Brundle Returns to Scene of Daytona Triumph
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Daytona Beach, Fla. – It was Ponce de Leon who came to Florida in search of the fountain of youth. He might have checked with Martin Brundle first. The 51-year-old driver has returned to Daytona Beach to compete in the Rolex 24 for the first time in 20 years and found rejuvenation in the cockpit of a Daytona Prototype.
“I get in the car and feel 30 years old,” said Brundle, who won the Rolex race in his first appearance in 1988 aboard a Jaguar XJR-9 fielded by Tom Walkinshaw Racing. Since then, Brundle has gained enough experience to know his perspective will be different if the Riley-Ford of his United Autosports team makes it to the finish line. “By Sunday night, I’ll feel 130 years old.”
As an elder statesman making his return behind the wheel in endurance racing, Brundle is adding yet another chapter to an already diverse career. The race weekend started off well when the Englishman qualified ninth on Thursday in a car sponsorsed by Johnny Walker and Legends of Motorsports.
A veteran of 12 seasons in F1, Brundle currently works for the BBC as a broadcaster of F1 races. Alongside David Coulthard, the duo call the races for an audience of more than 50 million. But he doesn’t consider himself a journalist. “When I’m up in the commentary box, I’m a racing driver doing TV,” he said, adding that he tries not to think about the size of the viewing audience. “If I did, I’d go dry in the mouth.”
When Brundle first raced on the infield and road circuit at Daytona, he had commentators agog at his driving tactics. After being slowed by an electrical glitch that burned up the fuel pump, Brundle led the charge back to the lead lap and eventually to victory. Observers were astounded to see him passing backmarkers by diving off the banking and onto the apron at 200 mph in his XJR-9.
“I was just going for it,” said Brundle. “I think there were about 77 cars in the race. On the banking there were a couple of GT cars. I said I haven’t got time to wait for you guys. I went down on the apron and passed a couple of them on the apron.” This year’s much discussed new paving on the oval portion of the Daytona track naturally caught the eye of Brundle, who believes the transition may now be more abrupt.
But perhaps it’s just the passage of time – or the configuration of the Daytona Prototypes – that gives him pause. “Now I look at it with a little more common sense,” he said. “I don’t know if the angle between the banking and the apron is any different, but I won’t be doing any passes like that this year!”
The trip to Daytona is a chance for Brundle to reminisce about Tom Walkinshaw, the fabled team boss who died of cancer in December at the age of 64. Although he had raced in Walkinshaw’s saloon car Jaguars in 1982, it was the call from Walkinshaw to drive the new generation of XJR prototypes that rejuvenated Brundle’s career. His reputation was in eclipse in F1 after his Zakspeed team’s desultory season in 1987, but Walkinshaw nevertheless recruited Brundle for a full season in sports cars.
“Tom talked me into doing it,” said Brundle. “It suited him because he wanted me driving his Jags.”
After winning at Daytona and winning the World Sportscar Championship driver’s title, Brundle’s stock in F1 shot skyward again. He substituted for Nigel Mansell at Williams in 1988 for one race and then went on to drive for Brabham, Ligier, McLaren, and Jordan. “Formula 1 is very fickle,” he said. “You’re an idiot one minute and brilliant the next.”
Burly Scotsman Walkinshaw earned a reputation as a hard-driving businessman and team owner, which brought him a great deal of success – financial as well as on the track – and more than a few enemies.
“He wasn’t everybody’s favorite,” said Brundle. “He bruised quite a lot of people. I never had a problem with him in 18 years. He scared a lot of people. Like a few other very strong people, Tom had a very compassionate side, extremely compassionate.”
Brundle remembers Walkinshaw as a brilliant tactician, particularly in 1990 at the Le Mans 24-hour. Brundle started one TWR entry, then switched to another XJR-12 at dawn on Sunday. The rules called for only three drivers per car, but did not prohibit one driver from competing in two. After helping to push the pace with one car that eventually broke, Brundle jumped on board the “American” entry fielded by TWR’s IMSA team and co-drove to victory with Price Cobb and John Nielsen. “That was the only way we could beat Porsche,” said Brundle.
“He was a good team boss,” he continued. “He got the best out of you. He trusted you implicitly. When I got into that car at Le Mans, it had some issues. It was missing a gear and the front brakes had glazed over. I did my first stint. He stood in front of me as I came in for my first pit stop. He looked at me and I just put my thumb up. His whole body just relaxed. He trusted me that the car was going to get through.”
Brundle later had some “what might have been” episodes at Le Mans aboard the Toyota GT One and
Bentley Speed 8. He broke the qualifying record in the Toyota in 1999 to win the pole, but a blown tire put his car into the barriers on the Mulsanne Straight at over 300 kilometers per hour. He drove for Bentley in 2001, but left the team to pursue his broadcasting career two years before the Speed 8 claimed victory at Le Mans.
The F1 career was frustrating when it came to victory. Despite several close calls, he never won an F1 race. While sharing a Benetton with Michael Schumacher in 1992 after being drafted into the team from sports car racing by Walkinshaw and his technical guru Ross Brawn, Brundle was regarded as one of the few drivers who ever out-performed the German, who went on to seven world championships – two with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 and five more with Ferrari.
“I could outrace him,” said Brundle, who was replaced the following year by Ricardo Patrese following some intramural politics on the Benetton team. “Michael was a young buck then. He was quicker than me in qualifying, but I could outrace him. He learned some things after that.”
Brundle looks back at F1 and believes he suffered from making the wrong career choices and not getting enough good opportunities. “I didn’t navigate myself into the right car at the right time.” He was regarded as the equal of Ayrton Senna in Formula 3 when both drove Ralt chassis as well as teammates Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen in F1. “I went head-to-head with them in the same equipment and I beat all three of them on my day. Therein lies the clue. I didn’t have enough days.”
The second F1 career in broadcasting has its frustrations as well. “I’ve got a great following and a
great reputation,” he said. “It kind of hurts a little bit. My driving career was a fact-finding career for broadcasting. I’m not complaining. I’ve had two careers.”
Counting sports car racing, Brundle has had three racing careers – and two are still going strong. Co-driving with close friend Mark Blundell (also an ex-F1 driver and a former CART competitor), plus team owner Zak Brown and Rolex Series veteran Mark Patterson, Brundle believes a top five finish is a legitimate goal for his team, which is running under the Michael Shank Racing banner.
“My target was a top 10 in qualifying and a top five in the race,” he said. But unlike 1988 when he was willing to dive off the banking onto the apron, Brundle knows his entry does not have the speed to come from behind versus the veteran Rolex Series entries — unless the fastest cars break down. “We’re not going to win from the front,” said the voice of experience. “We’re going to need some help.”
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.comOne Comment