Exclusive Interview: 20 minutes with Allan McNish

Exclusive Interview: 20 minutes with Allan McNish

Ahead of this weekend’s Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race Audi organised the chance to interview one of their star drivers – two-times winner and former Toyota F1 driver and BBC Five 5 commentator Allan McNish. He had a packed schedule with 28 interviews to do over two days, but thankfully Richland F1 were one of the first to get in.

Earlier in the day, he tweeted a question a journalist had asked him previously. Knowing that had many interviews to complete, I wanted to make an impression right from the start so asked him how he deals with stupid questions. After a long laugh, he replied by saying ‘you give a stupid answer’ before pausing and adding ‘you then phone up their editor and say “what the hell is going on?”’

‘It happens’ he recalls, ‘it was a journalist covering a lot of different sports who hadn’t done their homework, hadn’t even read a press release and I’d done an unprofessional job – I don’t mind journalists asking questions they don’t know the answer to, which might seem silly to initiated people, but what I do mind is if someone pretends to be really good at something and then does a pretty shit job at it. If it’s something that’s on a public situation, like TV or Radio you have to be professional and give a nice, polite answer with a hint of 24h Le Mans 2013 sarcasm in there, but if it’s a one-on-one, I’ll point them towards AUTOSPORT or something’. Thankfully for both my and Richland F1’s reputations I wasn’t told to go and read AUTOSPORT.

I then asked what the 27 other journalists probably asked: how he feels ahead of the centrepiece of Sportscar racing. The weekend before the interview took place Audi thrashed Toyota in the test day. ‘There’s no question about it; the car’s strong and I think we’ve made a big improvement from last year with quite a few areas in the car – the aerodynamics are better; through the Porsche Curves, the car was awesome, like it was on rails, really, really impressive and it actually took my breath away’.

‘Then you look at the engine guys and they’ve done a lot to try to reduce the negatives on the regulation changes and I think they’ve done a good job and on the other side, I think we understand the hybrid system and the e-tron Quattro aspect’.

‘At the test day we had every sort of condition possible: it was wet, it was dry, it was inbetween, and it was greasy. The only thing it wasn’t, was dry for a long period of time so we didn’t get all of the information on the dry tyres  endurance and we didn’t get information on what it’s like when it is hot as it was 15 degrees, as the tyres work a lot better than at say 35 degrees, which it could also be as it was 30 degrees. So therefore, we got good information about the track from what we had but I still think there’s a bit of work to be done’. I found this particularly interesting as generally Formula One tyres work better at a hotter temperature – but then again, the differences between the two are huge in every sense of the word.

You would think therefore that the two cars – his Audi and an F1 car – are miles apart from each other, but you would be wrong. Allow Allan to explain all: ‘In the high-speed corners it was better than any other car I’ve ever driven. The balance, the amount of steering needed to put into it through the Porsche Curves was minimal, as when it caught the grip you come off the road section and onto the track section it was just like the left two wheels clicked into a rail and it shot through the corners. There was no real feeling for where the grip was as it was there instantly and it kind of gave me the impression of what the Red Bull looked be on Sunday night [in Canada] to be honest. It looked to be very much in its operating window and it was the best high-speed car I’ve ever driven’.

Formula One these days is a huge pull, but back in the ‘80s and the Group C era some argued that it had the same allure to Formula One in the same era and with the WEC [World Endurance Championship] gaining more and more fans as time goes on I was curious to hear whether it could match Formula One for prestige in time. ‘I don’t think Sportscars has equalled Formula One for 40 years since Bernie got involved’. McNish pauses. ‘And I think that’s because of Bernie: he grabs a whole band of men and dragged them in a direction by offering TV packages and has made the sport it is today’.

Allan is quick to add on that Formula One has done a lot of good for other sports too: ‘there has been times such as when it was said that Formula One killed Group C, but I think right now Formula One has given a higher focus on other areas of motorsport too – just look at the amount of motorsport is on TV and you can see it. I feel now that there is a divide as manufactures on the whole are looking to other forms of the sport to look to race their cars and improve their tech as opposed to F1 as F1 is taking teams’.

He then proves his point perfectly. ‘Let me ask you a question Daniel: how many championships has Renault won in the last three years?’

After a lot of stumbling as I was trying to remember what year Alonso won for Renault, Allan chipped in. ‘It’s a simple question but the exact answer you gave me [of “not sure”] is the right one. Renault supplies the engines to Red Bull but nobody thinks Renault have won anything in Formula One and it’s because of Red Bull. Red Bull is a drinks maker and Renault is a car supplier’.

‘Interestingly, the fastest car in LMP2 was an Alpine, which is basically Renault and in that side of things I see the manufacturers Le Mans Test Daylooking to Sportscar racing as a place where they can get their cars out there and show their tech and do what they want to do. So I think it [the WEC] is in a very good shape with Porsche coming in this year and very strong rumours another is about to be rubber-stamped in LMP and you’ve got the GT grid which is quite wide and varied with manufactor involvement so  it looks to be quite strong’.

Allan adds a note of warning though. ‘It could be 10 years before it gets anywhere near the level of F1 in terms of global presence but then again you never know where Formula One will be in 10 years’ time’.

‘I’ll ask you another question: how many engines do you hear that rev to 18,000 rpm down Croydon high-street?’ Not wanting to jeopardise my chances of ever speaking to Allan again I decided not to answer that I had in fact never been to Croydon before or mention the word ‘motorbike’ but in fact confirm that no, no road car engines rev to 18k.

‘You’ve got V8s, V10s; you’ve got diesels so therefore it’s got that physical relevance. The hybrid systems used in F1 have no relevance to those used in a road car. Ours [Audi’s] have got more and are totally relevant but the mentality relevance is there; the involvement between the hybrid departments of Audi and Audi Sport is close as it is with various other things’. Allan then goes on to explain how the headlights of his R18 are same as those used in say an A4 or A6 and also points to the engine: a sister of the race car’s engine now sits in the Q7.

McNish has been involved in a few big incidents over the years – most notably at Le Mans in 2011. I was curious to know how he came back from incidents such as that one mentally. ‘It can take a long time to recover; most took 3 months for everything to be back to normal. Beyond that, when you get back in the car you’ve got to be very, very hard about it, focused and clear and push yourself through to make sure you’re fast straight away because there’s none of this “oh, I’ll be OK next week”, you’ve got to be on it straight away and some drivers have trouble with that. The day that I don’t is the right time I stop, but I certainly hope it isn’t due to any incidents’.

As previously mentioned, Allan joined the BBC 5 Live F1 coverage for this season and by the sounds of it, he’s having a ball. ‘It’s quite fun. I like James Allan’s style and Jennie [Gow, pit-lane reporter] – who I met for the first time this year – is fantastic: she’s so bubbly; if you saw her on camera doing what she does it would be fantastic as its all arms and action and she’s so enthusiastic and I’ve known Gary Anderson for 30 years’.

‘It’s funny – I see us talking on 5 Live and we’re talking about “yeah, what about this, what about that?” and it is just as if we’ve got a cup of tea talking about it on the sofa! We’re like a driver and a designer and it’s fun, very interesting along with a great group of people doing a fantastic job, but it’s different to TV as you can’t say “Did you see that?” or “Look at his front wheel!” and you have to actually describe it’.

McNish has been a steward and as revealed last week he is to be the fourth member for Budapest and explains what goes on behind the closed doors. ‘There’s four people in a room – usually a local steward, two main stewards who do five or six GPs each year and then you’ve got a driver steward’. Not ground-breaking insider info, but the next bit does give a good chunk of information about it: ‘the driver steward is one of the four. So therefore, you all have an equal vote and you have to come to a common consensus on matters, and that can be as clear and as obvious as a speed-limit infringement, but obviously a bit trickier such as when Tom Kristensen had to sit in and hear Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes and Pirelli about the tyre issues. It can be wide and varied – sometimes in your area of expertise and sometimes not. From a driver’s point of view as a steward there are a number of things but one point is that you can speak on a level playing field as we know the other person in that situation has been there and knows what’s going on and therefore it’s more of a mind-to-mind thing and the second thing is that it brings a sense of consistency to the decision-making process as well through the course of the year’.

‘The other little aspect to it is that you’ve  got significantly – significantly – more information to you, far more than any television; you’ve got the radio, you’ve got the live data, you’ve got the data from the team and you’ve got various camera angles – in Monaco, you’ve got the street camera angles too – and you can pull up any piece of data and look at it until you’re all sure that the decision is correct, and from that point of view, and when you understand some of the background behind it, you realise that the stewards have got a pretty difficult job but you realise that they do a pretty bloody good job’.

We round off the interview by Allan saying ‘Great questions chap’ perhaps in reference to the first point he made.  Thanks again to Allan for taking out the time to include Richland F1 in one of the 28 interviews and for Audi Sport for organising the interview.

Images courtesy of Audi.

Daniel Puddicombe

Daniel Puddicombe

Daniel Puddicombe is an up-and-coming motoring and motorsport writer. Having had work experience with CAR magazine, Autocar and AUTOSPORT, he knows a thing or two about writing for a large audience. After being introduced to editor, Luke Smith at Brands Hatch while they both covered F2, Daniel has quickly become involved in the Richland F1 programme. From the serious to the downright stupid, Daniel can write to suit any purpose. Or so people say.