PH INTERVIEWS...ALLAN MCNISH
We start the build-up to Le Mans with a chat to a true hero of La Sarthe
This year, in preparation for our annual pilgrimage to La Sarthe, we've managed to catch a few minutes with sports car legend - and double Le Mans winner - Allan McNish, who will once again be racing an Audi R15 TDI. We put your questions to him...
Oh, and we also got him to sign a copy of the hallowed and much sought-after PistonHeads: The Best Bits 2009, which we are going to give away.
If you want it, drop an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line 'Allan McNish'. Entry closes Midday on Monday (7 June) and we'll pick a name out of the PistonHeads CGI pork-pie hat by the end of the day. Good luck...
PistonHeads: If you crashed out in the first hour at Le Mans, which bar would you be most likely to end up in?
Allan: Bar? I have actually crashed out in the first hour before - in 2004. JJ Lehto and I went off on Jim Matthews' oil on the entry to the Porsche Curves. It was just after the first pit stop actually.
As I turned into the Porsche curves there was just no grip at all and I went straight on and hit the wall, knocking myself out. I drove the car back to the pits - no memory of that at all.
It took them an hour to repair the car, but I woke up in hospital. So if I crashed? Any bar that's better than the local hospital when you've got a massive concussion. I couldn't drive for six weeks, but the car was repaired and ended up fifth.
AM: The hardest part of the weekend is the fact that it's a week, not a weekend - I go there this Sunday night, and then it's just a constant stream of things to do. We don't have any driving until 4pm on Wednesday, but all Wednesday is busy, all Thursday is busy, all Friday is busy, and then you get to Saturday. There's just no moment to spare, no hour or two to kill - it's flat-out.
As for the enjoyable part, the bits that I now actually appreciate more are the historic aspects of Le Mans - like the drivers parade. Now, it's not what you need on a Friday night before one of the biggest races in the world - a three-hour parade through the centre of town. But you see so many people, and so many local, native Le Mans people. There was one lady, I remember, and she was really wizened - must have been 150 years old or something - and I thought: how many Le Mans winners has she seen?
That's what makes the atmosphere of Le Mans so special, even if it's not the ideal thing to be doing in preparation for a 24-hour race.
PH: Which car or circuit gives you the most satisfaction? Is it, say, and LMP1 at Spa, or an F1 car round Suzuka?
AM: An F1 car was definitely at its most satisfying at Suzuka. When I was testing with Renault, I remember the Friday afternoon practice of the last race of 2003, coming up through the Esses on a low fuel run with new tyres, and you clip the time, then look at the time sheets and think 'yep, that's the one'...
Having said that, my final qualifying lap last year at Le Mans [in the Audi R15] was pretty exciting. I had one lap - I was within four seconds of missing the chequered flag at the end of qualifying - and so timing was right on the limit.
Coming through the Porsche Curves, letting it hang out, seeing the delta time and knowing it was going to be a really good lap, jumping the chicane at Ford and knowing it was boom or bust - that was massively satisfying as well, because I knew that even if I did it three or four more times I might only get an extra tenth or half-tenth of a second out of it. It was a lovely lap.
AM: We'll find out at 3pm in just over a week's time. I think that last year we weren't in a position to give them a fight. I think we thought we would be but, come the race, it was very clear that we weren't going to be, and it took us 12 hours to get it sorted out.
We basically misjudged the set-up massively. We were on the back foot coming into the race after a couple of crashes and rained-off test sessions. And with the rain on the first day the circuit was very green and we just didn't hit it. By the time we did get a balance, the Peugeots were long gone.
This year I think we have a better understanding of the car, and our endurance tests have been very good.
PH: Why does it always rain at Le Mans?
AM: I suppose its simply because it's northern France, It's near the Bay of Biscay, and Le Mans is really just on the crossover period from unpredictable spring weather to hot summer weather. You're also there for a whole week - so it's quite likely to rain. This year thunder storms are forecast for Wednesday and Thursday...
AM: Not really. And it was a very clear decision not to. The option was either to stay there in a testing capacity, or in a race team at the middle-to-back of the grid. And, er, it was a clear decision that I wanted to race and race at the front of a grid, not just to stay in F1 for the sake of it.
I don't think it enhances your driving skills to be at the back of the grid, pounding around. What's the excitement in waking up in the morning and thinking 'right, we're 16th on the grid - if we have a really good race we might be 14th!!' It's not for me.
PH: What went 'wrong' at Toyota F1?
AM: They had 300 people when they started the F1 programme, and they went up to over a thousand. So if you multiply the workforce by three, but still try to get them working in the same direction, trying to build a racing car, develop a racing car, race a racing car and design the next one all at the same time it's a big task.
You're also fighting against teams who have done it very well for a long period of time.
I think the biggest problem at Toyota was that after a few races and a few competitive showings - which was because we had quite a reliable car at the beginning - that the perception was this was a bit easier than it turned out to be. Then we didn't make continuous developments - and if you don't go faster while the opposition does you gradually go further down the grid.
PH: How important is professional management to a successful motorsport career?
AM: I think it depends what you're managing. I mean, I had a lot of guidance with Ron Dennis, with Marlboro, with Jackie Stewart and I think that's very important. But to be honest with you, I don't think there's that many good managers - ones that understand drivers.
There are people that can do deals, but there aren't so many people who can make the right decisions over what's a good team and what's a bad team, whether their driver should go to this championship or that one, do this one-off race or not.
But as for me, my management does a great job of taking care of all the day-to-day aspects of Allan McNish - making sure all the right insurances and other paperwork are in place so that I can focus on driving and training and everything else that's required of a modern professional racer.
And that's a massive difference compared with 10 years ago - now a racing driver is on duty for 300 days of the year, not 150 - you just don't have your own time in the way that you did 10 or 15 years ago.
AM: If you're in the petrol camp you're probably going to say one thing; if you're in a diesel you're going to say another. All I can tell you is that at Paul Ricard, we [the Audis] weren't the quickest down the straight - on acceleration.
Everybody keeps bringing up the torque angle of the diesel - and it's true that we do have a lot of torque - but on pure acceleration out of the last corner at Ricard, the Aston was quicker, and that's all I can tell you, that simple fact.
I'm confident that, if Audi were to come back with a petrol-engined car, then the resources, the technical capacity, the mental capacity and the driver line-up that we have would still put us at the front under the current regulations.
PH: Your dad owns a BMW garage. Where do you park the company Audi when visiting Dad?
AM: I make him shift all the BMWs out! I suppose it's the only BMW dealership with pictures of Audis all over the walls of the upstairs office...
PH: Is it true that the Coulthards, McRaes and McNishes used to hang out together? And do you have any stories from that era?
AM: We're all the same sort of age. David Coulthard and I were born in the same hospital, and Jimmy McRae and my dad used to do motorcross together in the 60s, so it's a wee small world.
I started car racing at the same time as Colin (McRae) started rallying so, yeah, we tended to hang around a bit as you do when you're that age coming through the different formulae.
As for stories - I'm certainly not going to tell you guys! And who says the stories aren't continuing today...?
PH: What are you doing a president of the SMRC (Scottish Motor Racing Club) beyond handing out a few awards?
AM: Basically one thing that was very helpful to me when I was coming through the sport was the advice of Jackie Stewart, so I have an open telephone for any drive that's coming through looking for some advice.
But the SMRC's primary role is to run motorsport in Scotland- and that's something that's done entirely by a group of volunteers. I think they do a superb job. They have the biggest intake of marshals in the UK, and also the youngest. They also have increasing grids at Knockhill every year, and I think they've done a pretty good job.
At the end of the day I am, to some extent, a figurehead - I'm a racing driver principally - but I'm very proud to be a part of the SMRC, and there's a lot of work that does go on in the background. It's not all just about turning up at an awards ceremony.
PH: How hard is it to be careful on the first lap of a 24-hour endurance race.
AM: It's hard to be careful on every lap. Thing is, when the visor goes down and the wee green light goes on, you're racing. Montagny (in the Peugeot) was trying to wheel-bang going off the line last year at Le Mans.
The really tricky part for me isn't at the start - it's at restarts. The tyres are cold, they've got picked-up rubber on them, but you still have all that power. That was where we found it difficult at Spa. After a safety car you're going through Eau Rouge with significantly less grip and a lower car, but it's still a 170mph corner
Mind you, I wouldn't like to be in a GT car. with the LMPs, all we have to do is over take - they've got to drive fast, overtake and be overtaken. I wouldn't like that. I've only got 2 eyes and they generally point out the front of my head
PH: What advice would you give to a novice racer?
AM: Well, your practice session in the morning is going to be early, and it's probably going to be cold. So build up to it slowly. If you go off in the first session you've ruined your weekend. The race is when you want to peak: don't try to be the fastest man in the world on lap one.
The other piece of advice is to be aware of the noises around you on the first lap, because you can't see everything, but you can start to hear things, and that starts to give you an idea as to who's around you and where.
Finally, if you're going to overtake, do it. Don't half-heartedly look down the inside, because if you take a half-look, more than likely somebody will close the door and you'll have an incident. It's better to be over-aggressive than under-aggressive. I suppose that's what I learned in karting - the safest way to overtake is with a lot of commitment
PH: What do you wear underneath your kilt?
AM: If you were female, it would be a very different answer...
PH: What's the ideal car to drive up the Goodwood hill?
AM: I would actually like to ride up on an MV Agusta or some other special bike. For me that would be special. Or Kenny Roberts' Yamaha that I saw him win the Daytona 200 with in 1981.