HOW TO HANDLE 1100BHP AT LE MANS
Back in 1990 Mark Blundell achieved a truly special feat. By Rob Ladbrook
Mark Blundell recalls this perhaps more vividly than he should. After all, it was 26 years ago now.
His pole position lap of La Sarthe in 1990 is perhaps one of the most famous single laps in racing history, up there with Ayrton Senna’s other-worldy 1988 Monaco drive and Stefan Bellof ’s Nurburgring Nordschleife-conquering efforts in the Porsche 956 in 1983.
But neither were quite as seat-of-thepants as Blundell’s remarkable handling of the Nissan R90CK. Group C encapsulated the most monstrous era in sportscar competition, with manufacturers pushing the limits of car performance and, particularly in this case, power.
What made the lap special wasn’t just the car, however, it was the frankly scary combination of circumstances that led up to it. The lap almost never happened, as Blundell explains.
“I think I’m more proud of that lap than any other I’ve ever driven in any type of car,” says the 50-year-old from Chipping Norton. “Although looking back at it [via the truly frightening Youtube onboard video] it is a scary thing to watch. The team actually radioed me to tell me to abort the lap as they’d seen on the data that the engine was over-boosting into the red. At that point I just pulled the radio out and went for it anyway.
“It was pure reaction, I was working so hard just to stay on the road because I had very little understanding of what was actually under me because we’d had issues in practice so we’d never really got that car to the limit before that single lap. It was all done on pure instinct and reaction.”
Blundell’s lack of knowledge of the R90CK’S limit is understandable when you consider the car that qualified for the race was a very different beast from the one that raced.
Nissan’s 1990 World Sportscar Championship campaign hadn’t been an easy one. The R90CK – an evolution of the R89C with a chassis constructed by Lola and exterior design work done by RML – wasn’t ready for the opening round at Suzuka, and when the cars did arrive myriad suspension, fuel and engine issues hampered them.
The signs weren’t promising for Le Mans, so qualifying was Nissan’s big chance to shine. Nissan Motorsports International brought a specially tuned version of its 3.5-litre twin turbo V8 just for qualifying. Usually capable of producing 1000bhp, the engine’s wastegates jammed shut on the warmup lap, leading to a colossal build-up in boost pressure and a total power output of 1100bhp.
“Before the weekend [team-mates] Julian [Bailey], Gianfranco [Brancatelli] and I had flipped a coin to decide who got the pole run and who got to start the race,” says Blundell. “I was delighted I got the pole run as I’m not sure any of us had huge expectations for the race with the season so far.
“Perhaps there was an extra emphasis to get pole as a Japanese make had never achieved one at Le Mans before, so there was pressure. But because of the problems that limited mileage we went into the session not really knowing what was achievable.
“When the radio call came in telling me to abort, there was just no way I was going to. It was a stupid decision really as it would have got me fired if something had gone wrong. But I had this hand-grenade of an engine and everything dialled up to 11. I had to.
“We fitted the hardest compound tyre we had because we didn’t think the soft qualifying ones would last a lap, so it was all experimentation. We’d not done a lap with this over-boosted engine, or on those tyres in those conditions, or even had 100 per cent throttle. All racing drivers will tell you the key to a good lap is to build up to it and explore the limits. I didn’t have any of that.
“I just remember nailing it over the line to start the lap and the thing still wheel-spinning around Dunlop while at the top of fourth gear. It tried to swap ends on me through the first chicane and I had almost 90-degrees of opposite lock on to catch it!
“I had no reference points, no idea on braking, grip levels, or what each corner would bring. I was literally fighting the thing every inch of the way. At the time I said I felt on the verge of a massive accident every corner, and when you look back on it I truly was!”
Le Mans organiser, the Automobile Club de l’ouest, installed chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight for the first time for the 1990 race amid concerns over the speeds cars were achieving. Blundell still hit a top speed of 226.9mph, just 24.2mph less than the pre-chicane record. Blundell’s mark still stands as the top speed achieved post-chicanes.
“Anything could have happened on that lap,” adds Blundell. “I could have had a huge off, the engine could have exploded, anything. The car was such a handful. Modern cars have so much downforce that the feedback through the wheel is minimal. I had no power steering and 1100bhp trying to throw me off at every turn.
“At the time I didn’t feel fear, either that or I was just trying not to think about what could have gone wrong. That lap was just so exhilarating and rewarding. Nissan gave me one of the pistons from that engine afterwards too, as I don’t think it did another mile.”
That’s probably a good thing, but the 3m 27s lap it did is cemented in history. ■