What's gone wrong?

In 1991, Allan McNish's hitherto meteoric racing career hit a serious stumbling block. Where does the young Scot go from here?

Here is an interesting conundrum for statisticians. In 1987, after many years of karting success (thrice Scottish junior champion, once British junior champion, once British senior champion), Allan McNish celebrated his 17th birthday and immediately took up car racing. In his first season, he showed immense promise in junior Formula Ford racing. On one memorable occasion at Snetterton, he even won a senior national championship round outright, which raised more than a few eyebrows.

In the autumn, he was invited by Marlboro to take part in the tobacco giant's end-of-season driver evaluation tests, where the cream of young talent is skimmed off, sprayed red and white and affiliated to the Marlboro charm school with immediate effect.

McNish, his pace obvious, was recruited alongside current Lotus F1 incumbent Mika Hakkinen to drive for Dragon Motorsport in the inaugural Vauxhall-Lotus Challenge. Allan took the British title and finished third in the European series, in which his Finnish partner triumphed.

Next stop was F3, and with Dick Bennetts' crack West Surrey Racing team the young Scot was immediately on the pace. Five wins initially gave him the British Championship at his first attempt. This was later reversed in favour of David Brabham after a long-standing wrangle over the eligibility of both title contenders cars which dated back to the British GP meeting in July was finally resolved several weeks after teams' transporters had vacated the Thruxton paddock for the last time. Second place was creditable nonetheless, particularly as he'd had to miss a couple of races after a nasty somersault while practising for an early-season round on the Brands Hatch GP track.

At the end of the year, a combination of good form and Marlboro connections earned him a one-off race with Pacific Racing in the European F3000 finale at Dijon, where he finished an encouraging eighth. With nothing left to prove in F3, his rapid ascension in the sport continued. For 1990, not long after his 20th birthday, he landed a plum drive with the factory-supported DAMS Lola team in the European Formula 3000 Championship, as team-mate to title favourite Erik Comas.

The year started disastrously.

At a greasy Donington Park, where he had made a smart tactical move by coming in for slicks at the end of the warm-up lap, he was climbing his way through the field when he tangled with Emanuele Naspetti's Reynard down the main straight. The Lola was flipped into the retaining wall, where it broke in two as it cartwheeled along the top of the slender concrete ridge. Though stunned by the impact, Allan was otherwise unharmed. A bystanding spectator was less fortunate, receiving fatal wounds from flying debris.

A career that had gone so swimmingly to that point suddenly faced crisis. Allan attended the victim's funeral, where he received encouragement to continue from the bereaved family. When the F3000 circus regrouped at Silverstone one month later, McNish performed without any hint of psychological or emotional damage. He qualified on pole, and won the race from Comas. It was one hell of a comeback. Eventually, Comas took the title, but McNish kept him on his toes for most of the season, and in the middle of the year there was a period when he was constantly the faster of the pair.

There was a second win, despite an extra pit stop in the wet-dry race at Brands Hatch, and he wound up fourth in the championship, satisfied in the main but aggrieved that electrical problems at Hockenheim and Le Mans had denied him certain podium finishes.

By that stage, his future seemed assured. In 1990, he'd spent the first of three seasons as an official McLaren test contractee. A second year of F3000, the first time in his career that he had stayed in the same formula for a second stint, was for most people standard practice. Besides, it all looked so good on paper. He still had the works Lola, with its highly rated Mugen engine. Marlboro was still bankrolling his sport. Most drivers could only dream about getting their hands on any one part of such a package, and with the McLaren test contract to boot . . .

It was an enviable position for any young driver. And with the modern Formula One design idiom in mind, McNish is even the perfect size for an aspiring racing driver, an aerodynamicist's dream. In an age when Gerhard Berger's feet are too large for the average McLaren footwell, it's useful to be closer in stature to Willie Carson than Willie John McBride. The young Scot has the appearance of an apprentice flat racing jockey, a man who would look as much in place in the paddock at Royal Ascot as he does in that at Monza.

McNish started 1991 as one of the favourites to take the European F3000 title. He finished it with a measly two championship points, earned in one hit at Mugello. The man who everyone expected to be in championship contention all year was classified 16th in the final standings, having collected as many points as had Philippe Gache with his two year-old Lola.

You do not, one assumes, simply become an also-ran overnight. So what exactly went wrong?

"We were slow," he responds, the accompanying grin a clear indication that the innate self-confidence remains. "Everything looked strong on paper. The car was really only a step on from what we'd had the previous year. The main difference was the adoption of radial tyres. As soon as Avon began testing radials, the Reynards proved to be quick in comparison to the Lolas. We weren't worried though, because Avon was still modifying its product. We kept testing, and although the car was tricky to set up we seemed to be making progress. It was when we got to Vallelunga for the big pre-race test, and all the teams were there together, that we realised the extent of the problem."

The Reynards' superiority came as a bit of a shock to Lola users, for the Huntingdon manufacturer had enjoyed the upper hand in the Japanese Championship, where radials had been in use since the series' inception in the Far East. Indeed, while Lola struggled for the entire European season, it eventually won the Japanses crown, though Reynard was always in the hunt.

The shock of the Vallelunga test was nothing compared to that of the Vallelunga race weekend, where McNish failed to qualify after a couple of practice mishaps, the second borne of desperation to set a good time. In Pau, he qualified well down the field, and at Jerez he failed to qualify once again.

That was the low point of the season, really. We missed the whole of the first qualifying session with electrical problems, and after that we were really struggling."

Variations in ambient temperature can have an alarming effect on F3000 lap times. That weekend in Spain, the second practice session was, generally speaking, a good couple of seconds slower than the first, heat from the midday sun depriving the tarmac of grip.

"Looking back, I honestly think that my best lap in that session was one of the best I did all year. It was a real struggle to make the car handle, and in that one lap I gave it absolutely everything. I honestly don't believe the car could have gone round there any faster. In many ways it was a very satisfying lap, yet there was no candy as a reward." Although he was in the top 10 for that session, he failed to qualify for the race for the sake of a couple of hundredths of a second.

The mid-season optimism which accompanied the fifth place at Mugello quickly gave way to further frustrations. There were moments, such as at Brands Hatch, where he could see the top six just ahead, but generally it was a season viewed from the unaccustomed, and unflattering, depths of midfield. That cannot have been good for the confidence, and nor can the fact that team-mate Laurent Aiello, an F3000 debutant, managed to outqualify his team leader more often than not, and also outpointed him at the season's end, albeit not by much.

"It has been a difficult year from that point of view, but the outside testing commitments have helped. It was uplifting to be able to get into the McLaren and find that my driving recovered some of its smoothness and flow. It was the same when I tested a Ralt at the end of the year."

That Ralt test earned several plaudits, notably from experienced F3000 entrant Mike Earle, for whom he drove the car at Silverstone. "He's bloody quick," enthused Earle, froth setting on his lips, "and his level of feedback is fantastic."

So even after such a pig of a season in a sport where memories are notoriously short, McNish retains his admirers. It may not be insignificant that he has recently been helping with the early development of the new Ralt RT24, nor that Earle is a long-time customer of Ralt's parent company March, nor that both McNish and Earle have long-standing Marlboro connections, nor that. . .

"It's still too early to know what I'll be doing this year." he insists. "I'm waiting to hear from my sponsors, and really it's up to them. My main priority will be F3000 though, and I'll fit in test work for McLaren only when it doesn't interfere with my F3000 commitments."

Although a season of F3000 wouldn't be too much of a hardship for most 22 year-olds, at this stage of his career McNish knows that he simply has to win in 1992, if not the title then at least enough races to run the eventual champion close. It's a high pressure situation which few could have envisaged one year ago, and as F1 drives become harder and harder to find the pressure on young drivers simply increases. Yet McNish reluctant to start firing critical barbs now that the most dismal - indeed the only dismal - season his career to date is out of the way.

He proved in 1990 that an Englishman could work very well in a French team (as you might expect of one with his professional demeanour, he has learned to speak the language competently), and - though you can take it as read that he won't be driving for DAMS in 1992 - he bears no grudges. "We had our moments, but you get that in any racing situation. There was no animosity within the team, and we all got on very well." In an era when the cattiness of the relationship between many team-mates would form the basis of a good soap opera script, it was nice to witness the genuine friendship between McNish and Aiello. Civility and sport can still be co-habitees, if you look hard enough.

Apart from the cross-ply tyres on which Lola's 1990 chassis had proved so effective, one key ingredient which was removed from a previously successful formula - and to which perhaps outsiders paid little attention - was Paul Crosby, the engineer with whom McNish had enjoyed such a fruitful relationship. In 1991, Crosby defected to the Paul Stewart Racing team, also Lola-equipped, where he worked with Marco Apicella.

The Italian was best - perhaps that should be least bad - of all Lola users, salvaging fifth place in the championship after what, for him too, was a desperately frustrating year (after five seasons in the formula, four of them with competitive teams, he has still to win an F3000 race.).

"We missed Paul a little," concedes Allan. "But a lot of that has to do with the fact that, even though the team spoke very good English, little things still got lost in translation. That didn't happen the year before. Mark Williams from Lola arrived in mid-season, which coincided with our improved form at Mugello and Brands Hatch, but like all the Lolas we were still really struggling at the end of the season."

That simply highlighted that there had been a basic problem with the overall 'package', as it is fashionable to call these things. (Drivers talk with decreasing frequency of competitive engines or chassis: a competitive 'package' is the thing to have.) For the previous four seasons, Allan McNish had been in the right place at the right time, and he appreciates that he has done well to get so far so quickly. One rogue season won't lessen his determination to succeed.

"My motivation is still intact. Even though it was difficult at times last year I was always fully committed, and I'm confident that I can still do the job. "It's not the first time this sort of thing has happened, actually. In 1984, after several seasons of karting success, we found ourselves with an uncompetitive engine. Then I broke my leg and had four months off. When I returned in 1985, everything started to go well again. I hope history will repeat itself." SA