Guest Editor… And 2013 World Champion, Allan McNish:
“I’m delighted to be guest editor of Motor Sport this month especially in the wake of our title success in the World Endurance Championship. In the following pages, I discuss life as a modern-day sports car racer during a Texas road trip with the ‘other’ editor and also reflect on the personalities and cars (both good and bad) that have added colour to my 30-year racing career. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun…”
Writer & photographer Damien Smith
“In the slipstream of my WEC victory in Austin, I joined Motor Sport for a two-day voyage of discovery around Texas… and talked about the strains and stresses of a modern racing driver’s life on the road”
“You better win tomorrow,” I said to Allan McNish. “It’ll put you in a better mood for our road trip on Monday.” He smiled and shook his head. “Oh, you don’t need to worry. I’ll be fine, whatever happens in the race.”
But as we set out to explore Texas the day after Austin’s round of the World Endurance Championship, the three-time Le Mans winner makes a quiet admission: “Remember what you said the other day, about me winning) You were right. It’s better for you that I won.”
At 43, the fire still burns for McNish. He hasn’t changed as the years and race miles have rolled by. As I discover in our two-day adventure around the Lone Star State, Audi’s three-time Le Mans winner remains as intensely competitive, driven and as much in love with his sport as ever. Racing drivers have to be this way to do what they do. But I’d wager that none, at any level including Formula 1, are as committed to this life as Allan.
Now, I’ve been lucky to know him for a long time and, let’s face it, he’s hardly a closed book. McNish is one of the good guys, always a great interview and engaging company whether in a race paddock, restaurant or even the odd bar. But two days with me, in a situation from which he couldn’t escape? In life as on the track, racers don’t hang about, thriving on efficiency. They’re always looking for gaps — whereas at my pace I usually tend to miss them.
Nice guy that he is, would I test his patience?
On Sunday afternoon, Allan and team-mates Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval had succeeded in stretching their lead at the top of the WEC points table. The victory in the six-hour race at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas had been hard won, as they tend to be at sports car racing’s pinnacle. Audi’s R18 e-tron quattro diesel had the edge on speed over Toyota’s lone T5030 Hybrid, but the petrol-powered prototype had the greater efficiency. Double-stinting its Michelins had kept the Toyota in the hunt, forcing the Audi crew to catch and pass its rival time and again after pitstops. Only at the end could Audi make its tyres last beyond one stint, and not until then was victory assured.
This, coupled with a bad day for reigning world champions Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer, in the other R18, gave McNish and co the edge to add their second six-hour win of the year to a tally also boosted by victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours: Kristensen’s ninth, McNish’s third and Duval’s landmark first at the ‘big one’.
“So where are we going tomorrow?” Allan had said to me in the press conference. Now that was the question. Determined to be organised, I’d plotted a route I hoped he’d enjoy. But this was my first trip to Texas and these places were just names on a map. Anything could happen.
DAY 1: Austin to Fredericksburg
80 miles, lhr 30min
On Monday morning I met Allan at his hotel and we load up the brooding black RS 5 Audi has provided. There’s plenty of room for racing driver kit in the boot, plus the ugly trophy he has to show for his efforts. “I don’t care what it looks like, it’s what it stands for that matters,” he says.
Allan has a calm glow of satisfaction this morning. The drivers had enjoyed a modest celebration (nothing excessive) and he appears well rested as we head west, navigating heavy road works as we edge away from Austin.
The traffic clears and Austin’s ‘hill country’ opens up — it’s barely rolling, but everything is relative in a land so flat. The race weekend over, Allan has been thrust back into normality, dealing with business on the phone. But now he relaxes. The real world can wait.
Travelling to races is a privileged life, but there’s rarely time to see anything other than airports, motorways, hotels and tracks. Like me, Allan is relishing a chance to explore and find out what lies beyond Austin and the excellent but could-be-anywhere COTA.
We’re heading out on US-290 to the town of Fredericksburg, a suitably Germanic destination for Audi’s finest. German immigrants arrived here in 1846, naming the settlement after Prince Frederick of Prussia and quickly establishing a treaty with the local Commanches. As we drive, I relate to Allan what I’ve read: that German remained the dominant language into the 20th Century, and that even when WWI broke out the local paper stoked tension with its perceived pro-German editorial. Would the influence of its founding fathers still be felt today?
Oh yes. As we head up the main street, delightful Fredericksburg retains all the hallmarks of an old Western town — with a heavy German accent. We park up and choose a restaurant for lunch — where the waiters speak German! We eat delicious Bratwurst and what passes for salad in these parts, and for the first time on our trip I press ‘record’ on my Dictaphone.
Allan immediately focuses on the challenges he and Kristensen have faced this year. Everyone’s favourite ‘vets’ team finally disbanded when Dindo Capello retired at the end of 2012, experienced — but much younger — Frenchman Duval stepping in to join Allan and Tom. Meanwhile, the spectre of Lotterer, Treluyer and Fassler, already world champions and double Le Mans winners, is never far away.
“If you look at Loic, Andre and Ben, they come from a different experience background,” Allan says. “They are from the computer era, if you like. It’s interesting to look at what others do and see what you can learn.
“The longer you are in the business, the more your experience level widens, but also your way of working can narrow because you’ve found that this works, that works, this doesn’t. It’s good to have that broadened out again. This is not a detriment to Dindo because he was absolutely stunning. But Loic coming in has given us a spotlight on other things, because we were so used to the routine, working in a certain way that had become second nature. This has shaken it up a little bit.”
He tells me how for the first time in an Audi sports car he has switched to left-foot braking this year, having previously done so in Formula 1 and the DTM — although oddly Duval doesn’t, despite doing so in Formula Nippon.
So when was the last time you heeled and toed, I ask him? “1997, in the Porsche. Gearboxes used to be the weak link of a racing car. The first time I drove an F1 car, at McLaren, I did the dogrings — which I’ve still got at home. I needed to learn to heel and toe because I’d never done it in Formula Ford, Vauxhall Lotus or F3. I just used to brake and crash it through the box. At the end of 1989, I did a McLaren test and an F3000 race at Dijon, where I lost second gear halfway through the race. So over the winter I practised heel-and-toe in a road car — a tomatored BMW 316. Then I stopped breaking gearboxes. But it was only when I got to high levels of power and torque that I needed it.”
So who taught you? For a moment, his face clouds and his voice tremors ever so slightly. “David Leslie. He taught me a lot of things. His final thing was how to drink whisky! Me and Dario [Franchitti], at a Scottish Motor Racing Club dinner.”
Is there a technique then?
“What, heeling and toeing?”
No, drinking whisky!
“Oh yes. There certainly was with him. He knew how to sink a few, and so did his dad.”
The Leslies played a huge part in McNish’s career, helping him take the step from karting prodigy to the first rungs of the car-racing ladder. Leslie Jr, who died with veteran entrant Richard Lloyd in a light aircraft crash in 2008, remains a much-missed figure in McNish’s life.
He takes another sip of Diet Coke. “It’s funny, the top and bottom half of my body sometimes don’t feel connected. I’m always surprised I can dance on the pedals and drive because gearshifting in road cars… hmm. It’s like parking. They’re not really my best attributes! And if you saw me dancing…
“Along with bullet-proof gearboxes, buzzing engines is a thing of the past now, too. You used to have to loosen the seat belts on the way in, lean forward, click the little button on the back of the rev-counter to reset it, dip the clutch, wroom, wroom wroom! — and set it back to 7100rpm or whatever. That was what you did in Formula Ford. If not you’d get a bollocking from David Leslie Sr. It was the lesser of two evils…”
That thought triggers Allan to reflect on how the sport has changed — and why it is more competitive now than ever before. “You can use data to analyse and perfect — but so can everybody else. The ingenuity of being able to read a track and read a car, and do something and keep it as your wee secret has gone. There are no secrets now.”
So to find that little bit extra — “is even harder.” He finishes my sentence. “I watched an old Spa video on YouTube recently. The fifth-positioned car was Johnny Herbert, who was four seconds a lap slower than the guy in fourth on something like lap 10, and that sort of gap just isn’t there any longer. The average level is higher but it’s very difficult to consistently stay on that top peak.
“These are interesting times. My era has seen one of the biggest generational changes, in terms of the cars and how they’ve evolved, and how you drive them. You would always go for horsepower years ago whereas now you go for aerodynamics. I wouldn’t say the most powerful engine has won the last four F1 world championships, but the best aerodynamics have and that means the best cornering speeds. It’s not about the grunt down the straights, but how fast you go through the corners and that definitely wasn’t the case 20 years ago. The McLaren’s I used to test weren’t always the best cars, but they had the best engines.”
He offers some insight into the physical strain the modern driver must live with. “When I was in F3 I’d go for the odd run and do a press up or two if I could be bothered. You trained a little bit, but nothing compared with what you do these days. The g force you go through now is huge, you’re hanging on to these things: 915kg of downforce in a sports car or 640 in an F1 car.
He surprises me by opening his mouth and pointing inside. “Because of the g force we experience, our jaw twists. You clench your teeth naturally when you’re going through a fast corner and you hold your breath. You brace yourself into it, and your lungs and stomach are getting squashed into the side of your ribcage. If you’ve got a slight difference in your molars and they’re offset top and bottom, and you’re clenching… I’ve had mine reset a few times.
“Also, you build up neck and back muscles on one side more than the other. Look…” He lifts up his shirt to reveal plastic strips taped across his lower back. “It’s standard stuff, because of the twisting on your hips, and the sort of pressure you’re putting on the brake pedal. Probably 80 kilos of force four times a lap around Austin. That’s quite a lot. That’s why I got out after the one stint yesterday.”
It gives some indication why three drivers can be better than two, even in a six-hour race. “There’s no room for bad stints,” says Allan.
DAY 1: Fredericksburg to San Antonio
70 miles, 1hr 20min
We return to the RS 5 and I hand Allan the keys. He’ll drive the next leg, as we head south on US-87, picking up 110 to San Antonio.
When I returned home and told friends about my road trip, most wanted to know who drove. When I said we shared, they were curious how I felt driving in front of a pro — and what it was like being chauffeured by a racing driver on the public road.
The answers are underwhelming on both counts. It’s not true in every case, but for drivers who compete at the level of McNish, road cars are often considered tools for transportation and little else. It went unsaid on our journey, but Allan had no expectations of me as a driver other than to get us to where we were going safely, and in reasonable time. Likewise, when he drove there were no heroics. He lives in a performance world the rest of us can barely imagine. Who needs the public highway for an adrenaline buzz when you race an R18 for a living?
We soak in our surroundings as we tour south. This is lush, arable farming country, with roads straight out of Smokey and the Bandit. As we chat, Allan is transported back to his early days in sports cars, when the promising single-seater career had inexplicably dried up. “Sports car racing was at the crossover point where saving the gearbox became nonexistent,” he says. “You didn’t save the car, you just attacked it. I was of that mentality anyway because I didn’t know much else. It was just that the races happened to be longer; you got out and someone else got back in.
“Now the cars are so robust we do have a bit of rubbing along the way. There were a few times over the weekend when the Toyota and Audis kissed each other and that’s standard practice. There’s an inch given, but certainly no more. The difference between winning and losing proves that sprint race mentality is here to stay. And it makes you smile.”
The return of Porsche and new technical regulations will raise the bar once again in 2014. Golden era? We’ve seen nothing yet. “Next year will be fun,” says Allan.
So how does he think Mark Webber will adapt as he walks away from Red Bull Racing and joins Porsche?
“First of all I think it’s brilliant news for him. The facts are he will smile, he will enjoy his racing and he won’t have all of the ancillary parts of F1 he doesn’t like. He’ll just enjoy himself and he’ll feel loved. That’s what I remember from my time at Porsche: these guys believed in me and in what I could do. You feel your worth there.
“In terms of the racing, he will find it hard, it will be cut and thrust, but he’ll adapt quickly because it’s like driving an F1 car in a lot of ways, just heavier. In terms of technology and the brain process to harvesting hybrid power and so on, he’ll be of benefit to Porsche.”
The F1 vs sports car comparison will be Webber’s first hurdle. In lap time, the difference between pole at the 2012 Austin Grand Prix and this year’s WEC race was about 12 seconds, but sports car performance should not be underestimated. “In terms of g force that is dictated by the weight which affects the agility, and that’s where a sports car loses,” says Allan. “But in terms of downforce, for Le Mans in low-downforce spec we’ve got more than F1 in high-downforce spec. And our drag in high-downforce spec, which is what we use for Austin, is less than an F1 car in low-downforce spec for Monza. So the efficiency is huge. In terms of grip, it’s pretty impressive.
“As I say, the biggest difference is the weight. You have to brake a little bit earlier because you’re stopping 300 kilos more weight from roughly the same speeds.”
And Porsche itself: how does he feel about its return? For McNish, there’s strong history here.
“It’s funny with the Porsche guys because I know a lot of them,” he says. “Some of the mechanics were at Audi, while Romain [Dumas] and Timo [Bernhard] raced with us, too. It is excellent to see them back because it was 15 years ago — and it’s been a long 15 years. They should have been back before now. When I re-signed for them at the end of 1999 it was for the 2000 car, which I drove. I did the roll-out at Weissach with Bob Wollek. We probably did 10-15 laps each. Bob went first. There was a discussion about who should drive it first. It’s a big thing at Weissach, a special moment when a new car is born. Then after I drove, it went under the cover and would never be seen again.”
The cancellation of the programme with an all-new open-top spyder was a body blow for McNish and the sport. “That would have been some fight with the Audi R8, no question,” he says. “I’m not saying it would have won, because it was far too early to say that. But it was sad news when I heard it had been canned. Then again, if it hadn’t I probably wouldn’t have raced in F1 [with Toyota in 2002]. And I would never have raced with Audi. When every door closes, another one opens.”
We’re nearing San Antonio now and must concentrate on where we’re going. You can’t come to this city and not visit The Alamo. We head for the centre with no idea where to go, but soon spot some ‘brown signs’.
For history it doesn’t get better than this in the US. The Battle of the Alamo in 1836 followed a 13-day siege by Mexican troops, who eventually stormed the fort and killed the Texian [sic] defenders, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. Today, the remains of the fort are a shrine both to the fallen Americans and to the foundation of a nation. Its symbolic power, and the reverence demanded of its visitors, leave a lasting impression.
We wander around the grounds, Allan taking his time to read the information boards and soak in the history. Happily, there is nothing tacky about this tourist trap; it’s much like visiting a medieval English cathedral. A tour guide tells the story of the battle without notes or prompts, and it’s a performance that holds us spellbound. America might boast fewer historical sites than Europe, but it knows how to honour those it has.
All too soon it is mid-afternoon and time to hit the road again.
DAY 1: San Antonio to Corpus Christi
171 miles, 2hr 50 mins
The Gulf of Mexico isn’t far and a hotel next to a beach sounds suitable for a three-time Le Mans winner, so we set out for Corpus Christi, heading south out of San Antonio on 1-37. Interstates are all very well, but they are not in the true road trip spirit, so we divert as soon as we can and pick up US-281 at Three Rivers. From the map, it appears more likely to deliver genuine Texan sights.
As we drive, we notice a chirruping coming from the air-con system. Sometimes it’s in the dash, then it’s behind the rear seats. At this point I remember the giant cricket that bounced in beside me when I was refuelling the night before. I never had seen it leave.
The landscape is now even flatter and largely featureless. But along the dead-straight road we pass through small settlements. They’re rough around the edges. This is the other side of the US, less shiny and new — much less wealthy.
We’re heading into oil country now and our surroundings have a harder edge. We pass a rundown and seemingly abandoned gas station. Beside the pumps sit a couple of old VWs very much in ‘project’ condition. We turn around and take a closer look. There’s no one around and the passing traffic ignores us as Allan walks over to a couple of three-wheeled motorcycles that are missing just about everything bar their basic frames. He cocks a leg and takes a seat.
Behind the shack, more decrepit VWs sit forlorn on scrubland. These are Beetles, one a rusting pick-up mongrel that, fully restored, would draw attention at any classic car show.
We return to the leather comfort of the RS 5 and aim due south, for a town called Alice.
As we stop for fuel, we marvel at the collection of chromed-up juggernauts parked at the truck-stop. Americans do haulage so much better than us, and the same goes for their trains. The lonesome wail of a whistle alerts us to its approach and, as we leave the gas station, Allan tells me to measure its length via our odometer. The train runs on a track parallel to US-44, the road we’ve now picked up, and is heading in the opposite direction. We’ve travelled a mile before we spot its final wagon.
The light is fading fast as we pass through Robstown and soon we can see nothing unless it’s illuminated by the Audi’s LED lamps. Then the most incredible skyline looms, towering skyscrapers shining by the light of 10,000 pinpricks against the blackness. It’s eerie, like something out of Bladerunner. But Corpus Christi is still 20-odd miles away. This isn’t our destination — it’s a colossal oil refinery, almost a city in its own right.
The interstate leads us into Corpus Christi and we head for a giant steel lattice lit in Stars’n’Stripes colours. As we cross the Harbor Bridge, we spot a ghostly apparition moored below: the behemothic USS Lexington aircraft carrier that served in the Pacific during WWII. We check in to our hotel and stroll to take a closer look. Surprisingly, the place has the shabby, abandoned aura of the typical British seaside town. Everything close by is shut, so we drive back over the bridge to the marina for a seafood dinner.
Tomorrow we head for Houston and, subsequently, home.
DAY 2: Corpus Christi to Houston
241 miles, 4hr
This industrial harbour town looks a lot better in the morning sun. Breakfasted and refreshed, we return to the RS 5 and set our course for Houston airport, factoring in a quick pitstop for a spot of shopping.
As we leave Corpus Christi a giant black cricket hops against our window and away. The air-con chirruping has stopped… our passenger has departed.
We choose 1-35, which takes us over the impressive Nueces Bay and Lyndon B Johnson Causeways, then on to a dead-straight highway reaching into the horizon’s heat haze. Giantsized dragonflies bounce off the windscreen as we tour through flat farmland. A small, crop-spraying plane pulls moves worthy of a Pitts Special and several more snaking trains distract our attention as I press ‘record’. I want to ask Allan about Le Mans.
“I don’t really focus on it too much, but I’d have been disappointed if I’d finished on two wins,” he says. “That probably wouldn’t have been a fair reflection on my career.”
He’s taken plenty of satisfaction from his three wins at La Sarthe (so far), each of which — in ’98, 2008 and 2013 — were hard won. But the latest was the hardest to enjoy, following the death of Aston Martin racer Allan Simonsen during the opening minutes of the 24 Hours.
“There’s a picture of us after the race standing on top of the car and it looks like it could have been the last press shot on a long PR afternoon,” says Allan. “It doesn’t have any sparkle.
“When we walked upstairs to the podium there was an element of sadness. It definitely showed that sports car racing is a community. That was probably what hit me more than anything else — a genuine heartfelt loss, even from those who maybe never even knew the name Allan Simonsen. I’ve never felt anything like that before.”
We reflect further on the harsh realities of motor sport. Houston is still a couple of hours away, and I’ve left it until now to ask him about retirement. It’s always a sensitive question for racing drivers of a certain age.
Today, Allan must have total belief in his speed and ability to compete with the talented crew in the other car, not to mention the rivals at Toyota and Porsche. At the same time, he knows the end is in sight.
“I’m 43, and I don’t think there’s any question I’ve still got pace,” he says quietly. “There are two things that are the limiting factor in a driver’s career: one of them is the physical side — are you fit enough? Are your eyes good enough? And the other one is do you have the passion to be able to do it, to be able to keep up with the guys coming through?
“Now, if you look at the weekend just gone or the last stint at Silverstone earlier this year or the first lap in Brazil, I don’t have much problem with that. But there will come a day… that will be the right time to give the other guys the reins.
“I’m not going to continue to race for the hell of it,” he continues. “I won’t be racing in five years, I can tell you that. But you have to have something else that replaces the energy that you put into driving, and something else you enjoy too. Because I’ve had 30 years of a hell of a lot of fun.”
So what’s next for Allan McNish?
“I’ve always tried to have back-up plans, because you just never know what your employer is going to do,” he says. “I’ve continued to do other things, businesses I’ve developed in the background. Television does interest me a lot. I enjoy that, and I’ve enjoyed the Radio 5 Live Fl commentary stuff this year.”
We’ve headed inland now, and have picked up the US-77 at Victoria. Ahead of us is Edna and El Campo, then on to Houston. The journey’s end is in sight and Allan is reflective.
“Jason Plato Tweeted a picture of me and him recently, back in 1983. He looked like something out of a boy band… The thing is it has been a heck of long time. There have been a lot of good times, difficult races in between, a lot of hard work, but a hell of a lot of smiles. But the ones to come, that’s what I’m really interested in. And that’s it: I don’t look back, I look forwards, the next race, the next thing. And that’s what keeps pushing you, motivating you and giving you the adrenaline kick to get up at Sam to fly to Munich for a technical meeting. It’s races like this past weekend that makes it all worthwhile.
“Dindo retired at the right time. He was still fast, he still enjoyed it, but he felt it was time. And he doesn’t miss it. As a Scottish driver, I think I’ve got the best role model ever in how to get out of it, in Jackie Stewart. He knew when it was time.”
With the record button on pause, I ask again about Porsche. Bookending his career where sports cars started for him would be fitting, and he acknowledges that. But to leave Audi, the team he describes elsewhere in this issue as “home”? It’s hard to imagine. I push the subject anyway: have they approached you? But he gently pushes back. Even on a road trip, away from the hurly-burly, he’s not about to discuss such matters with me.
We head for downtown Houston and a suitably Texas-sized shopping mall. Allan finds the store he needs and is recognised by a race fan who’d watched him win at COTA two days before. With an extra spring in his step, he takes a look at some trainers, but the store assistant tells him they have only adult sizes in this particular shoe… “Cheeky so-and-so,” Allan mutters with a rueful grin.
For the first time since we left the Austin road works we hit traffic on the super-sized Houston highways that lead to the airport. But there’s no panic. Time to hand back the sleek RS 5, which has been the perfect tool for our road trip: unobtrusively quiet, comfortable and stylishly understated.
Road trips offer a rare chance for ‘time out’ from the hectic pressures of life. For two days we were almost constantly on the move, and yet somehow it felt like we’d been standing still, putting all other matters briefly on hold.
For me, it had been a privilege to travel and spend so much time with one of the most respected sports car drivers in history. Allan assured me, to my significant relief, that he’d genuinely enjoyed it, too. He’d be too polite to say otherwise, but for both of us exploring Texas had been a welcome adventure. And I didn’t even get him lost.