If you truly love sports car endurance racing, then you most likely are a fan of our guest for Five Questions, Allan McNish. Racing since the age of 11, McNish can lay claim to achievements not shared by many others. Having started in karting, he then progressed through the junior formula, Formula 3, Formula 3000 en route to Sportscar racing, Le Mans 24 Hours and F1. Allan has twice been winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours, three times winner of the 12 Hours of Sebring, three times American Le Mans Series Champion and he is a four time winner of Petit Le Mans. And, as you’ll find out, he’s not done.
JT: Allan, thanks for taking the time to chat. I know this is a busy time of year, so please know we do appreciate your participation.
Let’s start with the easy questions. Last season (2009) you jumped into the new Audi R15 TDI and, as we’ve come to expect, the first race out of the box was a stellar run and victory at Sebring. Le Mans proved to be a tougher challenge. The Puegeots mounted an effort that even the magic combination of the R15, you, Dindo and TK couldn’t overcome. And at Petit Le Mans, the rain robbed us all of what was shaping up to be a battle royal. Regardless, the Peugeots ended the year with two wins to Audi’s one. It has to be disappointing. So, my question is, do you feel it is a disadvantage when you only run the long major endurance events without the benefit of the experience and lessons learned by racing a full season?
AM: In some ways I think 2009 can be viewed as a disappointment, but in other ways I think it’s got to be expected, because you know it was clear that Peugeot was gonna get it right sometime. And, as much as our result in Le Mans itself was not as expected in terms of not the finishing position, I think in terms of our speed, especially at the start of the race, then you know, we basically missed it there. But we won Sebring and we were competitive at Petit… especially in the wet, we were blindingly quick. And obviously the result of Petit was a bit of an anti-climax. So I would put it a little bit more like Peugeot won one, we won one and Petit, I would have said, is to be continued. And so in that respect it isn’t really a disaster. More races would certainly help, but it’s no excuse. When you look at Le Mans itself, which is obviously the one that everyone focuses on, we did the same number of races with the R15 as we did with the R10 and has we did with the R8 in its first year. And it just happens to be, I think, that the competition has stepped up to be the best there’s ever been. So from that point of view, I look back on it probably with a bit more of illogical eyes than I did directly after Le Mans.
Endurance racing presents unique challenges for a driver. Staying up all night when your 21 years-old is fun… when you’re pushing 40, not so much. In the case of an event like Le Mans… and for that matter, even Sebring and Petit, it requires not only fitness and stamina, but fitness and stamina combined with an incredible degree of alertness and mental agility. Talk if you will about how you prepare yourself for that. Does it require a year-round regime or is it something you work on within a timeframe prior to an event? Or is it both?
I don’t train specifically for Le Mans. We do the endurance test which is our effective training at night and things, but I don’t do anything for that particular part. From a fitness standpoint, it’s definitely all round.. there’s no question about it. But the one thing I’d say, after you’ve done it a few times… after you’ve done 24 hours races… more than necessarily anything 12 hours, or Petit for example, once you’ve done 24 hour races you get into a bit of an idea of when to conserve energy and how to do it… things like that. It’s more experience than anything else… than naturally training. And funny enough, I think physically Le Mans is quite easy. I don’t have any dramas there. For me Petit is a much more intense physical and emotional race than Le Mans itself is.
I’ve always been curious about the communication among the team during the off-season and in-between races. Do you communicate frequently or, like with my previous question, does the communication escalate in a time frame prior to the season or major events?
For sure, Dindo and I talk a lot. We talk together most weeks when we’re not at the track. But we’re at tracks pretty much through the season anyway. And also with Tom, you know, we do communicate, mail, text you know phone… whatever it may be.
But with the engineers, we don’t actually have really an off-season… there’s always something going on… a test, whether your involved with it or not. So there’s always something to talk about and whether that is direct or whether your part of a group communication with reports and things, I don’t think it makes very much difference… we’re significantly active through the course of the winter when there’s no racing. But when there’s no racing, there’s always all the testing.
The Audi team always presents itself as consummate professionals. As hard as you guys work… and I know you do, is it also important that everyone get along? Especially among the drivers… while it’s apparent you, Dindo and TK seem to have fun together, do you have to “like” a co-driver in order to win together?
Certainly our car crew gets along. Probably because we’ve known each other and raced against each other for such a long time, never mind with each other. To me, there’s too much time that you spend in very very close company through the course of a year and you’ve got to give too much of what you’ve got… your all… and you’ve got to give it all of the time… every lap, every test, every race. There’s far too much pressure to actually be successful if you don’t like someone. You know, if you’re sitting with someone for the course of the year and your success is their success and you don’t like them, that just makes it that bit extra hard. And I think if you want to win consistently year after year, then the partnership has to be a friendship as well. You’ve got to trust the person implicitly. You’ve got to look in their eyes and know what they’re thinking. And that doesn’t happen over night.. you know, you build up trust over a course of years.
The Audi’s have continually pushed the technological barrier on the race track. Year in, year out, you guys continue to raise the bar. With all of that technology, from the initial CAD, throughout the development of the car and its systems and then as you move onto the track for testing and the ultimate chase of a championship, has driver feedback become more important or has it been reduced to the role of strictly test confirmation? Is driver feedback still instrumental in setting up such a technologically advanced car?
To me, driver feedback will always be important because we drive the car. Ultimately, it’s not a computer, it’s not simulation, it’s not the engineer it’s the driver diving the car. It’s the driver going through the kink or through the carousel at Road America for example, and having biggest snap oversteer on a ‘quali’ lap, no one else. But with the data and the simulations and things, it’s certainly changed the way things are. But only really to reduce the wasted track time and potential mistakes that you get going the wrong direction on set-ups and things.
But ultimately, you know it comes down to it, that the driver is the one with the feedback side of it when it really comes down to the detailed parts of it.
As you earn the title of seasoned veteran, do you find it harder to balance your desire to be at home with Kelly and Finlay against your desire to still knock down challenges on the track? I mean, you’re a highly calculated and competitive person… but as we all get older and wiser, family becomes increasingly important to us. What do you see feeding your competitive side after racing? I’m not rushing you, by the way… I know you’ve got a lot more you want to do on the track. It’s just that racing is so intense… I’m just curious where you see yourself channeling that desire once you’re ready to do something else.
Yes, I would say the longer you’ve been in racing, and with all of the traveling requirements and all of the pressures and things that go on with it, then you probably become a little battle weary, if you like. The first time I really saw somebody regenerating their batteries was when Prost retired. And then he came back a year later, he took a sabbatical and came back a year later and - bang - he won the World Championship. And I think he was one that maybe got a little bit jaded out it.
And when you add in family into the mix, it’s certainly another pull on your time. But you know, from my point of view, racing is my life, it’s me. Without it, I’m not the same person. I’ve grown up with it since the age of 11 and so from that point of view it’s been with me three-quarters of my total life.
But when the time does come, then I think the adrenaline and the competition drug will certainly keep me involved in the sport. With my associations with Jim Russell for example and the programs we’re doing there, I’ll still have an outlet for my sort-of competitive instincts.
But right now, that’s not the case. To be honest, I’m not really thinking about it. But I do definitely prioritize my external non-racing commitments much more now, because of family and just generally the pull on your personal time away from the track. And that allows me then to keep, I would say, my desire and passion and sort of mental attitude towards the racing side of it… which is obviously the key one.
Allan, again, I can’t thank you enough for spending this time talking with us and sharing your thoughts. Thanks again and have a great Holiday.