Q&A with McNish, Brabham and Minassian
The week sports car fans worldwide have been waiting for is finally here. The 57th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida, the opening round of the 2009 American Le Mans Series, is less than five days away. An epic battle is shaping up in LMP1, and drivers from Acura, Audi and Peugeot were part of a media teleconference Monday to discuss America’s greatest sports car race.
Bob Dickinson: I would like to welcome everybody to the conference call. We have three drivers with us today - Allan McNish, David Brabham and Nic Minassian. I could give you pages and pages worth of their accomplishments, but I don't think that’s what we’re here to do today. You want to know what's going to happen in the next couple of days here in Sebring.
• Allan McNish: American Le Mans Series driver of the decade in voting last year, winner of the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans and former American Le Mans Series champion.
• David Brabham: Four-time winner last year in LMP2 and once overall in the Series, the only driver in series history to win in all four classes and in four different marques, and winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in GT1 class in 2007 and 2008.
• Nic Minassian, from Team Peugeot: Considered one of the top sports-car drivers in the world. A year ago, he placed second at both Le Mans and Petit Le Mans, and a year ago here at Sebring he finished fourth in P1.
Gentlemen, we appreciate you being with us today. I’m going to start off by asking the first question, then we’re going to open up to questions from some of the members of the media. My first question: A lot of people are saying that the P1 class this year could be a real classic battle for the ages. Tell us what you think about that and what your team brings to the table in that classic matchup. I'll start with you, Allan.
AM: David is a bit economic on his words.
DB: You can judge by the way you feel about a race when you go into it. I have to admit, I’m pretty excited about the challenges ahead because there’s some very good competition out there. There are a couple of teams like Audi and Acura that have got new cars. Obviously, the Peugeot is not a new car, so in terms of knowing the car and reliability, Peugeot has the advantage. I think Audi and ourselves are still learning and understanding our new cars, and they’re the sort of question marks that I think Allan was talking about. Obviously, I hope we all go out there and we’re all reliable and we can race to the end. Because I think if we can do that, it will be one hell of a race.
Q: Nic, same question, tell us what you think about this matchup and what you guys bring to the table this year.
BD: Okay, let’s open it up and see if anybody has any questions.
AM: Well, I’ve got a question, if no one else has. And that’s to Nic. Your boss put out a press release stating that you’re here for testing and it was not necessarily to race to win. I know you quite well and I don’t necessarily believe that's the drivers’ attitude. Can you confirm that?
NM: I just want to win the race. (laughter)
DB: You’re not following policy lines.
NM: I’ll have to follow what they ask me to do, but if I just come here and think I’m just going to play around, I should not do what I’m doing. I want to win the race - and then slow down if they ask me to.
AM: That would be a good thing if they asked you to slow down and win the race, but I would just prefer you to slow down, forget about the winning the race part.
Q: Gentlemen, thanks for your time today. I wanted to ask a little bit about the economic downturn’s impact on the race, and just kind of get all your takes on how the economy has affected your team’s outlook on the race, your approach and your observations about how it has affected this year’s race.
AM: I'll start, if you wish. Basically, from our point of view, obviously we’ve got a slightly reduced program with Sebring and Le Mans being the main focus, certainly with the sports car, but we’ve got a new R15 TDI, which is the next generation of diesel Audis. So from that side of things, there’s a lot of positives with it, being the debut race here in the Sebring 12 Hours. But I do know from Audi Sport’s perspective, we’re not considering the economic situation whatsoever. We came here with the goal in mind to try and win this event, and we’re doing it to the utmost of our abilities, exactly the same as we would be in previous years. But there’s certainly no question that the economic situation is going to affect motorsport, but I do think that the American Le Mans Series, and certainly sports-car racing, is probably one of the benefactors of the circumstances because people can actually identify with it - it's relevant - and the manufacturers very much see it as a very cost-effective way to develop and also to market their brands.
BD: David, do you have anything you want to add?
DB: I don’t think there’s anything out there in the world that will be immune to the economic meltdown. But, I think like Allan said, the Series for sure will take a dip; like in every series – some will dip more than others, but I think this series does have what Allan has already mentioned, that manufacturers see the American Le Mans Series as an area where they can develop their cars in the most cost-efficient way. Obviously, with the green movement going on at the moment and the Series aligning itself with that, that’s also given the Series a little bit of an edge in this downturn. At Acura, we have a full program this year. We’re absolutely focused on it. For sure, there’s been cutbacks, but we’re still racing and we will go about it as best we can.
BD: Nic, give us your perspective, perhaps from what’s going on in Europe and, as you prepare for Le Mans, how it’s affecting Peugeot.
NM: I think we’ve reduced the program as well. But we have increased the testing so I don’t think it is being hampered by anything. We just think there is a gorgeous year and the program is being changed just to try to reach the goal better. Logistically, to do lots of races before Le Mans was very tough preparation for the car, for development. To reduce the races, testing was better for the team - less traveling and more development in the right direction. I think at the moment, the decision is month-by-month, not really too far ahead. It will depend on how things are progressing in Europe - which is not good at the moment - after Le Mans. For now, we’re doing Le Mans and nothing else is planned.
AM: I think I would like to add one little thing on there regarding specifically Sebring. People now are probably focusing a little bit more on what they’re going to spend their money on. Certainly from the fans’ point of view, what I know about this race for 2009 is that looking at the head-to-head challenges with Audi, Acura and also Peugeot - and also in the other categories as well - I don’t think there has been any less enthusiasm whatsoever about the fans coming in to see this race. The paddock already is pretty full with RVs and there’s a big, big queue outside. In terms of the crowd count and things like that, I think it’s going to be as strong and certainly as exciting as what it has been in previous years.
NM: It’s always good fun to have lots of support for a race. It’s always a pleasure to come to America for this race.
AM: I came here for the first time in 2000 and I’ve said to my father every year, ‘You’ve got to come to Sebring.’ And he’s always thought about it and he’s never actually done it. But this year, he’s come out and he’s here from Thursday through to Saturday night because eventually, I’ve convinced him that to come here and see 150,000 fans packing into this one race venue and the 12-hour event and everything that goes alongside it. Not just necessarily the on-track action but the entire atmosphere of it is something that you have to see at some point. From that side of things, I think that emotion has really built up and people can actually identify with it as a yearly pilgrimage and not just something you would do a year-on, year-off.
DB: I think it’s good value for money still for the fans to come to the race. You’ve got an action-packed value of atmosphere and racing for your buck.
NM: Apart from Le Mans in Europe, you don’t get that kind of atmosphere and the value you get from a race meeting that you get in America with the American Le Mans Series. You are really spot-on for the fan; he’s so much part of the racing and part of everything. It’s a pleasure to come here. It’s more exciting.
DB: That's why I’ve been here for 10 years.
AM: I didn't realize he was that old, either. He’s going to hit me now.
Q: Thanks again, gentlemen. You touched on this already, but I wanted to ask about the importance of Sebring, and this might be a one-time battle between these top three teams in P1. Talk a little bit more about the importance of Sebring's stature this year.
DB: I think it will just continually add to the heritage and the history of this race. I’ve got my father’s Cooper coming up here for me to drive around, with which he won the World Championship 50 years ago. When you think back on the drivers and the cars that have raced at this circuit – it’s phenomenal. This year’s battle will just add to that value. We’ll look back in 10 years’ time and go, ‘Wow that was a pretty cool time to be involved in racing at Sebring.’
Q: Do any of you guys ever think about what the legacy might be when you’re in the middle of all this? David just referenced 50 years ago, and what people may look at this era now 20 years from now. Did that ever cross your mind?
AM: It’s crossed my mind a little bit on two counts. One of them was when we raced the R10 TDI because when we won here in 2006, it was the first diesel ever to win a major sports car race. So from that point of view, it was a marker in the sand that there were alternative fuels out there that you could race at this sort of level. But the second part about it is that right now, I think we’re so embroiled into it that we maybe don’t necessarily want to look back. However, this era is one of the best and we talked about some of the races last year that Nic and I competed in, and David as well. I think we look back on them and we say, ‘Yup, in 10 years’ time, people will remember those events as legends.’ And fans as well, they remember the day when this happened or that happened in 2008, and I’m quite sure that, as David referenced, that they’ll do that with Sebring 2009 as well.
NM: Even if it’s endurance racing, it’s lap after lap. You just fight like maniacs. That’s what’s good about it, as well. It’s not just a waiting game. It’s proper racing all the time and good friends outside the track, as well. The ambiance has a good feel about all of it.
AM: I think we’ve probably got the best of the best here in terms of driving quality and also in terms of cars and manufacturers. I don’t think you would be able to assemble a better grid in that respect, because the level is so high - so, so much higher than when I first came here in 2000. That’s the one area that has really moved forward. It’s purely and simply that everybody’s level has increased to the point where everybody stands out as being top professionals.
DB: I think the other thing is that these cars now have developed so much, that going through Turn 1 in a prototype is nearly flat-out in sixth gear. The level of driver that has to be able to cope with that has gone up. We’re effectively driving Formula One cars in a sense, so you do need people with a lot of experience. The Series has a lot of great drivers, a lot of great teams and it really has a fantastic atmosphere. I think that’s a great attraction for drivers in Europe to come over and compete in this series.
Q: Hi, guys! Thanks for taking time to be with us today. My question is two-part: 1) What is the most difficult part of racing at Sebring, and 2) What do you enjoy the most about racing here?
AM: That’s easy for me. Winning is the most difficult part and winning is the most pleasurable part. I think that does encapsulate it a little bit because it is a hard slog from the moment that the race starts; you are into a battle all the way until the 12 hours. As we’ve seen in the last few years the battle is not decided until right at the end. If anyone remembers the Jaime Melo battle coming out of the last corner after 12 hours, and they were wheel-banging. That just shows the intensity of it. Definitely when you do cross the line and then you’re standing on the podium spraying the champagne, you know you appreciate it. And that’s one of the best feelings you can have.
DB: Also this is probably the toughest race we have this year and it’s the first race particularly when you’ve got new programs. I just can relate to the Patr¢n Highcroft Racing team, who've got this new car. It’s just been flat-out the whole way leading up to this event. You go out there, you’ve got high expectations. If something goes wrong, you go back and fix it. All the emotions flying around, then you see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. You get better and better and better, and you come here to the race. We’re feeling quietly optimistic we can have a good run. A month ago, it was tough. So that’s the tough bit, getting here in really good shape and prepared well. But of course, the enjoyable bit is going out there and getting the job done.
NM: I think it is often a wake-up call here. You’re testing all winter, doing this and that, and you arrive at this place and you really have to push like hell in the car to just have a feel of something, to have some speed. It’s the kind of track where it’s a good thing for a driver as well. It makes you come out of yourself. Sometimes you can get into a false reason some places, and here if you do that, you know it. That’s the tough bit but it’s good as well. Some of the best training I can get as a driver is driving here. It’s a great place for that.
Q: They talk about this being endurance racing and Sebring being a terrific endurance test. But I constantly hear from a lot of you guys that it’s endurance racing, but it’s a sprint too, because there really is no backing off. Is that because of the nature of Sebring or is that just because of the nature of the sport?
AM: Nature of competition. It’s the nature of the fact that if you’re anything less than a hundred percent, you lose. By nature we all hate losing, so from that point of view it just requires total dedication. It just happens to be added to the fact that this is an arduous, fast and bumpy circuit, as well, that doesn't give you any rest.
NM: I’ve been losing quite a bit lately so I’m tired of it. Second place is a bit boring. (laughter)
Q: This question is more for David. Obviously Acura has got two teams that have moved up, both star-studded lineups. I wonder if you’ve talked to guys on the de Ferran Motorsports race team who haven’t raced on this track and given them any advice. Have you been talking to them at all about what to expect here when the race starts?
DB: No, I don’t really want to tell them anything. (smile) No, we’re effectively two teams in a sense, but everything is transparent. We’re always talking about what the car is doing and how we can improve because we know how big a challenge it’s going to be to beat the Peugeot and the Audi. We all have to work together, so if there’s any advice it’s absolutely freely out there to help anybody.
AM: Well, I think Nic and I would be very willing to accept any advice to help us.
DB: You don’t need it. How many times have you won it?
NM: (To Brabham) You’re the most experienced Series driver on the grid.
DB: Experienced in terms of what? I haven’t had the most starts; I think Johnny O’Connell has. I’m either second or third.
BD: I’m going to wind things down a little bit and get these guys back to what they do for a living, and that’s race cars. We’ve had a lot of good dialogue here and all three of these gentlemen have raced here a number of times. Is there anything different about 2009? Is there anything different going into this race that stands out in your mind that you have to do differently or something about the character of the track or circumstances that you’re giving a little bit extra thought to this year that you haven’t in other years?
NM: The competition has gained more and more and more. You feel it. In 2007, it was there, 2008 has gone higher, and 2009 is really very competitive. You feel inside, the team has got to push everything to the edge. It really is like an endurance sprint coming up, I think.
AM: I think, as well, we certainly were very interested to see the Acura running down the pit lane, because it was the first time we’d seen it live. I’m very sure they were very interested in looking at our car. Both of us were very interested in looking at the Peugeot, as well. It’s the first time that we all came out with our 2009 challengers and it’s the first time we’re going to know who is top dog. From that point of view, it adds a certain edge to this particular race that maybe hasn’t been there to the same intensity in previous years.
DB: I think also, you say you’ve got the three cars there. That's the great thing about the rules and regulations of this type of racing, because they are really quite different. There’s many ways to look at the rule book and come up with a design. When you look at the three cars side by side, they are very different-looking cars trying to do the same thing. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top.
NM: It's good to have three, as well, at the manufacturer level, like Acura has got a different engine technology.
AM: Different philosophy. I think one other factor that we haven’t touched on is that the LMP2 car won here last year. So I don’t think we can discount those guys at all because the nature of this race, with yellows and fuel strategy and things, that plays back toward them a little bit. Dyson finished second overall and Acura was actually on the podium, as well. So from that side of things, those guys will be there come the end of the 12 hours.
BD: Thank you, everybody. I appreciate everyone participating, I really appreciate David and Allan and Nic being here. I wish them all an equal amount of luck this week.
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