Interview: Martin Brundle on cars and life

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We talk to the F1 racing and commentator legend Martin Brundle about Mini Coopers, Ferraris, grass roots racing, a Le Mans victory and other pressing automotive matters.

‘My dad was a rally driver and we had garages in King’s Lynn, so my love of fast cars goes back to when I was a toddler.

In the ’60s I used to sit on the knees of our mechanic called Stan Rolf, and I’d do the steering while he did the pedals when we road tested customers’ cars. A very different era… We’d do a lap around the Terrington marshland in a Mini Cooper or suchlike; I can even remember the steering wheel squirming under acceleration. Pretty exciting at five years old.

Stan’s dead now, sadly, but he was a top bloke. There was also a black Austin A35 which wasn’t really saleable, and that became mine and my brother Robin’s car. We would convince a mechanic called Peter to take us to a nearby field and charge round an oval until we ran out of petrol. I was seven by then.

I could reach the pedals but had to look through the steering wheel. Robin had to kneel on the seat while Peter did the pedals. Can you imagine that health and safety risk assessment form now…

It was a bit crazy back then. At 14 I remember being down the pub with my uncle and others one night and I was the only one sober, so I had to drive his Hillman Hunter home. It was easy for me because I was competing from the age of 12 in grass-track racing, or banger racing in reality.

They were simple days – throw a set of trade plates on anything at the garage in which the fuel gauge moved slightly above empty, and off you went on an adventure.

I sold my first car, a grey Vauxhall Viva, when I was eight to a guy in West Lynn. Funnily enough a few years before, I’d run into his leg with my bike, but he’d obviously forgotten. I still love selling cars.

The first car I ever owned personally was a red Toyota Corolla Coupe SR. When I first saw the car it was looking sad – it’d had a fairly big front-end shunt. I said to my dad: ‘If I can fix that, can I have it?’ And he said ‘yes’, so I did. I was approaching the magical 17 years old.

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I put a set of Wolfrace wheels on it, of which I was very proud until the salt came. And then you had to get the buffing pads out and grind all the corrosion off. I also went to the Tuesday marketplace in King’s Lynn and bought some fake black fur to cover the entire interior. Well why not?

I used to do an indicated 170kph in it everywhere on the open road. I nearly killed myself against farmer Stratton’s pig once. It was a massive pig which escaped one night onto the A134 and I was doing the standard 170kph. I eased up to the grass verge and got away with clipping the pig’s nose as I managed to just squeeze through. Afterwards I realised that keeping the throttle pinned had saved me, a lesson which would come in useful again.

I passed my test a couple of days after my 17th birthday and now I was old enough to do proper circuit racing. One morning I saw an advert in Autosport magazine, and shortly after we’d bought two Celica 1600 GTs from the works Samurai Toyota team. I raced one and my dad rallied the other. We bought their rapid Ford race transporter too, which we hire purchased as a breakdown truck. And we HP’d the two race Celicas as dealership demonstrators.

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I hadn’t got any cash but off I went racing in what is now called the BTCC, even winning my class at Silverstone. We’d spent three grand all up in running costs. I grabbed a chance to move into single seaters in 1979, which via more touring cars and Formula 3 meant that by early 1984 I was sharing my time between selling Toyotas and being a Formula 1 driver for Tyrrell. The racing took over and went pretty well after that.

I’ve been lucky enough to own quite a few good, and some great, road cars. I love my current Aston Martin DBS. It’s a mean yet beautiful-looking thing, and I’m savouring a V12 while I still can.

I had the most stunning Eagle E-type 4.2 Coupe created, nicknamed Elvis, which on collection I drove to Monza via Spa. The only problem I had was a failed indicator bulb. I sold the Eagle to a friend of mine a few years later for some crazy reason, and he’s still got it and loves it.

The first exotic car I owned was a Ferrari 328 GTS, full Magnum spec. I’d been an F1 driver for a couple of years and we were leaning over the side of the Ferrari stand at a motor show when I said to my dad and my brother, ‘I’m going to buy one of those.’ And they were like, ‘No you won’t.’ So I did. I picked it up from Maranello at Egham and I thought it was really cool, if a bit showy.

My next Ferrari was a red 355 GTB manual, and that was a truly great car. I remember driving home late one night – when I was working with Tom Walkinshaw over at Kidlington – and I’d had such an epic journey to Norfolk that I sat in the drive for a good few minutes with it ticking over, contemplating whether to turn around and go back and do it all again.

I had a 550 Maranello and really enjoyed that. It got written off at a roundabout on my way to Silverstone when a young person, on what turned out to be their first day working for the local Land Rover dealership, mistook the clutch pedal for the brake and creamed into my 550, bending the chassis.

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After that I had a black Ferrari 599 which was great and I eventually sold it to another mate. The police turned up in my drive a couple of days later because I’d been reported speeding near Silverstone, and I somehow explained to them I’d sold the car earlier in the week without grassing up my mate.

I bought a wonderful early Honda NSX from Derek Warwick. I used to drive it so fast, and there was no gap too small, so I had to sell it for everyone’s safety.

I’ve had quite a few 911s over the years too, including a Turbo, and a GT3 manual a couple of years ago. I like 911s, I just don’t love them.

I do really like my Porsche Cayenne 4.2 V8 diesel with 900Nm of torque though. It’s a fast family car, a van, an airport car, a trip to Le Mans or skiing car. And it has a 100-litre tank, which is good because I hate stopping for fuel.

I’m also into bikes. I’ve got a BMW K1600 GT, straight-six across the frame. I ride to a handful of European F1 races each season.

Proudest moments in racing? Standing on the podium with Nigel Mansell at the 1992 British Grand Prix  when the crowd invaded the track. And winning the Le Mans 24 Hours with Jaguar and TWR. What an epic track and event, seeing the massive partisan crowd so happy. And occasionally beating my teammate Michael Schumacher.

I also had epic fights with Ayrton in ’92 at Silverstone and many F3 races in ’83. I’ll always treasure those. I didn’t have their skill or speed but I did have enough sheer bloody determination on my day.

Martin Brundle life in cars

I also simply loved the Nordschleife in an Aston Martin Vantage GT4. I’d been round once before on a bike, which was maybe a tad unwise, but 2019 was the first time I’d actually raced there. I shared the car with my lad Alex, which was fun, even if he aced me on lap time. That’s the difference between a current 30-year-old pro and a 61-year-old, sadly. I’d like to do Bathurst some day soon too.

The best race car I ever drove was the purple Ross Brawn Jaguar XJR-14 from 1991. It had a purity of line and purpose. A big flying venturi basically. You could put huge rooster tails out the back of that car in the rain, on slicks.

My all-time hero from the world of motorsport is Sir Jackie Stewart. He’s a class act; been there, done it, won it, survived it, and is still one of the biggest earners in the F1 paddock with his ambassadorial roles. If my family was in trouble, he’s the first person I would call.

The best driver I raced against? I always say the absolute out-and-out fastest was Mika Häkkinen. The greatest all-rounder was Michael Schumacher, and the man with the most God-given talent was unquestionably Ayrton Senna. He had a sixth sense for where the grip was.

And of the current bunch Lewis is still consistently the best, although if I was running an F1 team the driver I’d most want to sign is Max Verstappen.

I’m not at all sure what the future holds for the motor car. Obviously there’ll be more electric vehicles, but I wish that some of the immense development costs of EV had gone into biofuels and internal combustion engines as I would love to see where they would be by now.

For me, every great car or bike is first and foremost about its engine, and so that leaves me slightly in trouble with EVs, I guess. My iPhone battery annoys me enough and so I’m not interested in range and charging-point anxiety for my car.

When there’s a credible pan-European charging network and 500-mile real-world range then I’ll look at an EV, but dragging batteries around that weigh more than my first F1 car is not appealing so far.

I’m struggling to believe we are totally on the right path, but what would I know as a dinosaur who thinks that qualifying at Monaco with a 969kW turbo F1 car was very life-affirming.’

Steve Sutcliffe

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