms of the amount of overtaking and the sheer speed. You really have got to go to an actual race on an oval to experience it. We will be travelling in excess of 225mph and there isn't any other car in the world, in motorsport terms on a closed track, that will travel at those speeds. Formula 1 is considerably slower than us on the tracks they go to. Racing on an oval is just something that's a real spectacle to watch. To see 26 cars going around in close quarters at those kinds of speeds - it's very special.

If the predicted speeds are right, then it's going to be fiercely quick. To have to lift into turn one with a 220mph average speed is a quick oval. It's also an interesting layout. If somebody refers to an oval you automatically think of a circular shape with equal radii, but they all have their own individual characteristics and even though layouts may look the same, the circuits are different and each individual corner is different. There are many little nuances when racing on oval tracks.

It is going to be different. It's going to be great for people to be able to go up into the stands and get a view of the whole race track, which is reminiscent of the old days of sitting at Brands Hatch watching races on the small Indy Circuit. It was one of the very few tracks you could sit at and see the whole race track. At an oval track you can do that and with the cars going so fast, to see the whole circuit, you're going to get a good couple of hours of quality motorsport and there's not going to be much to beat that.

There are a few people out there who will say that it's a little bit less sophisticated than F1 and it's not quite the same. I don't know about you, but I can go to a five-star restaurant and I can go to a fish and chip shop and I can enjoy a bag of fish and chips just as much as a five-star meal. A fish and chip shop is less sophisticated, but we're talking about enjoyment and a fun day out. Quality racing is what has been missing from the high ranks of European motorsport and this is going to renew it.

On a Sunday afternoon we race, and as far as I can remember that's all I ever wanted to do - be a race car driver. I didn't really want to spend two hours going round in a procession and that very much exists in F1 at the moment - it's been like that for several years and it's something they will have to address. But when we go racing in CART, we go racing and if you look at our lead changes and how many race winners we've had so far this year - with eight different race winners after nine rounds - there isn't anything else out there like that at the moment. There is a situation where some people don't know about it, it's still relatively fresh to European minds, but this is going to give people the access they need. There's going to be tremendous growth.

It's a completely different discipline, and this is probably aimed directly at [Eddie] Irvine - until you've done it don't mock it. There's an air of arrogance if somebody can say something about it before they've even tried it. Many a Formula 1 guy has come across and given it a go and then walked away and said 'no thanks, not for me.' It is extremely difficult. We're talking about cornering speeds of up to 227mph on some tracks in the US, and then up to 242mph on the straights. The speeds are excessive, the racing is at close quarters - like Formula Ford but with 900bhp - and there is absolutely no margin for error. Whether that error is yours, a mechanical failure or somebody else on the race track, there are inevitably going to be problems when the car leaves the track at those kinds of speeds. But then that's oval racing. It can be some of the best racing in the world when you've got a great car working for you - when your car is dialled in it can be one of the biggest pleasures, but when it's not, it's one of your biggest nightmares.

It's an extremely fine line. A change of only millimetres in ride height and minute changes in wing angle can make huge differences when you're travelling that fast. And that's one of the biggest disciplines that I had to come to terms with and learn. No matter how good you think you are, you can't drive around any kind of problem on an oval. You have to bring it in, fix it, go back out again and re-set the baseline. A little bit of looseness doesn't stay little for very long and before you know it you're going backwards into the wall.

Frustrated as hell! We had an extremely good year in 1997 where we scored more points than anybody except Zanardi in the second half of the season, so everything looked good for 1998. But then it fell to bits in the biggest possible way for many different reasons. In 1999 I had the testing accident from a gearbox failure which put me out for 12 weeks of the season with a fractured neck. Then this year I thought things might come together again, but we're still struggling with our package combination. It's so important to get everything to work together. Mercedes have provided a new generation engine for this year, and in terms of chassis and tyres we have the winning combination, it's just a question of making everything gel. I've also suffered from having several different race engineers, which is an extremely influential relationship on a team's performance, the importance of which usually goes unseen.

That's entirely up to the team. They decide on the package they want to run. In terms of engines we have a fixed contract and in terms of chassis - Lola's winning races and Reynard's winning races. You can make the right move in July of one year and by February of the next you find you've made the wrong one.

I'm really looking forward to it, I think it's going to be fantastic. The guys behind it have had a dream and they've been looking at this for so many years and now it's finally come to fruition. It's also good to see that some money has come on board from within the country which means there's a lot of confidence in bringing CART to England.

For more details on the Rockingham CART race click here.

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