HOW TO HAN­DLE 1100BHP AT LE MANS

Back in 1990 Mark Blun­dell achieved a truly spe­cial feat. By Rob Lad­brook

Motor Sport News - - Monsters: Blundell’s Lap -

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. ■

Turbo is­sue gave 1100bhp Jags took the glory

Bran­catelli, Blun­dell (cen­tre) and Bai­ley flipped for the pole chance Blun­dell’s lap nearly never hap­pened af­ter he was told to abort run

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