RJ: Whilst interviewing Roberto Moreno recently, we spent a while talking about EuroBrun, and whilst researching, I saw that you were heavily linked to getting your GP debut in 1990 with them. How close did that actually come about to happening or was it largely paper talk?
MB: Paper talk. It came about only because of where I was career wise; people were saying that at that stage of my career, I needed to be in Formula 1. To be honest, it didn’t really have any level of attraction. I ended up going to Williams as test driver, because I felt that was a better move for my career. Saying that, I swiftly afterwards took the decision to go to Brabham ? who also didn’t have any money! Although I’m not saying any move ends up being the right one, it’s done with the best of intentions, because often there isn’t anything else better.
RJ: In hindsight, the team’s chronic lack of money probably meant your career might’ve suffered if you’d got your Grand Prix break. How difficult a decision is it for a driver on the verge of F1 to weigh up whether it’s worth the exposure of driving for a struggling team against the potential loss of reputation, or keep the reputation but run the risk of being overlooked?
MB: It’s a slightly different answer I might give nowadays, because back then you had twenty-six slots on the grid, as opposed to about twenty now, but it still remains a massive question mark for yourself because it’s very difficult to walk away from something without wondering if you’ve then done the right thing, especially when you’ve worked really hard to get there. At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual and their circumstances ? a lot of people don’t have the money to make the next step. I just scraped through, but you swiftly realise that not being in a funded team is a hindrance to your career. I knew the team needed funding to carry on, so I went back to being a test driver, this time for McLaren. I felt being a test driver was better for me at that time because I felt I could gain more from the experience there, which would then help in the future, and which then led to me being at Ligier in 1993. But yes, it’s always a tough decision.
RJ: You initially started racing on motorbikes and motocross as a teenager. Did you ever consider taking motorcycle racing further, and if not, why not?
MB: Oh yes, very much so. It was a passion of mine ? in fact it still is - and I did have the chance to go professional in motocross because of my results, but I came from a background? my father sold cars, he was a car dealer and the whole family was geared towards cars, I knew no different really. It just became a natural progression to go towards cars and to go on four wheels as soon as possible. I certainly learnt to be ultra competitive and whilst I didn’t have the normal karting route ? and to be fair, neither have some others ? it’s all worked out okay in the end!
RJ: You had a meteoric rise, going from FF2000 to Formula 3000, and then achieved a brilliant second at Spa. How easy did you find it to adjust to the varying levels of performance and competiveness?
MB: I think that any driver who has got ability can get themselves in the cockpit, steer the car, press the pedals and do what they’ve got to do. I don’t see that there’s any difficulty in going up different levels, it’s just trying to understand those levels and then get the best out of them. What IS more difficult to adjust to is outside of the car. Sponsorship, management, engineering and they’re the things that tend to have an affect. As for driving, as long as you’ve got ability and importantly, as long as you have a timeframe to progress that suits you, you can get into the car and do great things. We’re seeing that now with young (Max) Verstappen. Who would’ve thought it would be possible for a teenager to step up and make the impact he has done? But time will tell if it’s sustainable with all the outside pressures and influences.
RJ: Your first season in Formula 1, with Brabham, was a bit of a mixed bag and towards the end of the season, a lack of money again seemed to tell. Although it led to your Grand Prix debut, do you feel, in retrospect you might’ve been better off waiting?
MB: I don’t regret joining them, I wouldn’t change anything, there’s no point thinking about things that way. But I do regret not thinking about things in a more analytical way, not doing more research to then finalise the decision I then made and to influence how I did with them.
RJ: You adapted extremely well to sports cars, and obviously you won the 1992 Le Mans with Yannick and Derek. What, for you, makes the Le Mans 24 Hours so special and is there any event that, for you, surpasses it?
MB: No, not for me, it’s unique. What’s special? Le Mans itself, as a circuit, a sensational circuit, a real challenge. What makes it special for a driver? Well, I think anybody wants a win ? or even racing there ? on their CV but at the same time it’s about the camaraderie. It’s getting away from the selfishness that is Formula 1, having fun driving and then delivering an end product with two other guys within your team and that’s a special feeling, a real feeling of bonding. A lot of effort goes into it as well, it’s often a case that the whole programme has been underway for a whole year just for that one race.
RJ: I remember well your third place at the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix, as it was quite a difficult weekend for everyone, with a raft of safety changes after Senna and Ratzenberger’s deaths, and Lamy and Wendlinger’s injuries. How difficult was it, compared to before Imola, to focus purely on racing during that time? After Montermini’s crash in qualifying, did you, or anything else, then consider leaving Formula 1 from a safety aspect?
MB: I think that if that goes on, in your thought process, then you need to remove yourself from the car, because you’re not in tune with the car where you should be and you’re not safe to yourself and you’re not safe to anyone else out there. It is a decision you have to make and it is a tough one but although you don’t go into being a racing driver always thinking about the risks, motorsport IS dangerous, it says so on the back of every ticket. You are aware when you make the decision to race of the limitations of the protection offered to you, but no, I never thought about stopping and neither did anyone else, or at least not at that moment.
RJ: You’ve worked with three very, very different team principals in Sir Frank Williams, Ken Tyrrell and Ron Dennis. What is it about each one of them that made them, in your opinion, so successful?
MB: Ken was a racer, and a sportsman. A sports lover, he loved Tottenham Hotspur as much as he loved Formula 1. But he was a great people person and got the most out of people, which is one of the qualities that you take away from you and then try to implement yourself. Very much a family man, family atmosphere, the team was run as a family unit and people were able to enjoy that atmosphere.
Frank Williams, again, him and Patrick Head, real racers, but their team was more structured in terms of processes and organisation, but that then brought along its own pressures, but it was pressure in its own special way. Ron Dennis.. very different in many respects. If you took one thing away from working with him, it was attention to detail. I wouldn’t say that I always agreed with him on his decisions regards my own career but at the end of the day, I have to respect what he’s achieved in building one of the best Formula 1 teams out there, present day excepted.
They’re all great individuals in their own right but I don’t think there’s been any one person with all of those qualities together in Formula 1 and in some ways, God help the opposition if anyone like that does come along!
RJ: Were there no other options at all for 1996 to stay in Formula 1?
MB: Yep, at the end of 1995, I basically had an agreement with Sauber, that I would be a driver for them. I had a lot of support from Mercedes, and Max Welti was there at the time who I knew well, but then the issue for me was a chap called Dietrich Mateschitz came along, who we all know well know, and became a shareholder in Sauber. Basically, his requirement for his significant stake hold in the team was that the team had to have a Grand Prix winner in the car. The only Grand Prix winner available at the time was Johnny Herbert, so he got the seat. When I got to that point, I couldn’t see any other opportunity to go to a competitive team, so I went to Indycar. I went to Indycar with the blessing of Mercedes, with their support and as a thank you for the 1995 season.
RJ: The whole Mansell saga which saw you have a disrupted season in 1995 ? how much did that end up affecting your season?
MB: It was never ideal. It was a disruption, not only for me, but internally, for the team, Mercedes, and of course for Nigel himself. I was aware of the decision making process, but at that time, I was just grateful to have that seat. Although it wasn’t the most competitive car ? I’m sure everyone will agree with that ? the results show that, you’re working with good people with McLaren and Mercedes. I did the best I could with what tools I had and you know, I did pretty well relative to Mika.. I did okay. Sometimes, it all looks great what you’re given, but it’s not until you get to the bottom of things that you start to understand why it’s not working out, and part of that was the change process.
RJ: What, personally, for you, do you consider your greatest achievement in motorsport?
MB: Well, in some ways, I’d have to say just making it to Formula 1 is a massive success. In 1984, I started racing, by 1989 I was a Formula 1 test driver and by 1991, I was a Formula 1 racing driver. Today, that doesn’t seem so amazing, but back then, you know, it was meteoric. Other than that, the F1 podiums, because did I have the right car at the right time? Probably not, so that made it sweeter. The Le Mans win has to be up there and the Indycar wins, especially winning the 500-miler. No regrets, lots of fond memories. But if I’m honest, that’s all they are for me now ? just memories - because for me now I’m getting a lot of enjoyment in managing careers and the success that the guys get from that. Gary (Paffett), Mike (Conway).. all the other guys that we’re supporting to the top and I get as much enjoyment now out of that as I did back when I was a racer, that’s the icing on the cake when they succeed.
RJ: You’ve raced, very frequently, opposite Julian Bailey in sportscars. What are your memories of Julian?
MB: Julian’s a great mate. He had a lot more talent than was probably appreciated at the time. Maybe never fulfilled his full potential through his own devices, as well as things happening beyond his control. I still see him today. We were a great duo in sportscars and won many races and I really enjoyed that.
RJ: You also raced, for many years, alongside Mauricio Gugelmin at Pac West? Again, what are your memories of Mauricio?
MB: Mauricio, nice guy, great guy in terms of driving and what he achieved. I think that if he’d ever gone into another career, or moved into one when he stopped racing, it would definitely be as a politician. He’d make a great one as he was extremely good at making things happen and again, that’s part and parcel of a driver’s makeup. There’s a lot more to just turning the wheel and pushing pedals. Again, they ? Julian and Mauricio ? are people that you take things from. It’s 100% a learning process going along. The day you say that you can’t learn any more is the day you don’t go on living.
RJ: Your MB Partners sports management company has grown and grown. Was this something that you’d always been interested in?
MB: I never really had a plan during my racing career to go into this, but, for me, I had never, during my racing career, had a manager as such. I look back now and would’ve loved to have had a sounding board, someone round to bounce ideas off and to work together with to progress and also, importantly, at times, I needed someone there to stand there and tell me ?no?. Sometimes you make decisions that you feel are right, but as the saying goes, two heads are better than one.
It really progressed when I was involved with the British Racing Drivers Club, as I worked very closely with Martin Brundle, but also there was a lot of discussion about how the BRDC could help young drivers. Martin and I decided to put something together where we could allow young drivers to go forward and develop, use our experiences and our network, our contacts to help them in their careers. We’re about 11 years down the line now in terms of managing people ? I’ve been with Gary Paffett for ten years, Mike (Conway) for nine, and it’s allowed me to stay within the sport, it’s allowed me to be a significant part in youngster’s careers and I feel quite blessed that I’m able to do that.
To be around these guys, who are massive talents and try to give them a family kind of environment, that’s a special feeling. I hope not to change it, I just hope it gets better and better.
RJ: Finally, Goodwood and historic racing. What’s the attraction for you for doing this and being at these events?
MB: Now, I never really got into it for years, to be honest. But when a few friends got involved, and especially now my friend and shareholder in my company, Theo Paphitis is now racing, I’ve seen the whole thing grow and the passion for it is something special. Goodwood, as an event, is the epitome of that passion, and it’s an event that’s at a level that no-one else has got to. Lord March does a really good job, everyone has a smile on their face, and the racing itself is as good and as hard as anything else you’ll see out there. Does it get a bit too competitive? Probably, yes!? But at the end of it all, it is great to see those guys and those cars out there and it has to be something that keeps going for as long as possible, as long as the crowd keeps coming and enjoying it ? and they do ? whether it’s to see an old plane, or an old Maserati or an old Cortina, it’s worth it.
Interview conducted on the 12th September 2015 at the Goodwood Revival Driver’s Club. Many thanks to Mark for agreeing for the interview ? especially as he was eating a hot breakfast at the time! Thanks to Mark also for allowing the Mike Conway interview straight after. Thanks to Jamie O’Leary at Goodwood for arranging both of these.