Allan McNish talks about his aims for the 2008 edition of the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours, how Audi are shaping up against arch-rivals Peugeot and - somewhat more unexpectedly - his team-mate 'Mrs Le Mans'...
by Russell Atkins
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Allan McNish will be taking part in his ninth Le Mans 24 Hours this coming weekend, having tasted glory in the round-the-clock French classic dubbed 'the hardest race in the world' at only his second attempt back in 1998.
Since then the Scottish ex-F1 ace has been invariably on the pace at La Sarthe, but just as invariably out of luck, living proof of Le Mans' reputation for being a cruel mistress, and his retirement from the 2007 edition - whilst holding an unchallenged lead along with Audi team-mates Tom Kristensen and 'Dindo' Capello - was arguably the cruellest of all. In 2008, the 38-year-old told Crash.net Radio, he is out for payback…
Allan, the Le Mans 24 Hours is now only a matter of days away. Are you feeling excited, nervous..?
Nervous anticipation, because Le Mans is such a unique race and such a big event on the world stage that you're always a little bit excited about going there, but I think with the pre-test being washed out nobody really knows who is capable of what. You got some sort of glimpse and a little bit of a sniff maybe of somebody's performance, but the reality is we don't know what the full picture is, and that creates a certain nervousness as well.
In a way it actually heightens the senses just before you go into the race weekend, and I think there's a lot to be played out in the first couple of qualifying sessions; not for qualifying itself, but to see whether people can get a handle on how to set up the cars very quickly, because there's such limited time now on-track really before the race.
You mention Le Mans being a unique event obviously; what is it for you that makes it so special?
I did not appreciate what Le Mans was all about until I went there, and the first time I went there I stood at the end of the pit-lane and watched all the cars going out for Wednesday night practice. I was really taken aback by the old grandstands in front, the power of all the cars going past, the history of it and, funnily enough, the Le Mans film which came flooding back a little bit. Then I understood a bit.
When I won a year later and stood on the top step of the podium, that's when I realised what it meant in motorsport, and how far-flung it was - especially in countries like Japan or America - what it really meant to the people over there as well. At the end of the day, like I said it had a film made about it, so it has always been a big and prestigious event, and now I think it's also one of the most competitive times for it. It's coming back into its heyday.
You talked about your victory at La Sarthe, on only your second appearance there in 1998; with 2008 marking the ten-year anniversary of that, does it perhaps give you any extra motivation this time around?
I don't think I need any more motivation to be honest with you - I probably need to reduce it! It's been ten years, you're right, and every year since then when I've raced there - because I was in Formula 1 for a few years, so I missed a couple - I've always been with a car that's been at the front and I've always led. Every time we've gone out of the race it's been obviously very frustrating and annoying, especially last year, because last year we did everything perfectly. We drove what I think was a fantastic race, the strategy from the team was very good, the pit-stops were excellent and then when the wheel nut came off when we were three-and-a-half laps in the lead - on sheer pace, I have to say, because the car that was second didn't have any technical troubles - it was a very, very real reminder of how hard it is to win Le Mans.
When you win it at your second attempt - or your first attempt as some have done, like Alex Wurz, for example - then you think it's reasonably easy because it has gone reasonably easily for you that time, but then over the course of years afterwards it reminds you that 'bloody hell, this is some race', and it is a hard one. More often things go wrong than go right, but you've got to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and keep on fighting, and to some extent that's Le Mans. Whether it be through the race itself or before or whatever, things will happen and you've just got to keep your head down and keep on fighting away.
Looking at your season so far with Audi, obviously you took part in the Sebring 12 Hours in Florida back in March, and then you've been racing in the Le Mans Series too - does that give you confidence approaching the 24 Hours, or do you feel apprehensive perhaps..?
I would say that the thing that gives us confidence is that we are making moves forwards. We're making the car faster; we've reacted to the fact that Peugeot were quite a bit quicker at the beginning of the year. Also we've got under control I would have said the reliability problems that afflicted us - we had a brake disc failure at Sebring, which was unheard of.
A lot of people were saying 'oh, this is going to be a problem for Audi, they're now under real pressure and they're cracking and failing and so on', but as we've seen in the LMS races, we've got those things sorted out, we're producing consistent, very, very fast performances and improving the car at the same time. Our pit-stops are excellent, and I think our strategy is very, very good, so all-in-all we are in I would say quite a secure position. If anything, the cracks are starting to appear at Peugeot. I'm not really sure why, but that seems to be the case right now.
How important was it to Audi to have that first head-to-head of the year with Peugeot back at Sebring?
I'm not really sure, because we knew what they were capable of last year at Le Mans - remember they were on pole, and their fastest lap at Le Mans last year was just three or four tenths slower than mine; it wasn't that much. Where they were down last year was that in race trim they were very inconsistent and couldn't keep the pace, whereas we could do it wet, dry, intermediates, day, night - didn't matter. They've learned from that and they've come back stronger.
I don't think there's anything we saw at Sebring that was a surprise except - and they did it again at Le Mans on the test day - I have to say I was surprised at how quickly they could put in a lap time. They did it within ten laps I think at Sebring, and then at Le Mans their first lap time was a 22.7s and their second was a 22.2s. That was pretty impressive, and you can't get away from it. I tip my hat a little bit to that - I didn't like it when I saw the times, but I tip my hat to it! That was really the thing that surprised us - not their ultimate pace and not some of the problems they had either, because they were some of the problems they'd had in 2007.
On the subject of the recent test day, last year's qualifying and race were affected very much by the weather, and so was the test day this year; how difficult did that make things?
Well, you go to the test day to make sure that everything you have tested and everything you believed in simulations from the wind tunnel and everything else is all correct and relates one-to-one with Le Mans. You also try to make sure that all your fuel mileages are as you expect, and have a little look at what everyone else is doing. We didn't get any of that whatsoever.
Everything was run in changeable conditions; I don't think I did two corners in two laps consecutively that were the same, just because of the weather. The reality is that all it gave us was maybe a bit of an idea of what it is we need to think about if it is wet and damp, but it didn't give us an impression of what I think the race week will actually be like.
We're in the same boat as everybody else, though, so I suppose from an Audi point-of-view it was actually not bad, because we've got much more information on Le Mans and how to go about it all - especially in changeable and tricky conditions as we've seen this time - than probably anybody else on the grid.
Recently there have been a few fairly major crashes this season - Marc Gené, most obviously, on the Le Mans test day, as well as your team-mate 'Dindo' Capello and then Stéphane Ortelli in the Oreca at Monza - is that a cause for concern at all in the run-up to the race?
Yes, it's cause for concern, because you never like to hear about or see big accidents. When I saw Marc's accident on video afterwards, I was shocked, I have to say, and I was very, very pleased that he was okay. It just proves that the cars are very strong, as we also saw with Stéphane with four cracks in a bone, and Dindo being able to drive back to the pits and us going on to finish fifth or sixth or whatever it was. The cars are extremely tough, but we don't like to ever see them in that situation.
The common thread is they were all going very, very fast at the time, and for whatever reason they went sideways. In Stéph's case it was because of a rear wing problem, in Dindo's case it was because he had a small touch and got a puncture on the right rear and in Marc's case I think it was because he was just basically going too fast round the left-hander and half-spun the car.
What do you do about it? I don't really know - I'm not a designer, I'm not an aerodynamicist - but what I do know is that there are people who are aware of the circumstances, and they will make not a knee-jerk reaction but a very logical analysis to it if that is deemed the best way to go forward.
Looking at Le Mans, you can't do anything now - there's no question about it - and we'll not change our driving style; we'll not change anything we do. I think it's more of a case of some incidents happening in quick succession, whereas they haven't happened in the previous six months before it. It just appears we've been on very fast circuits and they've happened in very quick succession in the last month.
Do you think Marc Gene's crash is perhaps symptomatic of Peugeot being pushed absolutely to the limit by Audi?
I think that there is definitely an element of that, yes. I think it also probably assisted in the incidents in previous races as well, because they know very clearly that we don't give up; they know very clearly that we want to win; they know very clearly that if they have anything apart from a perfect race we'll be there. That's one of the best things I think about this year's Le Mans, that you've got two different circumstances, two - to some extent - slightly different strategies and also two big, mighty manufacturers with some excellent driving line-ups going head-to-head in one of the biggest races in the world. As I go into it now I'm starting to get shivers - I think this is great!
Looking at the driving line-ups finally, you've got the same team-mates as for the last two years - with Dindo Capello and 'Mr Le Mans', Tom Kristensen, who has won the race seven times - so obviously you've got the experience and the solidarity there. Given that, how good are the chances of a second victory for Allan McNish at Le Mans in 2008?
Did you say 'Mrs Le Mans'?! I thought there was something there I didn't know about! [We won't spread that rumour - ed]. At seven o'clock in the morning last year, when we had a three-and-a-half lap lead, what would you have said? I think there were a lot of people writing headlines already at that point saying things like 'Audi win', 'McNish wins again'. It didn't come around, which was just a very good demonstration of how hard Le Mans is.
We've got a very good driving line-up, we know each other very well, we know how to win big races - we've won big sportscar championships together and also on our own, and we've won Le Mans together and on our own - so from that point-of-view, the capability is there and the knowledge is there, but it's not an easy one to win. I know the desire is very, very clear, because after last year I think in our group - and I include our engineers and mechanics - we've all got a little bit of a job to finish.
TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE
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