McLaren & Me: Martin Brundle

Martin Brundle

Martin Brundle first tested for McLaren at Silverstone alongside fellow F3 star Ayrton Senna in 1983. A full 11 years would pass before he replaced Senna and experienced his single season as a race driver for the team in 1994

McLaren is often seen as a grey, serious team, but nothing could be further from the truth. Without doubt it was one of the warmest teams I've ever driven for, and I've still got a great rapport with the people there. I look back on it as a wonderful privilege to have been a McLaren driver.

My first contact with the team was a test at Silverstone at the end of my F3 season in 1983, with Ayrton Senna, Stefan Bellof and myself. It blew my mind really, because I came at it like an enthusiastic kid. I remember Ron Dennis's comment afterwards, “I like his enthusiasm.” Which wasn't quite the impression I wanted to make!

John Watson set a target time. Every time the car came in it just impressed me that there was a person to clean the flies off it, and change the sticker from Senna to Brundle to Bellof or whatever. I'll never forget that Joann Villadelprat strapped me in the car, and he was really helpful, saying “Just relax, just drive the car.” I got in after Stefan, and he'd destroyed all the dog rings. It was virtually impossible to drive, so I had to come straight back in again and they had to change them.

The car was immense, but I wasn't up to it physically, although that didn't slow me down. It had a little bit of understeer, and just incredible traction and braking performance.

We all did pretty much the same lap time, and then Ayrton came into view out of Woodcote with smoke coming out of the back. He'd blown the engine, but he obviously kept his foot in just to get past Ron's stopwatch.

He stopped the car past the pits, jumped out, climbed onto the pitwall and said, “What was my lap time? That was my best lap.” And Ron just slammed his folder closed and said, “I find it difficult to press a stopwatch when my car is smoking,” spun around and walked off!

However, they popped another engine in. Stefan and I were miffed that Senna got a second go! He'd obviously made an impression, but he got another run because he negotiated it, not because he had outshone us.

It was a magic day out, and why it was so good for me was that Ken Tyrrell had decided to give the top British driver in F3 a test, which was always going to be me, because Ayrton and I were so far ahead of the pack. So when I went back to Silverstone to test the Tyrrell I just slotted straight into it, and went quicker than Ken's car had ever gone before. And it was all because I went with the knowledge and confidence from that McLaren test, and that led to me getting the Tyrrell drive in 1984.

I got very upset with Ron once when he vetoed me driving in the Austrian GP in 1985, when I would have been the 27th car on the grid. I was the only non turbo and so I didn't qualify, but I would have been much closer in the race if McLaren had allowed me in. It was my idea to get the mirrors taken off the Tyrrell truck and put on my F1 car. We wheeled it down the pitlane and left it outside the McLaren garage. In other words, “I will see your drivers coming, don't worry!”

In later years most winters I'd talk to Ron as I worked out was going on on the driver market. He seemed to be interested in signing me when it looked like I was a free agent, until I realised that he was saying that to 10 or 12 other drivers! “Who are you talking to, what do they want?” He was very cleverly fishing for information. He wouldn't have entertained you if there hadn't been a chance of being in his car, but it was an outside chance.

My career went off the rails after I lost the Benetton drive at the end of 1992. I had the Ligier seat in '93, but the whole thing went a bit wobbly. At the end of that season I took the very bold decision that I would risk everything – I was going to have the McLaren drive for 1994 after Senna went to Williams. So it was forget sportscars, forget any other F1 offers.

However, Ron wanted Alain Prost to come back. We did a test at Estoril, and Prost drove in the morning. I could quite quickly see that he wasn't overwhelmed by the new Peugeot engine. It was my turn in the afternoon, and on my out lap I literally came past the pits for the first time ever and the engine blew – the conrod went through the floor and took a bite out of the track. I hadn't actually started my first flying lap! It was a bit of an omen for what was to follow...

When I was pushing really hard to get that drive I went to a birthday party in London, and afterwards we went to a nightclub with Ron and some other people. At 4am, having had quite a lot to drink, I ended up eating fish and chips with Ron to soak up the alcohol.

I went home, woke up the next day, and thought, “What on earth is Ron going to think? A professional driver drinking alcohol and eating fish and chips... I'm never going to get that drive now!” But I think it broke the ice with Ron to an extent, and I'm pretty sure that it was actually a positive and not a negative in the end.

It went down to the line, and I finally signed on the Tuesday before the first race. Talk about preparation for a season – I literally signed a deal, got on a plane, and went to Brazil.

I ended up doing the deal with Ron by fax. So this virtual manager that I didn't have became the fax machine. It was almost, “My client won't accept that!”. Anyway we agreed a deal, and I was told not to say anything to anybody. I went to the factory, met Jo Ramirez, and we went to the airport. And then a photographer came up to me at Heathrow and said, “I've got to do some pictures.” I'd been warned not to say anything to anybody. It turned out he was working for McLaren, but I was super suspicious!

The car had a throttle mechanism that was geared, and at Interlagos the gears kept jamming. So I spent the weekend flying off the road with the throttle stuck open. I was having quite a good race, and I got past people like Jos Verstappen and Eddie Irvine. And then it did its party trick of throwing its flywheel off, which it did on a number of occasions. Ron was on the radio saying. “Try to get it back to the pits.”

And then I found myself in a gravel trap, and I couldn't work out what was going on or how I'd got there. I'd had a big accident basically, and been hit on the head by Verstappen's car. There was a big mark on my helmet, but luckily for me the rollover hoop took a lot of the energy. It was the closest I ever came to dying in a racing car.

I collected myself and started to walk back to the pits. I collapsed, and I crawled back. The marshals were all looking at the track, and I couldn't attract their attention – I wanted some water. I eventually got back to the pits, did the debrief, and got on the plane home. This was before we had as much knowledge of concussion as we have now. A full week later my family said to me, “We're taking you to the hospital, you're not right.” And I wasn't, I was heavily concussed, although I was still able to do the next race.

Mika Hakkinen was my team mate, which was a privilege. I learned a lot from him, and he was bloody fast, of course. He was the fastest team mate I ever had, faster than Michael Schumacher on a given lap. Michael was more complete in and out of the car, but Mika was without doubt the fastest driver I ever compared data with.

The MP4/9 wasn't a bad car. I think Mika and I got seven podiums between us – I got two, in Monaco and Adelaide. Monaco was obviously a high point, and I was on the front row of the grid after first qualifying on Thursday. I started sixth, then made a mega move around the outside of Gerhard Berger for second, and I finished with no oil and no water in the thing. We were pretty pleased to get the car home second that day.

I lost several other podiums. In Barcelona it blew up, and at Silverstone it blew up on the grid. I got particularly upset because Peugeot tried to blame me for that one, when it had just self-destructed. It was smoking going to the grid, and they said it held the wrong revs on the line, when there was no talk of any revs to be held.

It had basically consumed its own oil. Inevitably when they got it back to the pits they fired it up and said there was nothing wrong, you should have carried on – but they failed to mention that the rear wing and rear suspension had melted in the flames!

What really bugged me about that season was that I was on a race-by-race contract, and Ron couldn't see it meant that you were out just racing for yourself. I assume that if someone he perceived as better came along, he wanted to be able to put them in the car. But I found it really difficult. You had all of those uncertainties, and, in the middle of it, you had to try to do a job.

And I had to put up with the Philippe Alliot situation. He was the test driver, and Peugeot boss Jean-Pierre Jabouille was always going, “Put Alliot in the car.” We had a famous test at Paul Ricard where all of a sudden he went quicker than me. Then somebody in the team noticed there was no steering trace through the chicane that had been put in at Signes – Alliot didn't take the chicane on that lap!

When Mika was banned for a race after a shunt atHockenheim; Alliot became my team mate in Hungary, and I absolutely blitzed him. I loved Hungary because I was lead McLaren driver that weekend. I felt so much stronger, and I really enjoyed it. I was on for a really solid result there, and was running third when the alternator failed on the last lap. I really grew that weekend, and felt everything was focused on me. It was frustrating that I couldn't build on that. 

I threw it off the road atSpa, which was my fault, pushing too hard. To finish the year on the podium in Australia was great. It was a really old podium – Mansell, Berger, Brundle – a really high average age podium! I wasn't in the car for the following year, because they wanted Mansell. But they did me a favour there, because it was a horror story in 1995. Of course, I worked with Peugeot again at Jordan in 1996, and everything was much improved by then.

I look back with great fondness on my time at McLaren. I had Giorgio Ascanelli as my engineer, and some really good guys around me. And the quality of the team shone through. If the car had been more reliable, we would actually have had a pretty decent season. There were difficult times, and I was angry at some points through that year, but I look back on it as a positive life experience.