SCI Interview: Allan McNish

Two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner, three-time Sebring 12 Hours winner and two-time American Le Mans Series champion Allan McNish has been an Audi factory driver for the past seven years, and the Scot will very soon be tackling his eleventh Le Mans 24 Hours. Teamed up with fellow veterans Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello in one of three of the German manufacturer’s all-new R18 TDIs, McNish will be an instrumental part of the fight against the three works Peugeots in what is being billed as one of the closest Le Mans ever. SCI recently had the opportunity to char with Allan about his recent appearance as a steward at the Monaco Grand Prix, his thoughts on the physical and mental demands of racing and other sports, and the state of play between Audi and Peugeot as the last-minute preparations go into overdrive…

Errity: Did you find being the driver’s representative in the stewards’ room at the Monaco Grand Prix to be in an interesting experience? Did you learn anything or gain any fresh perspectives on the disciplinary process?

McNish: “Yeah, definitely. I think every driver has been in the stewards’ room at some point and you obviously see it from one side, you understand it from one point of view, but when you’re sitting on the other side of that table then you appreciate quite quickly that the stewards have got a significant amount more information available to them than what you maybe first presumed. Also, you see the race in a slightly different way, you get a slightly different picture. Often things are much, much clearer from there. There’s no doubt in my mind that a driver being in that stewards’ room is a very good thing, as it brings a racing perspective to it and maybe opens up a wider field of vision of what it’s like within the cockpit, because in reality, driving a racing car is a sport and every sport is quite intense, without question, but when you’re driving at those speeds there’s a heightening of your senses in every way that’s difficult for someone who hasn’t done it to comprehend. So I think for me, the philosophy of having experienced drivers involved is a very good one, and as much as it was a long, hard afternoon – because there’s a lot of responsibility, you’ve got to ensure that you make the right calls – it was still a very interesting experience.”

Errity: You’ve recently made a video for Audi explaining some of the physical challenges of endurance racing for the driver. Can you tell us where the idea for that came from?

McNish: “It’s funny how that came about, I was at the Audi UK sales conference last year and they basically said ‘here’s 15 minutes, could you talk about Le Mans?’ and just as I was going up on stage, I thought about how we talk about the technical side of it all the time, but the reality is the technical aspect of it, the car, is built by people. Racing is all about people and there’s a huge, huge human element to a racing programme: There’s over 100 people at Le Mans, over 200 people working at Audi Sport on the programme, so there’s a massive human element there that you don’t necessarily see or appreciate, so that was how it came about. About three months later, Audi phoned up and asked, ‘could you do that again in front of a camera?’ and that was it.”

Errity: And what other sports would you have the most admiration for in terms of the demands placed on the competitors?

McNish: “I think, from a mental point of view, for me it would have to be golf, and that’s more to do with me coming from Scotland than necessarily playing the game, because I have to say my talents with a club and ball are nothing to write home about! But the mental side of walking up the 17th or 18th fairway when you have got to get those last couple of shots to win a major is quite something. It must be intensely difficult to keep the focus and concentation. In a racing car we have a massive amount of focus because of the danger element, and everything has to happen right now, without any questions or delays, but in golf you’ve got a lot time to think and reflect, and that brings its own problems. And that really does impress me, how some of the greats can just casually wander up the final fairway and then deliver the goods.

On the physical side of things, what impresses me is MotoGP, because those guys have got a lot of physics going on, probably more so than a car driver in a way. Because they’re using their body to create the grip and lean angles, physically they’re putting all of their effort into it. When they come out of a corner they’re actually pushing their legs down on the footpegs to rebalance the bike, and that side of it, that intensity and aggression, all while dressed in a pair of leathers, is mind-blowing. If you’ve ever put a pair of leathers on, they’re bloody hot. I rode on the back of Randy Mamola’s two-seater Ducati a few years ago, and just sitting on the back, the sheer physical effort, never mind the mental effort, of remembering hold on because you’re doing 170mp/h through this little kink was pretty severe. So they’re two contrasting sports in a way, but I think the mental side of golf for me has got to be one of the big challenges, keeping that control, keeping your swing and not tightening up, which is such an easy thing to do when a little bit of nerves starts to creep in.”

Errity: What do you think we learned at the Spa 1000km and at the Le Mans test day about the relative strengths and weaknesses of Audi and Peugeot heading into this year’s 24 Hours?

McNish: “I think we probably know the strengths and weaknesses if we look back over the last couple of years – a leopard doesn’t change its spots, if you want to put it that way. I think that our performance has definitely improved a lot, not in race trim necessarily, but in qualifying trim. The R18 is a big improvement efficieny-wise, it’s a big improvement when it comes to consistency of aero grip and it’s a big improvement in terms of driver comfort and things like that. I would say that when you look at the two-tenths of a second covering the first four cars at the test day, it’s nothing, absolutely nothing, so performance-wise it’s going to be very close. As for reliability, we’ve had some 30-hour endurance tests which went pretty well, but I’m very sure that the other side will have been doing a similar sort of thing. At the end of the day, it’s a continuation, probably an even more focused and even more closely contested continuation, of what we’ve seen for the last two or three years. What we’ve learned is that it’s going to be bloody close!”

Errity: So you think this year’s race will be decided more by operational factors like strategy and pitstops rather than on pace alone?

“I would say it’s going to be decided on whoever makes no mistakes – not the least mistakes, as in previous years, because I think you will need a no-mistake race to win this one.”

Errity: The advent of the ILMC (Intercontinental Le Mans Cup) effectively gives your team the opportunity to add a world championship to its list of achievements. Is this now a major goal or would you still be more focused on further individual Le Mans victories?

McNish: “You’re focused on winning every race, no matter what it’s part of, that’s the way I look at it anyway. If you win each race then by default you win other things, like championships and so on. The funny thing is that there’s no drivers’ championship with the ILMC, which I have to say I find quite strange, I do find that odd. Certainly, if you’re talking about an effective world championship, for sure the drivers would like to be fighting for that. At the moment Audi are a wee bit behind in the ILMC, because of not winning the first two races, but with double points on offer at Le Mans and a lot more races to go, I think that going into the second half of the season with a new car means we’re in pretty good shape to claw it back. Things haven’t gone entirely our way so far. I think we were partly to blame, certainly in Spa, partly because we worked on Le Mans setup aerodynamically, and not everybody followed that route, but partly as well because we were learning about the new car. In Sebring, unfortunately the collision with Mark Gené, which he apologised to Dindo [Capello] about, put paid to what was a very strong chance of victory, but that’s racing – there’s no point looking back crying and complaining, you’ve just got to shrug it off your shoulders and get on with the next one.”

Errity: Looking back over your career, obviously the outside world remembers and recognises the great victories, but is there any race you can recall where you felt you’d driven out of your skin but didn’t get the headline result at the end of the day?

McNish: “Yeah, there’s a few. I’m quite fortunate to have been involved in some big race wins in the past, and they easily jump to mind, but you’re right – sometimes the ones where you’re probably most personally satisfied with your performance are not necessarily the major victories. I remember at the Texas ALMS race in 2000, it was 42 degrees Celsius at 7pm. I started from pole and I pulled a 45-second gap within an hour. Then a full-course yellow came out and I handed over to Dindo. Towards the end we needed to do a splash-and-dash fuel stop, but the radio failed because of the heat, so he didn’t get the right call, meaning there was a mistake with the fuel stop and we finished second. But that was one where I just thought that in terms of precision, of aggression, of the physical demands of absolutely giving everything I could for that period, that it was a stunning race on my part, but it didn’t end in victory. Some other times in the Porsche GT1 car back in 1998, I thought I drove very well. At Homestead, I finished third having managed to get it up into second for a bit. That was one that disappointed me at the time, because I thought we had the potential to do more, but I think Yannick Dalmas, who was my team-mate then, and I, we drove above the car’s limits and we got more out of it than we should. I think that’s probably the point, where you look back and think, actually, the car didn’t deserve to be in that position, but you lifted it, you carried it on your back and you gave it more than it truly deserved. The way you judge that is how your team-mates are doing, that’s your main point of reference.”

Thanks to Teresa Pass of Audi UK for arranging this interview.

« Test Drive: 2011 Audi S4 | Main | The Enduring Quest »