Allan McNish: Le Mans 'toughest race of the year'

Published: 12 June 2013

Allan McNish has won the Le Mans 24-hour enduro twice and lines up in the Audi R18 e-tron with nine-time winner Tom Kristensen and a new co-driver for 2013. He talks about the fight between Audi and Toyota and his accidents of 2011 and 2012.

Hi Allan, what are you up to?

I don’t need to be at Le Mans until next Monday, so I’ve got a few days off at home, time to relax before it all gets bizarre and busy next week.

How’s it been going with the Audi R18 e-tron this year?

Pretty well, I think. We’ve made a big step on the aero, the integration of the hybrid and Quattro system and we’ve improved the tyres with Michelin – we’ve optimised what we’ve got, basically, and we were all quick and happy with the balance straight away at the Le Mans pre-test last weekend.

We came first at Silverstone with the sister car in second, and the sister car won at Spa with us in second. I don’t think we’ve seen the total performance of the Toyotas, though. They were off the pace at Silverstone, but I think that was down to issues with the tyres and strategy. And they were quick at Spa until they had tech problems.

You raced for Toyota in F1 and sports cars. Are some of the same guys still there?

Yes, there are lots of guys. The chief designer was there when I was, the mechanics, the team manager… When they won in Brazil, I went over to congratulate them, and to tell them that third or fourth would be better next time! But I spent three or four years with them, so it’s nice to see friends doing well.

You’re partnering Tom Kristensen plus a new teammate too …


Yes, Loic Duval. He was on the Renault young driver programme. He’s very good, very fast. He’s French but not very French if you know what I mean – very methodical, not emotional. Not that there’s anything wrong with the French, I’m just talking general characteristics! He’s very different to Dindo [McNish’s ex-teammate, Dindo Capello, who has retired]. He doesn’t look at every woman that walks by, or order five cups of coffee all the time. Dindo still came on Saturday to see us, though – he was with Audi for 18 years, and he likes to make sure we’re doing okay.

Your first Le Mans was driving the GT1 for Porsche in 1998. How have the cars changed over the last 15 years?


The Audi R18 is far more physical to drive than the GT1 and far faster. I remember I did a 3min 35 or 36sec in practice on qualifying tyres in the GT1 and that was quickest overall. At the pre-test in the Audi we were doing 3min 34 or 35sec on intermediates on a damp track, and 3min 22sec on a dry track with a race – not quali – tyre. And that’s with the modern cars being 10mph slower in a straight line and we’re still 13 seconds a lap faster!

I also remember we used to brake into the second chicane at 150 metres and that was with ABS. Now it’s 105 metres without ABS – 33% later.

Do you still set the qualifying times?

I love qualifying. It’s lots of pressure, but I love the balls-out charge, trying to drag a time out of a car that shouldn’t really do it. It’s the purest form of racing. I still do it, but these days it’s an average of four laps from two different drivers.

You crashed out in 2011 and in 2012, both times while overtaking GT cars. Is the speed differential between the classes becoming too big?


The speed differential is big and it’s becoming bigger. On the straights it can be 10-12km/h [6-7mph], but on the corners it’s 60, 70, 80km/h [50mph]… With 50 cars on track, it stands to reason that you’ll do more of your overtaking in the corners than the straights, and this year they’ve put a new kerb on one of the corners and none of the GT cars are using it for some reason. That leaves a smaller gap for us to pass them, and if you don’t pass them there, that can lose you three or four seconds a lap – the race has been won and lost with smaller margins.

Last year we were a lap down and I was told I needed to make up three seconds in three laps before a pit stop. I committed to an overtaking manoeuvre and he stayed on his line – a slightly odd line in the middle of the track – and I had to get out of it and three-quarter spun the car. I was doing 70mph more than the other car. When you’re pushing for victory, sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.

I don’t know what the solution is, I’m just the racing driver, but they either need to increase the difference on the straights or decrease it through the corners. We’ve got new regs next year, so we’ll see how that plays out.

How long are your stints in the car and how do you feel after them?


The stints are around three hours each. It’s physically not that tiring because there are lots of straights to recover on, but mentally and emotionally it’s very tiring. It’s a heavy week beforehand with marketing and meetings and interviews, and then there’s the race. Every time you get in the car you’re doing the equivalent of two GPs, but you’re not having two weeks between them. And then you’re getting back in the car and doing it again.

I don’t have a deep sleep between stints, but I have learned to relax and switch off. It drains you if you’re dragged into everything as it’s happening. So I go off somewhere and I relax, close my eyes. We have masseurs, doctors, dieticians – you need them.

What do you eat and drink during the race?


I have lots of fluid and mineral drinks and I eat lots of carbs – they’re good for energy and digestion and concentration. But I’m bored of pasta by the end of it all – it’s not a nice seafood dish like you’d get in an Italian restaurant, it’s all pretty samey stuff.

Vegetable soups are good: it can get cold in the night, and they’re handy to have when you’re on the go.

Is Le Mans the toughest race of the year?


In pretty much all areas, yes – mentally, emotionally. But physically Sebring is harder. It’s hot and humid and bumpy and I always get a headache about halfway through for some reason. Bahrain’s tough too, for obvious reasons: it’s 45-degress C outside.

What do you do immediately after Le Mans?


No-one can wait until the Monday for their soundbite, so we get that out of the way after the race and then I switch off. You need to recover; it’s impossible to just go straight on and do something else after Le Mans. So from Monday morning to Wednesday afternoon I have my phone off, my computer off. Then Thursday it’s back to it.

 

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By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator

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