posted 2 years ago

Reflecting on Le Mans 2014 With Allan McNish

The Current World Champion Gives The Lowdown

The Le Mans 24 Hours race is the one drivers want to win as it encompasses skill, tenacity and endurance. The Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500, the Le Mans 24 hours; it is what motor racing is all about. 

I caught up with three time winner, Allan McNish to talk about racing at the famous circuit, his favourite win, this year’s race and what drivers do in life after racing.

Allan has won the Le Mans 24 Hours three times but it’s his second one in the Audi R18 e-tron quattro that he deems his favourite.

I think I’ve been fortunate that they’ve all been pretty titanic battles and the ones that go down in a little bit of history, but 2008 probably because it was deemed by most to be one, if not the best ever Le Mans.  It was a hard battle, we weren’t quick enough in terms of pure performance, but we had very good team work, excellent reliability, we had aggressive strategy to the nth degree and we had to make sure that we did everything perfectly.  

Every single person all week had to be perfect because if we tripped up, or somebody tripped up, if the tyre pressure was slightly wrong in one stint, or whatever it may have been, we would struggle to recover from.  Because we had to be there when the opportunity arose, if it arose.  And it did arise in the middle of the night when it was wet and we were able to come back from the time deficit we had to the Peugeots and get ahead and then hold on by the absolute fingernails until the chequered flag.  That, because of the execution, because of everything was perfect.  

He took his first win at the famous race in the Porsche 911 GT1-98 in 1998.

The first time is obviously an important one because it’s your first one.  But in that way I was very naive and didn’t really understand what Le Mans was all about and I kind of thought that you just fronted up, you won it and off you went again.  But then in the interim you realise how tough it is to win the race, you know being on the podium is fantastic and I’ve got an array of trophies, thankfully I’ve been on the podium nine times, but it’s about the winning and it’s a real tough one to win.  

Last year was tough for all the drivers as fellow racer Allan Simonsen tragically died in a crash near the start of the race.

2013 was just tough in terms of mentally, that was the hardest.  It was so difficult with the conditions, there was so many draining emotional aspects to it as well, so from that point of view you came away from that race relieved as opposed to celebratory.  It was a funny emotion and not one that anybody enjoyed on the podium for sure.  That’s not to do with Le Mans, that was more to do with the circuit.

Despite Porsche making a return to the FIA World Endurance Championship this year and making the field more competitive, Allan has no regrets about retiring last year and battling against them.

I think they’d be battles I’d enjoy, no question but no I don’t think I retired too early.  I knew Porsche was coming back anyway and I was very sure Nissan would be coming back, and very sure that they won’t be the only ones.  So I think the future of sportscar racing is strong and with that knowledge it had no bearing at all on what my decision was.

Allan has never been a spectator at the Le Mans 24 Hours race, but he realises it’s a very special event.

I’ve never seen it as I’ve always been an inch off the ground doing the opposite side of things.  I think the thing about Le Mans is it’s not just a race.  For a lot of fans it’s about the race, it’s about supporting their driver, or their team.  It’s one of the few types of motor sport event where teams are probably as supported as singular drivers, that’s one element to it.  But I think for a lot of fans it’s about the pilgrimage and the whole social occasion, I think for some as well it’s about the whole party aspect, the festival that goes on around it.  

You can go to the Alain Prost karting circuit, which was my first experience of Le Mans in 1985 at the World Championship.  You can race on the karting circuit and the race cars at the same time will be blasting past you, coming through the exit of that difficult series of bends, at well now at about 150mph.  There’s a whole different dynamics but without a doubt you won’t be bored.

The town of Le Mans comes to life, it is a university town, so it’s a reasonably big one.  It starts to awaken, like it’s a sunflower and for race week it is alive and it’s got a real vibe about it.  That’s the thing, everybody lives and breathes Le Mans for 24 hours when the cars come to town and that’s quite cool.

After a long and successful racing career, including taking the World Championship title in 2013, life is still as busy for the amiable Scotsman especially over the Le Mans weekend.

It was a very nice week in so many weeks, one I got to see Le Mans from a completely different side to what you do as a driver.  The dinner on the Friday night had 200 of the most important people from the past and present from Le Mans there, whether it be drivers, manufacturers or people from the organising body.  Then for them to induct me into the Hall of Fame of Le Mans was very special without doubt.  To be able to visit the marshals in their briefing and to realise there’s 1741 marshals, over 3000 volunteers for this race and to understand how they co-ordinate all of that was just mind-blowing.  

Then to lead the cars round on the parade lap, something that was always one of my favourite points was the start and to look in the rear-view mirror and to see Alex Wurz, a guy I’ve known so well for the past 25 years, to see him on pole admittedly in a Toyota, which was not exactly as we wanted, and then Porsche beside, then the Audis on the third row, it was like a stampede in a way.  I was holding them back as they were accelerating forward, then braking, the noise you could hear just above the engine noise of the Audi R8 was an incredible sensation, one I was really quite surprised at.  Then to peel off and for that stampede to start and cross the line was so cool to watch.  It gives me goosebumps as I’m talking about it.  I think it was partly because I knew everything that they were doing, every step of the way round the lap and I knew their focus was on me getting out of the way.  I knew my focus was enjoying seeing it, but also to be absolutely tenth of second perfect at each part round the track so that when I did pull into the pit lane it was as the clock ticked to three o’clock, then the race could start.  It was really quite cool to do.

Audi didn’t get off to the best of starts with a horrifying crash in free practice on the Wednesday for Frenchman Loic Duval in the number one car.

First of all I was very relieved that when I went to the medical centre Loic was conscious, he was awake, basically all the vital signs were very good, in terms of the huge shunt.  I had absolutely no concerns about the team’s ability to rebound from it because we’ve been there before, quite a few times in different ways and knowing their way of working, then I knew that there would be a car ready to go out on Thursday night.  In fact I took a picture at 8.30 the next morning and all three cars, with all the garage doors were open and the cars were in the same state of rebuild.  So I was confident of that.  

So in terms of them going onto win, I didn’t necessarily think it would alter the situation to what we had beforehand but it certainly did make the job a little bit tougher.  In terms of that particular car obviously Marc Gene had to settle himself in, they had to understand how to work together, they were one day behind in terms of set up which does have a knock on effect to the whole team, the workload is spread over the three cars anyway.  But I didn’t necessarily have a concern about rebounding back into position but I also felt generally that Toyota were the favourites, they were the ones that had the performance, they’d won the first two races and they were the ones more than likely to be leading the field when it came to the start of the race.

Audi notched up another win, their 13th and also took second place with the number one car.  This is where Audi are a force to be reckoned with in the world of sportscar racing as they can turn lows into highs.

Every Le Mans victory is special because you’ve got to work for every single one.  Since 2007 we’ve had big competition from Peugeot from Toyota and now Toyota and Porsche, so without doubt it does add a little bit to it.  And I think Porsche as well, from a personal point of view added a bit of spice because it was 16 years ago when I won my first Le Mans and it was with them, so I was quite keen to see how they got on.  And as well with it being a sort of sister company if you like in the group then there’s a element of, I would say brothers fighting for something, seeing who comes out ahead.  So I think it did have a certain added feeling to it and that was also felt by the fans as well, there was a bigger fanbase there than there has been for a long time and they were given a great race.

To some extent the actual race itself was probably more topsy turvy than I’ve seen for a long time and it was one that was very difficult to predict.  And with regard to Porsche I did feel very sorry for them at the end as they deserved to be on the podium with the effort they put in and produced.  It wasn’t to be because that’s what Le Mans is all about.

He still has an association with Audi and imparts his wisdom and experience onto the next generation of Le Mans racers, including the number three car driven by Marco Bonanomi, Oliver Jarvis and Filipe Albuquerque.  Unfortunately their race was ended early with an unfortunate crash as monsoon conditions arrived a few hours into the race.

If you saw the onboard of Marco you have total frustration.  Generally their car was the fastest car through all the testing and qualifying, they were the one that basically I think were in the best position of the Audis, so little did they know at that time it was a potential victory that went away from them through absolutely no fault of their own.  Without doubt it was really tough for them to take, partly because that is their race, they’re not doing the World Championship, so that is their race.  I think they all did a bloody good job, Marco took the bull by the horns setting off at the start of the race in quite an aggressive manner.  In terms of Oliver he came in and although he had not tested in the pre-test he came in on Thursday and funnily enough set their best time.  Filipe, having never driven an Audi R-18 in the night had a stunning long run on the Thursday night.  But they never got past the first couple of hours of the race and it was unbelievably tough for them.  

Now how do you console them?  That’s a very difficult thing because I’ve been in the same situation and it’s very difficult, the only thing I could say to them was that this is part of it. The job that they did was unquestionably perfect in pretty much every way and so therefore they couldn’t do anymore.  They just had to understand that that was also a feeling by the bosses, who clearly they are trying to impress as well, so on that side of it, it was a very hard and tough situation for them.  I’ve had communication from them today on email and they’ve all got over it by now and what they would want to do for 2015.  That’s the best way to do, basically put it to bed, understand it and then understand how to do the job better next time, which they all grabbed hold of straight away and came up with constructive thoughts on how everything could be improved going forward.

Allan was also keeping an eye on LMP2 Jota Racing’s Harry Tincknell, a driver he has been mentoring who was racing for the first time at Le Mans.

He put it on the front row of the grid in the category in his first time there, led at the start, they had a technical problem with the side numbers and dropped back three laps behind, got through and eventually won the race.  To see his stints and to be a little bit there for him as well, to watch his development from a young boy into a man over a 24 hour period was pretty cool.

One of the nicest things, and not talking about the result itself because it clearly was nearly perfect in terms of the 1 - 2 from the Audi side and also for Harry winning, it was standing on top of the podium and starter gantry at the end of the race to see all the grandstands totally full, then to see the pits filling up with all of the teams as the cars started to cross the line and then to have car two back down the pit lane just below me.  I had some stunning photographs that I just took as they were getting out with Andre (Lotterer) looking up, the realisation that yes it’s finally been done and then everybody to go onto the podium was a completely different side, but a beautiful side to see.  And one that I think that the podium position is still one of the best views in motorsport bar none.

As he hasn’t really stepped totally away from racing fans are keen to see him race again, but will he?

I’ve not actually thought about it, I haven’t renewed my racing licence so I’ve not really gone into any thought process on that one.  If I do anything in the future it’ll be for fun, it’ll be to get that pure enjoyment of driving a racing car again, not for the need for it to be a career for me to put my life and soul into it.  It’ll be for the enjoyment I had when I was a wee kid when I started off.  

I drove the Alain Prost 1983 British Grand Prix winning car for the BBC a couple of weeks ago and that was pretty cool I have to say.  Roland and I did a feature and it was good, it was nice to drive it, but also nice to drive it for five or six laps of Silverstone and then get out and that was it.  It was pleasurable and that is what my motor sport driving will be in the future.  It will be for the pleasure and enjoyment, as opposed to anything contributing towards a career.

As a reigning World Champion it takes gumption to stop while at the top, but that makes Allan McNish even more admirable.  Let’s hope he is tempted out of retirement for events such as the Goodwood Revival.