Just before leaving to Le Mans Allan McNish took the time for an interview with Planetlemans. On the eve of what will be his eleventh Le Mans participation we talked to him about about his career until now, the battle between Audi and Peugeot, his team mates, the R15 “plus” and of course Le Mans 2010. Here’s what Allan had to say!
PLM: Let’s kick off by looking back to the start of your career. As a young kid you decided it was motorsport for you. Which driver(s) had the biggest influence on that decision?
McNish: I didn’t really start in karting thinking “Yeah, I want to be a racing driver.” I wasn’t initially trying to make a career in motor racing. I was just enjoying the competition and winning and doing that. But there were two, three people who were influential. David Leslie, who was the lap record record holder at Le Mans in the early 80’s and raced for Aston Martin and Jaguar. David was from Dumfries and he got me started. So David was one big factor. David was also the reason I watched Le Mans for the first time when he drove the Ecosse C2 in 1984. Jackie Stewart was as well had a big influence. Jackie had a name that every Scottish and every racing driver knew and he was the last Scottish Formula 1 World Champion. He was somebody that we all looked up towards, but he was someone that also put and arm around us as young drivers. He was very good at guidance and also for calling the name of McNish to some of the people who I might drive for in the future. Ultimately there was one other guy, Hugh McCaig, who owned Ecurie Ecosse and he obviously was the guy behind the C2 going to Le Mans but he was also the guy behind other projects he sponsored and one of them was my kart. Hugh still today is very influential. He’s not directly involved in my career but he’s very influential in the Scottish Motor Racing Club and Scottish motorsport. He still has his finger in the pie.
PLM: After starting in karts you did several single-seater championships including F3000 and you even became an F1 test driver in the early 90’s. Yet you decided to do sportscar racing in 1997. Why did you make that move?
McNish: Basically what happened there was a very simple situation. There weren’t that many F1 seats available and I couldn’t get hold of a good one. I didn’t know much about what a sportscar was like. Porsche asked me to come over when they were changing their driver line-ups to have a test and it was myself and Alex Wurz that had a run. I went along, we had a blast and I signed with Porsche and that was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career oddly. I got involved with a group of people that treated racing drivers as an asset, as somebody that is part of the program. With Porsche and with sportscars I found that they put their arm around you, you’re part of a family type of thing. It’s a mentality kind of thing and at that point of my career I liked it and it helped me a lot.
In single-seaters there is very little loyalty if you perform. Just look at Michael Schumacher in F1. He is a seven-times world champion but then just two, three races after a three year holiday people say he’s finished and they should get somebody else. That is not something you see in sportscar racing.
PLM: You won Le Mans in ‘98 with Porsche, raced at Le Mans in ’99 with Toyota and then went on to race for Audi in 2000. But then you went back to single-seaters again and signed with the Toyota F1 Team. How do you look back at this?
McNish: It happened in the modest of ways. I signed a long-term deal with Porsche, but then they stopped the program after 1998. But they said they were going to develop the car in ’99 and race in 2000. I wanted to race and then went to Toyota, while still being contracted to Porsche. My contract with Toyota ended after Le Mans and I went back to develop the car for Porsche, but at the end of the year Porsche decided not to race it in 2000. I then looked around, Toyota already had committed to doing something else and I went to Audi (for 2000). Halfway that year Toyota contacted me again and said they were going to do Formula One and asked me if I wanted to be involved. If Porsche hadn’t stopped their program I would never have ended up in Formula 1 and I would never had ended up at Audi. It was one of the bizarrest things; it was only because of their decision at Christmas in 1998 that opened up the opportunity for me to go to Toyota and for them to get to know me and also the decision one year later from them to stop allowed me to go to Audi and forged one of the best relationships in my career.
I would do it again, but I would jump up and down and force my corner significantly more than I did. I would ensure that I had an engineer with Formula 1 experience on my car. When I arrived at Melbourne we only had one and he was working on Mika’s car. Everyone was learning and unfortunately that didn’t help my cause very much. It was a very good opportunity though and I would do it again. It didn’t totally work out the way we wanted, but it did work out in some way as when I left Toyota Flavio Briatore contacted me and I became the third driver for Renault. As much as it wasn’t racing it was a key thing for me. They gave me a car so that I could show what I could do, against two quick drivers (Alonso and Trulli) and I also had a team that listened to what I said and use the input on the development of the car and the team. But the keyword at the Renault side was not racing, you got to race and you know that I enjoy racing.
PLM: After your time in Formula 1 came to an end you returned to Audi. Since 2006 you drive with Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen. Do you have a special relation with them and how is it to work with them in terms of setting up a car and racing it?
McNish: Dindo and I have raced together since 2000, we know each other well and our driving style is identical. If I don’t like it, he doesn’t like it and vice versa. If he changes something during the warm-up and I start the race I’m confident that when he thinks it is better it is better. We’ve got a friendship away from the track as well, which I think is important. With Tom it’s quite a different dynamic. Tom and I were racing against each other more often and we were the ones fighting it out in the last gasp and in qualifying. So there was a certain element of battle; we were always against each other in the knowledge that we had to beat each other before we could win the race. It became very clear to us both that it was a lot easier to fight with each other in the same car than to fight against each other any longer. I asked Dindo “okay, you’ve driven with Tom, how is this going to work, you know me, you know Tom. The three of us is that going to work together?” Sometimes it could be a recipe for disaster. When you get two people with such strong characters like Tom and I in one car and it can be a negative thing. But Dindo said we were capable on and off the track not to let that be negative. Tom and I have managed to learn to use it to our best. Dindo had a calming influence on us both.
Dindo is able to do things with the car that sometimes really surprise me, but he’s also got a talent outside of the car to bring the best out of the both of us. I think we sort of do with him in a different way. I really appreciate Dindo’s influence into the workings of the car over the course of a race.
PLM: Audi seems to bring in younger drivers into their top cars every year. Do you expect to be racing with Dindo and Tom for many more years?
McNish: The way I look at it, and I know they look at it in the same way, there are two things that decide whether you continue racing or not: One is the stopwatch and the other is motivation. I think you can make your own judgment whether we still have the passion and you can make your own judgment whether we are still fast enough. Why change a successful team.
But Audi also has to look to the future; they also have to build three cars that can fight for the same sort of level and they have to look at building the next generation of drivers that will take over from Tom, Dindo and I as honestly we’re not going to be around in ten years time. They’ve got the hard job, because they have to educate, develop and train with the new crew, but at the same time to separate us as a group would be negative to the team as well. We have to look beyond one car at the front and try to get three cars out there. That’s the way we can keep constant pressure on the likes of Peugeot or Toyota when they come in in the future or when other manufacturers turn up at Le Mans.
PLM: Should Audi decide to focus on the youngsters or get out of LMP racing would you consider staying with Audi and race in another class like your colleagues Werner, Pirro and Biela do in GT3 for example?
McNish: First of all I’ve heard nothing inside at all about Audi doing anything apart from and being positive towards LMP sportscar racing. Le Mans is a big part for them. The way they’ve used the Le Mans technology into the road car like FSI, TFSI and TDI has been a major factor technical and marketing. I would be surprised if that changed. I’ve been with Audi for a long time, my name is associated with Audi and vice versa they’re associated with me. 90% of the people will link me to Audi and not to Toyota or Porsche. They’ve been loyal to me and I will be loyal to them.
On the young drivers taking over, if at the end of this season they say “Okay Allan, you’re not doing LMP, we’ve decided something else” the first thing I would do is to sit down with Dr Ullrich and we would have a very honest and open conversation about his desires and his reasons and my desires and my reasons and then we would make a joint decision. Between myself and Tom and Dindo we would have a joint decision of what is the best way forward from there, it would be a very honest and open discussion. I don’t foresee it happening though. If somebody is going to make a decision about the end of our career I think it will be the drivers that will be the instigating factor. We know when it is our time and we know when it is the moment to close our visor for the last time.
PLM: Let’s move to a different subject. It must have been a big disappointment in 2009 when Peugeot won, but Audi was quick to announce work was needed and presented the new Audi R15 “plus” this season. Do you consider it an evolution of the 2009 car or another revolution?
McNish: Hehe, it’s plus because the R15 chassis is the same, but there aren’t many things from the front to the back that are the same. Aerodynamically it is a big change; they had a lot of changes on the engine for the regulations and fuel economy. Suspension wise there is quite a big change and even the headlights have been changed. There is a lot of difference. So it is a plus, but I’d say the detail and the amount of effort that they put into that car does mean that it is quite a different animal to what we had last year.
We were quite disappointed last year; there is no question we were. I personally don’t think that any of us there was perfect. We all made a mistake at one point or another. We didn’t do the best job that we could have done, we didn’t maximize our chance, we didn’t push or put enough pressure on Peugeot so we let them get away at the beginning. That was down to us missing the set-up, not down to the car. We needed to improve on all of those areas, the human side of it as well as the car side.
PLM: What are the differences in the approach to Le Mans then, compared to last year ?
McNish: There was more focus testing this year. Last year we had two accidents in endurance testing and one test was rained off as well, so we were a bit unfortunate and were on the back foot when we came to Le Mans. This year we have had very clear targets and very clear testing. So far we’re much better prepared and we understand of our car better than we were in 2009. Last year we did Sebring, which was high downforce, and we did other tests in different configurations. This year it was about focused testing. Going to Spa with Le Mans downforce and not having any thoughts of higher downforce when the Peugeot was significantly faster after qualifying or the first session, that is very focused racing and testing, if you ask me. It was very hard for us, there is no question, and at some points very frustrating as at Spa had we had higher downforce we could have stayed on slicks. That was the way it was. I would say know, looking into Le Mans it helped us, because when we go into Le Mans we have got a little more knowledge afoot of the car.
PLM: The only real confrontation so far this year was at the 1000 KM of Spa where the new car seemed to be on the same level as the Peugeot. Unfortunately Audi lost the race to Peugeot due to the changing weather conditions at the end of the race. What are your expectations for Le Mans 2010?
McNish: Well, we saw the ORECA car at Paul Ricard. To be honest the ORECA car, it was their first race, the way run it…they were very quick and on pole and it was a stupid problem that stopped them, so we had a little indication of the Peugeot at Ricard, but we had a very good indication of them when it came to Spa.
I think we would had finished second at Spa, if it hadn’t start raining. We wouldn’t have won it and we didn’t deserve to win it. We weren’t fast enough on one lap or over the race because of the aero specs. But certainly to be 20 seconds behind Pagenaud with 20 minutes to go, just before the race came, that was quite a positive factor. And looking at Montagny having such a big accident trying to overtake a slower car on a place that was maximum risk or Lamy spinning off at the first corner after jumping the start or Gené going off in the damp conditions trying to catch up, all of those things lead me to believe that Peugeot as well was a little bit surprise about what we were doing at Spa.
As for Le Mans. That is the very difficult question. I don’t think we’ll be quicker than Peugeot, I think we’ll be very close to them. I think we’ll be close on straight-line speed and on lap time. And after that it’s down to us as drivers to get through traffic, it’s down to reliability, it’s down to the pit stops and it’s down to us being a little bit under less pressure than they are. They are home, they’re the champions, they’re the ones announcing how many victories they have had in the last year-and-a-half with the 908 and how strong they are. They’ve got to proof that their victory last year was not a lucky, single victory.
We’ve got pressure as well, but they are the favorites. That brings an element of pressure. We’ve lived that pressure for a lot of years and it is quite a different situation coming to Le Mans having been defeated for the first time since 2003. It is like a breath of fresh air.
PLM To top it off. Back in your F1 days you had an item during the F1 Grand Prix broadcasts on Dutch television called “Voorspellen met Allan” (“Predicting with Allan”) (Allan interrupted the question by saying Voorspellen met Allan before we could even mention it). Let’s revive that one for Le Mans 2010 for the readers on Planetlemans, what is your prediction?
McNish: This is a special “Voorspellen met Allan for Planetlemans.com. You’ve got one of the best seats in the house, the second-best seat in the house, because I think I have the best in the #7 Audi R15, but you’re going to watch an excellent race. We’ve got three Audi R15 pluses, there is four Peugeot 908s, then you got the two Kolles cars. You’ve got a fantastic battle with Aston Martin and Rebellion. Then you go to LMP2 and we will hopefully get a Scottish victory there as well with Marino Franchitti and the HPD and then we get to GT! Cranky, you’ve got BMW, you’ve got Corvette, you’ve got Ferrari and you’ve got Porsche. Which one of those guys is going to be spraying the champagne on Sunday night? That I don’t know. But what I can tell you is that the person that wins this particular Le Mans 24 Hours is got to have to sprint flat-out for the complete race distance, he’s got to have to be perfect on track, he’s got to have to be in the pit and I think you’re gonna see one of the best Le Mans ever. And I hope we are going to be there…Tom, Dindo and I spraying the champagne, reminding everyone why Audi has been so successful as they’ve have.
PLM: Thank you for your time Allan. Good luck at Le Mans and we hope to see you on top of the podium on Sunday June 13!
(Thanks also to Martyn and Teresa Pass of Audi UK Sport Press for arranging this interview)