Allan McNish on LeMans
No driver can appreciate the significance and drama of the 24 Hours of Le Mans more than Allan McNish. The ever-popular Scot and Audi Sport star returned to the top step of the famed podium last year after a decade of heartbreaks and near-misses. Only days before he attempts a repeat in tandem with Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello in the new Audi R15 TDI, McNish talks about the hype preceding this year’s race, going back a decade with Toyota and his lasting images of the 24 Hours.
Question: How can this year’s race top the hype generated from 2008 considering there are four Lola-Aston Martins, four Peugeots, new ORECAs, Ginetta-Zyteks…oh my!
McNish: When you look at last year’s race, most people think it was the best race in the last 20 years. On paper when you add in the depth of competition then it will mean this year’s should be a very hotly contested one all the way through the category. You will have at the end of it battles - not necessarily 10 cars fighting for the win in the final hour - all the way through. That’s quite an interesting part of it that it has real strength in depth.
Q: As part of the Toyota squad in 1999, you were part of the last ‘Manufacturers Battle’ that also included Mercedes, Nissan, Panoz, race-winner BMW and another German marque that made its Le Mans debut…oh yes, Audi!
McNish: The level of professionalism now, even though there aren’t as many factory teams, is higher than in 1999. A privateer team like ORECA is at a much higher level than the factory teams were then. And I say privateer in a very loose context because they won with Mazda in 1991 and with Dodge Viper so many times. It’s privateer in name more than reality.
Q: Have you ever been part of anything like last year’s race?
McNish: Yes, in fact. Sebring 2009 and Petit Le Mans 2007 and 2008, to name a couple. There have been so many races the last few years that have had that sort of intensity. The difference is that over 24 hours you expected someone to trip up. That was never the case last year. It really ebbed and flowed. When I look at Sebring this year, there were a lot of areas that were not ideal from Peugeot’s point of view; they’ve learned those lessons. At Sebring they were much more consistently competitive. I would dearly hope that there is not the five-second deficit in qualifying we had last year. But I already can see the intensity and aggression in the way you have to run the race. I think it will be exactly like 2008 in that sense.
(Peugeot is) a manufacturer with a lot of history and a worthy competitor as are Porsche and Acura. The fights we had with those guys were a lot of fun as well. We’re very pleased that Acura made a very strong intention to come to P1 and suggestions that they will come to Le Mans. With regard to Peugeot, they have diesel as well and they were the benchmark in terms of performance. When you have someone in the same category that is the benchmark in terms of performance and have a slightly faster car than you, that would normally suggest they are going to win. And we don’t want them to win; we want to fight like mad so that we win. That created some of the circumstances behind the races that we’ve had.
Q: The last three events (or four if you count Silverstone in 2008) between Audi/Peugeot have been classics. When your kids are older and they ask you to talk about the best race in which you participated, which one will you choose (or will it be another?)
McNish: It might be Le Mans 2009! Petit Le Mans and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca against the Porsches in 2007 was fantastic. We didn’t think it could get any more stressful but than that. Then you jump into 2008 and you look at Petit Le Mans, Le Mans and Silverstone, and what was at stake was a little bit higher. That has followed on with 2009. If you take a chart from 2006 through now, it’s gotten harder and more intense. It’s nice to be part of all this. There are so many fans who have come to sports car racing because of those races and will talk about them for a long, long period time. To be part of that is what it is all about. Certainly at Audi Sport, we relish that type of fight. We are not frightened by the challenge.
Q: Does the lack of a Le Mans Test Day, as in years past, stand to hurt Audi Sport more this year, given some changes in regulations (30 kilograms added since Sebring as well as a smaller diameter of the refueling rig)?
McNish: In terms of the weight, we had to revise our testing. It has an impact on not just the speed performance of the lap but also on the components on the car. That was a factor, no question. When you look at the Test Day itself, it would have been nice for us more than anyone else because this year we have a new car. We’ve been doing a lot of testing between Sebring and now that has been specifically for Le Mans. It would be very nice to verify all that on such a unique circuit like Le Mans. Also we don’t know what the competition has been like. The last time we saw part of the competition was at Sebring, which is a very different circuit that promotes a very different type of aerodynamic package. We know Peugeot has been working on the aero side. Aston Martin was very quick at Barcelona and Spa. We’ve only ever seen them on television. So it’s been three months since we’ve seen one competitor and we’ve never actually seen the other except from TV. It would have been nice at the test day to get a feel for it.
Q: Was it strange seeing Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas donning Audi suits during the tests, given some of the past battles between Audi and Porsche in the American Le Mans Series?
McNish: It wasn’t necessarily strange to see them. They’ve added strength and depth to our driver lineup more than we’ve had before. They’ve fitted in very well into the program. Yes, they are still on our team but they’re not in our car. We still have to beat them. I don’t think it will be quite as aggressive as some of the races we’ve had to date. It won’t be quite St. Petersburg 2007!
Q: When someone says Le Mans, what is the first thing you think of?
McNish: First of all, I actually think of the grandstands. You have the balance of the new and the old ones that you’d remember from the Steve McQueen film. Then I think of the trials and tribulations of Le Mans. When you’re successful there, it’s one of the nicest places in the world. When you’re not, it’s one of the cruelest mistresses you can ever have. I can tell you, walking away from the circuit and driving out of Le Mans after having a race that you thought you were going to be successful at like we had in 2007 and not having anything to show for it, it is one of the most flattening feelings I have ever had in my life.
The 77th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is scheduled for 3 p.m. CET (9 a.m. EDT) on Saturday, June 13 to 3 p.m. CET (9 a.m. EDT) on Sunday, June 14. SPEED will provide live television coverage. Flag-to-flag coverage of the race, qualifying and practice will be available at radiolemans.com.